BA Phot

EyV Part 3: Traces of time

Page 1


Project 1, The frozen moment - Exc 3.1 - Quality - Project 2, A durational space - Exc 3.2 - Project 3, What matters is to look - Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment - Exc 3.3 - Asg 3 The Decisive Moment

balloons - coin #1 - newton's cradle - wedding - window #1 - window #2 - window #3 - coin #2

Part 3 opens with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the window at Le Gras, 1827 which it describes as "The world’s first photograph", quoting Batchen [1. OCA p. 55], but as noted in the biographical pieces, should more properly be described as "the world’s oldest known photograph".

I had always thought that this depicted a chap on a balcony, in a black coat, with his head in his hands, but I now see that is a tree in the distance, obscured by masonry.

View from the Window at Le Gras. 1826 or 1827 Nicéphore Niépce first photograph
Box A
1. View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 or 1827
2. The earliest surviving photograph, image enhanced

Cameras will be set to Shutter Priority for this unit.

The improvements in film chemistry and sensitivity reduced exposure times from eight hours for Niépce (above, 1827) to a few minutes for the daguerreotype in 1839 which allowed Daguerre to take the first photograph of a person. The course material suggests that the image was staged, to which one is inclined to respond, 1. He would have been foolish not to and 2. It is a powerful image with a surprising amount of detail and one cannot imagine its impact at the time.

Daguerre Daguerre
Box B
1. Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838
2. Boulevard du Temple, detail

Project 1 - The frozen moment

We then turn to Eadweard Muybridge who used faster film and electronic shutters to take his ground-breaking motion studies. Muybridge is, of course, cited by Szarkowski as exemplifying the power of the photograph to demonstrate things that could not otherwise be known. A.M. Worthington continued this short-exposure research on a much smaller stage with splash photographs in 1906 and this culminated in Harold Edgerton's milkdrop coronet of 1957.

Muybridge, 1887 AM Worthington Harold Edgerton, Milkdrop Coronet
Box C
1.Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, Plate 290 (Cricket, Overarm Bowling), 1887
2. AM Worthington
3. Harold Edgerton, Milkdrop Coronet, 1957
Fig. 3. © the estate of Harold Edgerton

Szarkowski is quoted from The Photographer’s Eye, p.5 [2], then two more example images from Nikon and Jeff Wall.

There is a pleasure and beauty in this fragmenting of time that had little to do with what was happening. It had to do, rather, with seeing the momentary patterning of lines and shapes that had been previously concealed within the flux of movement. OCA, EyV, p.58
Nikon light bulb Milk, Jeff Wall, 1984
Box D
1. Nikon. The technical properties of the shutter
2. Milk, Jeff Wall, 1984 © Jeff Wall

Exercise 3.1

is shown on the next page.

Project 1, The frozen moment - Exc 3.1 - Quality - Project 2, A durational space - Exc 3.2 - Project 3, What matters is to look - Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment - Exc 3.3 - Asg 3 The Decisive Moment

balloons - coin #1 - newton's cradle - wedding - window #1 - window #2 - window #3 - coin #2

Assessment Criterion - Quality

Page 61 deals with one of the assessment criteria - Quality. Pages on the criteria are spread throughout the course and they are all gathered here. The list of criteria and their importance is - Technical Skills (40%), Quality (20%), Creativity (20%), Context (20%).

Page 10 defined the aspects of Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

Three main points are made:
1. A good idea "shouldn't be too obvious or derivative". Some photographers devote an entire career to a single idea. Atget had two (urns in parks, Paris streets); Tina Barney had one (snaps with a big camera); Abelardo Morell had one of the most retro-innovative (room-size camera obscura); Thomas Jackson (recently added) likes to hang things on string; and Cartier-Bresson (alluded to in the notes) traded on the decisive moment for nearly 70 years.
2. Annotated contact sheets help to develop a selection process. The material seems to endorse the idea from Boris Groys that "since Duchamp … selecting an artwork is the same as creating an artwork". This presumably refers to Duchamp's 1917 Fountain (Wikipedia link), a urinal. I can see that selecting what is in front of the lens; which lens; the exposure; which shot; what processing; the presentation, pretty much defines most of photography, but the bald claim that "[the] editing process is probably at least 50% of photography" [EyV p. 61] is unsubstantiated and facile.
3. Quality considerations also apply (of course) to digital and printed images and prints are required for Assignment 3. There is a dead link to advice on the matter.

