InDecisive? A Rant.
In 1952, celebrated photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote Une Decisive Moment, a book filled with both his photographs and philosophy. One concept, the titular “decisive moment” has become so well-known as to become cliche and then suffer the same fate most thoughts and theories suffer when their commentators and quoters drift too far from the source material. Here, then is the context for that phrase, and the definition given it by HCB himself:
“the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression.”
Lately when I hear the decisive moment concept mentioned, it is frequently invoked to imply a moment when a person smiled just right or when a motion is frozen at its apex, and while these might be, generally speaking, decisive moments, I think HCB meant much more. In fact, it’s fashionable of late to criticize the concept with a dismissive “yeah, but every moment is a decisive moment.” Maybe, but that has nothing to do with what Cartier-Bresson was saying.
Yes, in life there may be many, many decisive moments, but I believe HCB was being specific to the frame. Within the strict geometry of the frame not all moments are equal.
According to HCB each scene at one particular time would have a moment where the gesture and geometry come together to express the nature of that scene in the most aesthetically meaningful way. Likely, it can only be judged in hindsight that this moment was in fact decisive, and it doesn’t entirely exclude the possibility of other decisive moments within that scene.
Remember, HCB was talking about the two-dimensional frame , not the near-infinite views and perspectives of our real-life perceptions. So yes, experientially life offers many decisive moments, but when you’ve translated a scene to two dimensions and are looking at them on the light-table, a few of them are likely to be stronger than others – and learning to see that decisive moment before you squeeze the shutter rather than afterwards, is the point.
I think we can all agree that within a frame certain compositions exist that express our vision of a scene better than others. Certain geometries exist at one moment that make an image more powerful than they would be had we waited a moment later. HCB was not saying some moments were good and some not worth photographing – he was saying that composition and the placement of elements within a scene was important and that the timing of the capture had a significant role to play.
When we say, “yeah but every moment is decisive” we’re really saying that we either misunderstand Cartier-Bresson, or that composition is unimportant. It’s a little like those schools where kids don’t get graded for fear of wounding their self esteem. It may do the kids fragile little ego a world of temporary good but his math skills are going to suck by the time he’s in grade 4. Dismissing every moment as decisive won’t improve anyone’s composition skills. It’s the image you capture that matters, not the ones you miss, decisive or not.
*The strong possibility exists that (1) HCB needs no defending, least of all by me, (2) some people understand HCB’s decisive moment concept better than I do, and simply disagree with him, and/or (3) I’m the one who misunderstands. I’m OK with all three, really. But my opinion stands. Until I change it. So if you get bent way out of shape by this, feel free to leave a comment, but don’t look for a fight. I’m a lover, not a fighter, man. Rabbinic though suggests that the questions are often more important than the answers, but that doesn’t mean yeshivas aren’t full of heated discussions. Feel free to weigh in.