The idea that a photograph captures a Decisive Moment is a notion that most all photographers are familiar with. The father of this oft-used description (and, of course, master of the art), Henri Cartier-Bresson, wrote the book on the subject and, in fact, provides a quite-beautiful passage about composition and moment-capturing:
“Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture — except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button — and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace it on the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson
Sixty years on, it’s still a near-perfect description of the process. Though that doesn’t keep us from continuing to try to ascribe new meaning to it. We continue to search as much inside ourselves as we do out on the street. And this “feeling” Cartier-Bresson describes, that “you’ve really got something,” is an ephemeral reward that seems to both deliver and cause us to continue wondering…
What is the meaning of it all?
While the satisfaction of the moment well-shot is tangible enough, as is the appreciation from audiences, the underlying “what does it all mean?” continues to elude even the most accomplished of photographers. Other fine arts seem to have none of the identity issues of photography. A painter needs not also mention that she’s an artist, we understand that to be true. But a photographer nearly always needs to make that distinction. And many artists who use photography as their primary instrument would rather call themselves (and be) conceptual artists than take on the title of “Photographer.” Van Gogh was a painter, but Cindy Sherman is not a photographer. And this plagues the decisive moment photographer.
The practice of simply going out and shooting the moments we come across — which we often now just call “street photography” — has become a kind of creative endeavor of the masses, intertwined with social media, personal branding and technology. The Cartier-Bressons of modern day struggle to stand out from the rest in the way an actor who actually loves acting struggles to stand out from the ones who do it for attention or fame. The outside world can hardly see, or even sometimes find the energy to care about, the differences that feel so important to those who truly attempt to do something different and more personal with it.
Art Versus Craft
Also, within the discussion of capturing the decisive moment is an inherent confusion.
Consider this detailed account of the photographer’s process, from the master himself:
“The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail — and it can be subordinated, or it can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson is describing trained critical observation. Millimeter-specific framing. Physical placement of the camera and body. Painstaking composition. Quick reflexes. But what difficult craft isn’t described this way. In this description, how different is it to train the eye to see a moment than it is to to train one’s hands to box? Body to ride a horse? Feet to run a hurdle race? Yet, when we see the results of this Decisive Moment, we interpret it as something more artistic than merely a learned craft, no?
The conundrum of today’s moment-gathering photographer is that it feels like our art, but our icons described it as a craft.
Even photographer extraordinaire Robert Frank said, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” A romantic notion, but still a discussion of the eye. Are we to believe that being as good as Robert Frank is simply having an eye that sees (hears?) better?
It’s my own pet theory but I believe the worst people to describe the value of this art form are the artists themselves. With obvious due respect, these are, after all, people trained in the decisive moment, not the decisive word choice. As photographers, we are directors of the final image, but when asked about it, for some reason we go straight to talking like a cinematographer.
To better understand the art of the moment, we need to look closer at the medium which, in this case, is the moment.
What Is A Moment?
Authors understand the moment. A fry lodges in the throat. A text message comes in. The airplane hits a pocket of turbulence. The lighter slips from her hand. The cat swats at the fly. These are all moments. And, for a writer, they help tell a story, but in and of themselves they are not yet a story — not without the context within which they existed.
The fry was lodged in the President’s throat, just before giving an address to the nation. The text message was from a childhood friend he hadn’t heard from in 60 years. The turbulence was experienced by a first-time flyer whose father was a pilot of a sea plane that ran drugs from Mexico, in the Seventies. He died out over the Pacific in the dark of the night when she was only 6.
The context adds emotional weight to the moment. Which begs the question: what is a context-less moment?
There’s a clue, I think, in Cartier-Bresson description of leaving the scene after capturing it and then needing to “substantiate” it later. That’s reminiscent of a lot of art, actually. As photographers, we’re playing with raw forms in an associative way. It’s both personal and abstract — the way art is — often the meaning only comes to us later.
In my image “How Rain Works,” I capture a man walking directly in line with some painted arrows on a street. It was a moment I was observing, sitting by a window a few stories up, as many people passed by that mark. It followed nearly exactly the process described by Cartier-Bresson, above. Something about those elements lining up felt right. But it was all done from instinct. The meaning was much later — and open to interpretation.
I called it “How Rain Works” because I saw the whole thing (the arrows, the umbrella) as a commentary on rain, but that came much later and is only one of many possible interpretations of those elements. It could just as easily be about thoughts or life’s pressures or any other connection you might make with these elements.
In many ways, the photographer plays with the elements of the world and arranges them artistically in order to raise questions and make you think — just like any other artist.
A moment, in that process, is simply the medium.
The Art of The Moment
A moment itself, taken out of context, turns the objects of the scene into a set of elements. When considered this way, the photographer plays with a scene (its shapes, its movement, its light, its framing, etc.) the way an artist plays with materials of any kind.
Intent plays a key role in fine art photography, just as it does in, say, a pigment-based art. Being an illustrator means doing a lot of the same physical things as a fine artist, but the artist’s intent is different. This is obvious in nearly every medium except photography, where most of the discussion revolves around the process, technique and technology of it. The creative decision-making of the photographer remains mysterious and less-defined.
When the fine art photographer is out, looking at the world, there are a lot of choices to make. Most notably, what not to shoot. We call it cropping, but it’s a set of choices. We isolate, we organize, we angle, we compose what we see. Even the decision to let in more or less light is a way of selecting elements to see and not see. These choices are the art and the instinctual (or purposeful) connections we make and capture in that process come from the same types of creative impetuses as any fine artist.
Beyond simply the lining up of elements, we find beauty and meaning in the pieces of the world we are organizing. And the connections of elements are, in themselves, often a commentary on the artist, a belief system, an emotion or a cultural truth.
What you’re seeing in a photograph is not what was actually there. It’s been stripped of much of the context, but given the context of what the photographer was experiencing and choosing to capture. Remember, it’s not just a moment, but a decisive moment. Which means that what you are experiencing in the image is not only the events that occurred, but the choices of the photographer who captured it.
The captured moment, therefore, is as artistic as the person shooting it. The raw materials are all there to do with what you like. You may shoot the birthday party straight ahead and it is simply a snapshot. But if you place an artist in that same scene and ask them to make art of that moment, their decisions will be different. The artistic eye and the creative choices of the photographer take an everyday moment and turn it, decisively, into art.