I do not rate Page 61 very highly in terms of quality for course material.

Project 2 - A Durational Space

While freezing movement provides a new view, allowing the blur of subject movement can convey a sense of that movement. Such images are often used in reportage and perhaps the most famous application is in Robert Capa's images of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach. See also, Robert Frank, The Americans (1958) who is said to (paraphrasing) "use movement blur creatively rather than accident or necessity". I do not see that to be a principal feature of the images in the book, though it is rightly regarded as "perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century" (Sean O'Hagan, The Guardian, 2014).

Hiroshi Sugimoto gets a mention for his very long exposures, including the Theatres series where he made a single exposure for the entire duration of a movie. This great notion is explored here, where Sugimoto explains that "too much information" results in "nothingness" and , regretfully, that is the inevitable outcome. When using monochrome film, the movie "burns-in" the exposure on the screen as simply featureless white with ghostly illumination of the interior of the theatre. One wonders 1. why he bothered after the first few and 2. whether knowing what film was being viewed would have any effect one's reaction to particular images.
Wikipedia quotes Sugimoto as saying, "Different movies give different brightnesses. If it's an optimistic story, I usually end up with a bright screen; if it's a sad story, it's a dark screen. Occult movie? Very dark." With digital imaging, it would be interesting to watch the picture build up and record the image while there was still some colour and/or structure discernible: perhaps with a suitable mixture of colours, the screen would at some point turn predominately brown, like mixing all colours of plasticine.
Jason Shulman, a British sculptor and photographer  has run the same exercise with more colourful results, as shown in fig. 3 (link to an article in Wired).

Michael Wesely took solargraphs with exposures of 2-3 years, resulting in unexpected light trails (this method is explored in detail in Experimental Photography, A Handbook of Techniques).

Capa Hiroshi Sugimoto Shulman Michael Wesely
Box E
1. Robert Capa, D-Day Landing, Omaha Beach, 1944 
2. Hiroshi Sugimoto, Disney's Snow White, from Theatres
3. Jason Shulman, Spielberg's Duel
4. Michael Wesely, MoMA, New York, 9.8.2001-2.5.2003
© the artists or their estates

The second question was posed rather tongue-in-cheek. Having now found some images online and learned that the film titles are included, the answer is that it has no effect on this viewer.

The course book next includes the work of two past OCA students, Stephanie D’Hubert and Alasdair Gill. D’Hubert seems to have gone on to greater things, her stylish web site is here. There are a few Alasdairs Gill in the creative industries but there is no way of knowing which, if any, is "this" Alasdair: he does, however have the distinction of paralleling one of my exercises for this part.
A poignant image from third, anonymous, OCA student, demonstrating the effect her Parkinson’s disease has on hand-held long exposures needs no comment.

Next Maarten Vanvolsem who uses a slit scan camera to distort moving subjects (I inadvertently managed a similar effect when shooting Assignment 1, see the Gallery here).

Stephanie D’Hubert, Alisdair Gill Anon Maarten Vanvolsem, Contraction of
Movement 3, 2007
Box F
1. Stephanie D’Hubert, The Elusive Moment - Promontory Point series
2. Alisdair Gill, 09:17:56 - 10:09:32
3. Anon.
4. Maarten Vanvolsem, Contraction of Movement 3, 2007
© the artists

Chris Marker used stills to create his 1962 film La Jetée. On Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), cinematographer Christopher Doyle shot the opening at 1/8th sec to achieve frame-by-frame blur, described here by Mike D'Angelo (the video extract does not play on my laptop or tablet, but it is available on the web - here's an alternative).

Recalling Guy Bourdin's disturbed (/disturbing) images in Part Two achieved (it is said) by depth of field (although this writer contends that it is Bourdin's subjects and settings that give the bizarre menace to his images, reminder below) the question is posed, can something similar be achieved with the shutter? (EyV p. 66) Francesca Woodman is cited as an example, Gerry Badger quoted referring to her ‘personalised psychodramas with the temporal and spatial displacements of long exposures and blurred movement’ [3. OCA p. 66], although this was only one of several methods of obfuscation that Woodman used.

Guy Bourdintext
Box G
1. Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan, Spring 1978
2. Francesca Woodman, Self-Deceit #4, Rome, 1978-79
© the artists and / or their Estates

Project 2 concludes with the instruction to investigate some of the slow shutter photographers and then act upon it. Exercise 3.2 is documented here.

