For this element of Part 3 of EYV I was asked to watch and write a personal response to the Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary ‘L’amour de court’ (2001) available in 5 parts on YouTube.
Cartier-Bresson was, according to his Wikipedia entry (as at January 2015) “considered to be the father of photojournalism”, a “master of candid photography” and coined the term “the decisive moment” . In fact, however, the last of these statements – although almost an article of faith among the photographic community – is perhaps rather questionable. I think I only really understood this, and the meaning of “the decisive moment” and why it is applied to Cartier-Bresson’s work – from watching this film and doing some associated research.
Cartier-Bresson referred to the “decisive moment” in the preface to his 1952 book Images à la Sauvette. He did not himself create the phrase “decisive moment”, however, but rather quoted the 17th century Cardinal de Retz, who said “Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif” (“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”). Using his own words Cartier-Bresson went on to say “Photographier: c’est dans un même instant et en une fraction de seconde reconnaître un fait et l’organisation rigoureuse de formes perçues visuellement qui expriment et signifient ce fait” (“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”). The title of this particular book in English as the “Decisive Moment” was determined not by Cartier-Bresson himself, but by his publishers (Images à la sauvette would more accurately be translated as “Images on the Sly”, which sounds a bit devious).
So, how had I previously understood “the decisive moment” and how do I understand it now? Previously I had thought that it was about the decisiveness of the moment in its own right, wherever viewed from, and whether photographed or not. For example, the famous images shot by Capa of the Normandy landings or the falling soldier in the Spanish civil war record significant moments of action at critical times. Likewise, although not having the same historical significance, Cartier-Bresson’s famous picture of a man about to step in a puddle is at a point when something of interest is happening – his step and the consequences of it can be thought of as decisive (at least in relation to the imminent state of his feet).
But having viewed the video, I think Cartier-Bresson was more focused on the “decisive moment” when the picture is in harmony rather than at some specific moment of drama, action or emotion unfolding. He refers to the geometry of a photographic composition saying (in translation) “intuitively, I know how it sits”. He explains that he went for “form rather than light”. Despite his reference to “the significance of an event” some of his photos are of entirely everyday scenes – children playing in a covered square, or a cyclist passing a curved staircase, for example – where there is no action happening that would not also have been happening a few seconds earlier or later. What was “decisive” therefore, was the composition at that particular time. A few seconds later or earlier, for example, the cyclist would have been at a different point in the shot.
So my understanding now is that “the decisive” moment is simply the moment when the photograph will look good, whether recording an event of historic significance, or a more mundane, everyday scene. Cartier-Bresson reflected this himself when he said in 1957 “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”
What then comes across is that Cartier-Bresson spent his photographic career looking for those “decisive moments” – carefully composing shots and waiting until those elements of the shot that could move were in the right place (with some obvious exceptions where he took iconic photos “by luck”). “I look, I look, it’s an obsession” he says. In one scene in the video, looking back at old pictures he berates himself for what he views as a poor picture, saying “this guy isn’t in the right place – I rushed it”. Such errors aside, the results of his work speak for themselves, coming from what he describes as having demanded extreme concentration. And in fact by the time the video was made Cartier-Bresson had more or less stopped taking pictures entirely because, he said “there comes a time when you have to stop, to live”. I find that a bit sad – as if to say that the depth of his concentration was stopping him living.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952). The Decisive Moment. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Bernstein, Adam (August 5, 2004). “The Acknowledged Master of the Moment”. The Washington Post.