Slow shutter investigation

The photographers cited are, to summarise:
Robert Capa (1933-54) who chose to display the more movement-blurred D-Day landing photographs to enhance the dramatic impact.
Robert Frank (b: 1924) who is said to have used "[movement] blur as style (rather than accident or necessity)" (EyV p.62) but I do not see much of that in his work. Perhaps this is a test to make sure that students are paying attention.
Hiroshi Sugimoto (b: 1948) photographed cinemas with a single exposure for the duration of the film resulting in a white screen and a subtly-lit interior. The result is a series of photographs of elegant cinemas. Jason Shulman does a similar job more effectively, shooting just the screen and contriving to retain interesting and sometimes appropriate colour aggregations.
Michael Wesely (b: 1963) takes exposures lasting several years, documenting major building projects.
Maarten Vanvolsem (b: 1974) experiments with the way a split shutter fragments a moving human body.
Chris Marker (1921-2012) turned stills into movies.
Christopher Doyle, a cinematographer, has used slow shutter speeds for some memorable sequences.
Francesca Woodman (1958-81) used movement blur as one in an arsenal of effects to disguise and obscure her human subjects, often self portraits.
Some OCA students, Alisdair Gill, Stephanie D’Hubert, and one unnamed are also featured.

My responses to this exercise have included a family wedding, morning sunlight through a stained-glass window and two that have applications in both Exc 3.1 (fast shutter) and the slow shutter, a spinning coin and a Newton's Cradle.

Tutor feedback on Asg.3 suggests that in the above I should "try … to refect on the images and investigate what they are doing. Consider how they might impact on your own approach". I will choose three images for this purpose and try to do so.
The Asg.3 feedback goes on to recommend that I "[reflect] in more detail on the images you mention, considering content, concept, or formal elements".

The formal elements are not closely defined in the course material, although Wells (2009) is quoted on EyV p. 32, "[the] criteria primarily include formal conventions (composition, tonal balance, and so on)"

Nor was a definition found in the first six books on photography I had to hand. It is a common phrase online and, although my choice of information sources (specifically Wikipedia) has been criticised, this is taken from, which boasts "how-to tutorials" and states,

the main elements that bring and emphasize order in a composition are: line, shape, form, texture, pattern, and color. Every photograph, intentionally or not, contains one or more of these element, which are known as the elements of accessed 23Mar19
Capa Michael Wesely Anon
Box Gii
1. Robert Capa, D-Day Landing, Omaha Beach, 1944  (first mentioned as E1 above)
2. Michael Wesely, MoMA, New York, 9.8.2001-2.5.2003 (E4 above)
3. Anon. (F3 above)
© the artists and / or their Estates

1. Capa D-Day landings. This is one of the best known images of war and amongst the most famous photographs of all time. The course material (EyV p. 62) states that Capa chose the image over others from the same event with less movement blur. The content of the image depicts the scale of the landings, the blur emphasises the speed of events and the foreground soldier up to his shoulders in water and staring forward at the beach indicates the danger faced from all sides. Spielberg echoed this shot in the landing scenes in the film Saving Private Ryan (1998) because it has come to represent the immediacy of war and more generally such blur conveys hurrying from (or, in this case towards) danger in journalistic visual shorthand.

2. Wesely's exposures of building projects lasting several years, specifically MoMA, NY. These are remarkable at a purely technical level for the extreme exposure durations producing any recognisable image at all. Other than that, I would suggest that they have little to offer aesthetically or in documentary terms, merely an imprecise suggestion of movement which happens to be construction. When the San Francisco MoMA built an extension in 2013-15, it published a time-lapse version of the construction which is far more effective in both aesthetically and at a documentary level.

By contrast, Wesley's long-exposure images of wilting flowers, Stilleban, are beautiful, original, accurately depict the process and evoke Mondrian's surprising watercolours of dead and dying flowers.

3. The anonymous OCA student's image is described thus,

The creator of the image … recorded the trembling movement of her hand due to Parkinson’s disease in a series of delicately fragile and expressive shots of night-time traffic on the Kings Road in London. EyV p.65

The image should be considered in two ways: in its own right and then with the knowledge of the photographer's medical condition.
On that first, there seems to be an increasingly enthusiastic ICM "movement" with articles and courses appearing in the press on Intentional Camera Movement. No date is given for the photograph, but my edition of the course material is dated 2017 and ICM was in vogue by then. Light trail shots of red London buses are commonplace, but this image is not in that category. It is attractive but not memorable.
With the knowledge of the photographer's condition, the image becomes a different entity. There is no EXIF data, but most people would probably struggle to hand-hold at night: this, however, is not minor inadvertent bodily movements, it is a significant, sustained tremble which the photographer has used both for artistic effect and to illustrate her condition. And the significance continues, in that it would affect hand-held photography in terms of movement and use of the controls at all times of the day and, more importantly, impact the photographers entire life experience. A relatively trivial image becomes moving and poignant when the circumstantial information is known.

Project 3 - What matters is to look

This begins with Henri Cartier-Bresson who used his newly-invented Leica 35mm in the early 1930s in inventing the concept of the Decisive Moment. Perhaps his most famous shot was Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932 which arose by luck as he was shooting blind, "I slipped the camera through [the railings] but I couldn't see". Luck and, of course the gumption to be in the right place at the right time, to take the shot, to recognise its importance, to coin the phrase and to pursue the notion for the next 70 years. As noted in the Photographers Gallery entry , "the course material calls it 'something of a stylistic cliché' (p.69) and states 'it somehow just misses the point of our contemporary situation' (ibid.)".

Students are referred to a 2001 documentary on YouTube, a series of 5-10 minute chunks of a interview with HC-B, three years before his death so Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) would have been in his early 90s.

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare,   Paris, 1932 Simiane-La-Rotonde, 1969text  Alberto Giacometti, Maeght Gallery, Paris, 1961 text Epirus, Greece Paul Claudel , 1945 Funeral of a Kabuki Actor, Tokyo
Box H
Henri Cartier-Bresson
1. Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932
2. Simiane-La-Rotonde, 1969
3. Alberto Giacometti rue d’Alésia, Paris, 1961
4. Alberto Giacometti, Maeght Gallery, Paris, 1961
5. Siphnos, Greece, 1961
6. Epirus, Greece
Paul Claudel , 1945
7. Funeral of a Kabuki Actor, Tokyo, 1965
© The estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

A 300-500 word response to the film is required.

First some notes on the contents.

Part 1 (5 mins 24 secs) [accessed 13 November 2018]
Nothing worth noting in the first section of film

Part 2 (9:42) [accessed 14 November 2018]
At the beginning of the second section, he talks about the Gare Saint-Lazare image above, as quoted in the course material p.67, "I couldn't see a thing through the viewer" at 0:45, then "It's always luck. It's luck that matters." (1:01) "If you want it you'll get nothing." (1:15) "Just be receptive and it happens." (1:24)
He then speaks of composition, "geometry" which he says he has an instinct for. "I go for form more than light. Form comes first" (2:16)

Yves Bonnefoy comments the second photograph above, Simiane-La-Rotonde, 1969, taken while walking in a group including Cartier-Bresson and Bonnefoy. He says, "While others are distracted and unobservant, Henri is on the lookout, ready to react, not even needing to stop." (3:53).

Speaking of portraits, Cartier-Bresson again mentions sensitivity, intuition and geometry (5:31). A photograph of Cartier-Bresson's friend, sculptor Giacometti (Alberto Giacometti rue d’Alésia, Paris, above) is discussed pretentiously and at length by an unnamed commentator . Back to Cartier-Bresson at 8:49, "Taking photographs demands extreme concentration" then several portraits of artists are shown and Cartier-Bresson describes the personalities of the subjects (Bonnard, Arikha and others) and his reactions to them.
I much prefer another image in the series, Alberto Giacometti, Maeght Gallery, Paris, 1961 (above) as it reveals far more of Giacometti the sculptor and is a supreme example of the decisive moment, this time intended, deliberate and with the subject in view: very little luck involved.

Part Three (7:56) [accessed 15 November 2018]
Cartier-Bresson visits the Jean Genoud printing house, Lausanne and discusses an edition of his work with unnamed members of staff. One of the staff comments on the quality of reproduction of one of the images, identified in a Christie's sale ( [accessed 15 November 2018]) as Siphnos, Greece, 1961 (see above). The image is shown being digitally edited to provide "A little interpretation … vivid and sharp … that's what we're after … but you must not change what you're given" (0:42). Cartier-Bresson signs off the result at 2:33.
Then another head and shoulders piece to camera (a different session as his clothes have changed) where Cartier-Bresson discusses his retirement: "I haven't taken pictures outdoors for a long time" (3:03) "I prefer to draw" (3:15). A few of his sketches are shown. He compares drawing to photography, noting that in a drawing the artist must know "when to stop" (4:11), when "[a]nything more would spoil it" (4.15). This seems to be a metaphor for his stopping taking photographs. He is shown sketching Otar Iosseliani: they discuss his appearance, how it has changed over the years. Back to the interview and Cartier-Bresson differentiates non-specifically between the role of a sound engineer and a photographer, before agreeing with the interviewer that the main difference is the tools they use.

Part Four (6:30) [accessed 15 November 2018]
The same interview as Part 3, the interviewer asks whether "looking" can be taught but Cartier-Bresson talks instead about love and sex before becoming silent and wistful (1:09). To a voice-over discussing Epirus, Greece (date?), see above. An unnamed commentator speculates extensively, recklessly and pointlessly on the motivations, feelings and possible future of the boy in the photograph and the way Cartier-Bresson interacted with him. Two uncommented-upon images of a couple resting on a train (Romania 1975, not shown), a long train in a desert (not identified) and others leads to a discussion of Cartier-Bresson's time spent in India and the East. He states that he went there to live for three years, not to take photographs. While he did take them, he "didn't care about the result" (4:32) and just sent the films off to processing laboratories in France and India. He then qualifies his statement and says the act of taking the photographs was important. He mentions a photograph of Paul Claudel (see above, an old man, glancing at a hearse as he walks past it) that he discussed with Gandhi, they referred to Claudel's contemplating mortality and Gandhi was assassinated soon afterwards. More images of Gandhi and his funeral follow.

Part Five (8:47) [accessed 15 November 2018]
The Gandhi imagery continues into the final section with images and sound effects of the funeral pyre. The film returns to the head and shoulders shot of Cartier-Bresson, but he is dressed as in Parts 1 & 2. He states that eastern religions have affected him more than western, "The idea of sin and so on is beyond me" (0:53). Then back to a voice-over describing a photograph of the funeral of a Kabuki actor. This commentary is somewhat less speculative, observing that Cartier-Bresson was known to blacken his camera to make his presence less obtrusive and thus not distract his subjects. Even so, it ends by stating the camera was "a part of his soul" (3:24).
In the next scene, Cartier-Bresson is discussing some of his images with a group a variously sycophantic individuals, in the National Library, Paris. They seem to be showing him their collection of his photographs and he comments negatively on some of the reproductions. On one of the images, possibly Gandhi's funeral he states "I didn't take that one" (5:48): this rather shocks the others, but he goes on to explain that he handed his camera to a friend to take the shot , "We help each other" (6:02).
Finally, Cartier-Bresson, speaks of old age, enjoying the life that is left to him and forgetting the past. At the end of the title sequence he is heard to ask and answer "A glass of red?".

A Response

Given that L'amour de court was released in 2001, Cartier-Bresson would have been in his early 90s when it was filmed and thus, perhaps understandably, contemplating his own mortality. The film plays to this subject in the interviews, in the choice of images shown, and in the speculation of the voice-overs.

The film is constructed of three component types: Cartier-Bresson speaking to the camera with occasional prompts (and many silences); Cartier-Bresson in action, visiting a publisher; visiting a library, and sketching a friend; voice-over commentary by others on a selection of Cartier-Bresson images.

With the exception of Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932, where Cartier-Bresson explains that the image was serendipitous, as he could not see the subject, he says little on the specifics of his photography. He describes how he has given up outdoor photography and now prefers to sketch.

Some of Cartier-Bresson's statements are confused or contradictory. For example he talks about the nature of sound recording for films and how different it is from photography, but when pressed says only that the main difference is the tools they use (L'amour de court 2011, Part 3, 7:04). There is similar confusion when talking about his attitude to the photographs he took in India (Ibid. Part 4, 4:32) and speaking to the representatives of the National Library, Paris (Ibid. Part 5, 3:50 and 4:20).

The third-party commentaries on his images are speculative, pretentious and, to this listener, at least, pointless. Concepts that recur in the words of Cartier-Bresson and of the others include: empathy; intuition; concentration and, above all geometry: "I go for form more than light. Form comes first", Cartier-Bresson declares (Ibid. Part 2 at 2:16). 

It is likely that this particular film was chosen for inclusion in the course because it deals with one of Cartier-Bresson's most famous images, central to his decisive moment oeuvre, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932, and the revelation that it was a lucky, unsighted shot. This is unfortunate because there are more photographically informative pieces on YouTube, for example The Decisive Moment (1973) ( [accessed 15th November 2018]) and Pen, Brush and Camera (1998) ( [accessed 15th November 2018]) .
Nevertheless, it is encouraging to witness a 90-year-old, still enthusiastic about his life as a photographer.

368 words.

O'Byrne, R. (2011) L'amour de court. [Online]. [Accessed 13-15 November 2018]. Available from

The importance of Harvard referencing is emphasised

The OCA referencing guide (which, remarkably, does not include page numbers) does not specify how to reference online videos but instead links to the British Universities Film and Video Council. That link is dead, but a site search leads to this page, [accessed 16 November 2018] which states that the citation guidelines are being reconsidered. When formatting the above citation, the Leeds University guidelines were consulted and adapted.
There is no mention of the use of "Ibid." to specify "see previous link" in citations. That suggests that the OCA does not approve of this handy method.

My comments on Harvard referencing and how it will be implemented are in the blog.

The course material also notes, "Take a moment now to read what the OCA learning blog study guide says about copyright law and fair use or fair dealing".

In a final swipe at Cartier-Bresson, the course material (p. 70) links to a 2004 post by Zouhair Ghazzal titled the indecisiveness of the decisive moment.

Exercise 3.3

is shown on another page.

Project 1, The frozen moment - Exc 3.1 - Quality - Project 2, A durational space - Exc 3.2 - Project 3, What matters is to look - Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment - Exc 3.3 - Asg 3 The Decisive Moment

balloons - coin #1 - newton's cradle - wedding - window #1 - window #2 - window #3 - coin #2

The Decisive Moment

Images à la Sauvette
Images à la Sauvette,

Now, Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log. (EyV p. 71).

This section has taken on new life as part of the books section. Any updates will be made there.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment was first published in 1952, in French, as Images à la Sauvette. Badger (2007 p.104) translates this as "images taken on the wing, on the 'fly' - stolen images" and describes it as "a somewhat less positive connotation". The book is a monograph covering two periods of Cartier-Bresson's work, in Europe, then in India and the East. and also includes an essay by Cartier-Bresson on the concept of the decisive moment. Copies of of the original editions, with its striking dust cover designed by Matisse sell for a minimum of several hundred pounds. The work was reprinted (in both French and English) in 2014, but even that edition costs in the region of £100. The essay has appeared online occasionally, but at the time of writing (16th November 2018) no extant sources have been found. The essay has been reprinted in a number of academic works and one of those (Heller et al., 2006) is on order.

There is a long essay here, [accessed 16 November 2018] which might well be from The Decisive Moment, but it is cited as from a later, posthumous collection of his writings The Mind's Eye, 2005.

Images à la Sauvette
The Decisive Moment,

The phrase, decisive moment comes from the C17th French churchman and diplomat, Jean François Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz who wrote, "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment." (Retz, 1717)

 Alberto Giacometti, Maeght Gallery, Paris, 1961
Alberto Giacometti,
Maeght Gallery, Paris
, 1961

Perhaps the best known of Cartier-Bresson's photographs associated with the decisive moment concept is Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932. That image is shown and discussed at some length above. The whole notion is rather undermined by the fact that Cartier-Bresson has described how the image was taken, unsighted through railings. Setting that knowledge aside for the moment, the term decisive moment applies in the first case to the instant of the scene being photographed but also clearly implies that the photographer's rôle is decisive in interpreting the scene and choosing the instant to press the shutter release. A much better example of capturing the decisive moment in these terms is his image of Giacometti in the Maeght Gallery. Here the sculptor is captured in a pose that mirrors his works and here the shot is intentional and deliberate, not fortuitous.

Cartier-Bresson's first Leica
Cartier-Bresson's first Leica,

It is important to remember the technical context here: Cartier-Bresson published the book in 1952 and he had started using a Leica 35mm camera when first released in the early 1930s. Compact 35mm cameras enabled new genres of photography, freeing their users from cumbersome devices and allowing previously unknown freedom of movement and the ability to take photographs unobtrusively. Such cameras were ideally suited to Cartier-Bresson's photography or, more likely, Cartier-Bresson learned a new mode of photography with his new camera and stuck with it for the next 60 years.

What then, in photographic terms, is the decisive moment? For Cartier-Bresson it 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" (Cartier-Bresson, 1952, Forward) and it is easy to see how this relates to street photography using a film camera with the relatively slow knob winder. There are, however, three principal areas of divergence from this notion: firstly the role of chance; secondly the genres to which this does not apply so readily; and thirdly the technical advances which have changed the way cameras are used.

Regarding chance, the phrase "decisive moment" and the detailed expansion of the phrase quoted above suggest deliberation and control. Numerous photographers and writers have emphasised the important role of chance. In Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson quotes Fox Talbot in (arguably) the first ever book about photography writing that "one of the charms of photography" is the pleasure of finding details in a photograph not noticed at the time it was taken (Fox Talbot, 1844-46). Thompson also quotes Walker Evans describing his delight in the "swift chance, disarray, wonder and experiment" of the medium (Evans, 1931). In The Photographer's Eye, Szarkowski (2007) observes that photography can reveal previously unseen and unimagined detail, (p. 100) giving Muybridge's work as an example, another being Edgerton's Milkdrop Coronet, discussed above. Such visual exploration of the unknown may reveal decisive moments, but only by chance and not in Cartier-Bresson's terms of deliberation.

Turning to genres, in Cartier-Bresson's type of street photography there can often be a decisive, ideal moment in which to capture the fleeting essence of a scene, but this does not apply to the same extent in still life photographs or necessarily in landscape photography. It can be argued that in some landscapes with changing light conditions or moving cloud patterns there may be ideal moments for exposure, but not in terms of " the significance of an event". For sports photography, there are often decisive moments (crossing the finishing line in races, a goal in football, the ball hitting the stumps in cricket) that are predefined by the rules of the game, rather than being created in the art of the photographer. The decisive moment in Cartier-Bresson's terms exists most fully and perhaps even solely in street photography.

Finally, as regards technology, reference has already been made to Cartier-Bresson's 35mm camera with a manual film advance. Given the time it takes to physically wind the crank between shots, there might only be one attempt at discerning and photographing the decisive moment. With modern digital cameras shooting at 5, 10 or even more frames per second, a photographer can shoot a burst at a promising scene and then check the result immediately. While this approach may not be as satisfying, as artistically fulfilling as Cartier-Bresson's, it does establish that photography has changed and moved on from the technology of the 1930s and the definitions of the 1950s. Whether this is a change for the better is a moot point.

Another significant point Cartier-Bresson makes in his essay (perhaps more important than the base definition of the decisive moment in street photography) is that photography is the only art medium which deals in an immediate reality. "Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant" (Cartier-Bresson, 1952, Forward): in all other art forms, the artist (or writer or composer etc.) relies on imagination and can revise the piece. While digital processing has allowed degrees of manipulation and artifice that were inconceivable in 1952, this is still largely true of photography in all genres, for, if it does not begin with a photograph of a subject then, arguably, it is not photography.

In conclusion, Cartier-Bresson's 1952 book The Decisive Moment had a profound effect on photographers and photography at the time: it affected the way photographers viewed themselves and their art; it affected how they went about making their art; and it eventually affected how they and their art were perceived and appreciated by the art establishment and to a certain extent by the public. That impact has resonated over subsequent decades.
While changes to the way photographs are used, the way photographs are made and the markets and methods by which they are sold have lessened and narrowed the direct relevance of Cartier-Bresson's notion of the decisive moment to his particular genre, it remains an important concept and it should be remembered that there were other important ideas advanced in his Forward to the book.

References (for this piece alone)
Badger, G. (2007) The genius of photography. How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Cartier-Bresson, H. The decisive moment. New York: Simon and Schuster. Cited in Hsu, L. (2015) The Decisive Moment. Fraction Issue 81, December 2015. [Online]. [Accessed 18 November 2018]. Available from

Evans, W. (1931) The reappearance of photography, Hound and Horn. 5(1), p. 126. Cited in Thompson, J.L. (2016) Why photography matters. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Fox Talbot, W.H. (1844-46) The pencil of nature. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Cited in Thompson, J.L. (2016) Why photography matters. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Heller, S. and Traub, C. (eds) (2006) The education of a photographer. New York: Allworth Press

Retz, Cardinal (1717) Memoirs of the cardinal de Retz. Cited in Photohélios The decisive moment. [Online]. [Accessed 16 November 2018].Available from:

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer's Eye Revised 3rd ed. New York: MoMA.

References (General)
1. Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
2. Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye, New York, MoMA.
3. [accessed 28th October 2018).

The full references are specified at the end of the course material pp. 115-6.

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