Exercise: The decisive moment

First of all, I have to say that I am very much looking forward to this Modernist practice project as it most closely fits my preferences for photographic genre.

However, I’m not sure why the whole course section is entitled Social Documentary rather than a simpler and broader Documentary. I say this as the work covered from this point in the chapter are broadly documentary but not in the strict sense of social documentary, i.e. striving to inform, move and make social change around a particular issue or community.

The photographers covered here worked in genres (or maybe documentary sub-genres) such as street photography, photojournalism and reportage. They may have followed the same fundamental principles as social documentary (authenticity, lack of staging, lack of post-processing) and they do, in the strictest sense document things (events, activities, people), but their intent is quite different to ‘true’ social documentarians.

Having got that semantic pedantry off my chest, I’ll move on…



First, look at the two Cartier-Bresson images above and try to identify why the photographer might have considered each one a decisive moment.

Now go out and photograph an event or location for yourself. Look for and include the decisive moment. Produce a contact set of three scenes and analyse your reasons for selecting the image that has the decisive moment. Your scenes should all include at least one person.


I am baffled by the notes in the full brief that say that identifying the decisive moments in the Cartier-Bresson images is “a difficult thing to attempt“– it really isn’t!

In the first, a number of compositional elements come into an aesthetically-pleasing arrangement: the slight angle of the boy and the wall; the admiring onlookers; the balance of the two bottles; the movement implied by the front leg; the depth of field and perspective that imply the path he has already walked down. What really makes it though is the delightfully smug expression on the boy’s face.

The second is even more obvious – the geometry of the image is so well-balanced: the steps down; the curves of the railings; the matching outer curve of the kerb below; and finally the positioning in the clear space to the left of the cyclist. The implication is that he followed the viewer’s eye and came down the steps (he probably just rode in from the right).

Understanding ‘the decisive moment’

There’s a sense in which Cartier-Bresson’s association with the phrase and the concept The Decisive Moment is something of a misunderstanding. The book (Cartier-Bresson 1952) that spawned the phrase was only given that title in its English translation, and came not from Cartier-Bresson himself but from a quotation in the preface from the 17th century French cardinal de Retz. The original French title of the book was Images à la Sauvette, which roughly translates as Images on the Run – a concept slightly at odds with the precision implied by the rest of Cartier-Bresson’s writing on his approach.

What Cartier-Bresson did say, and presumably led to the choice of the de Retz quote in the English preface, is:

“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.” (Cartier-Bresson 1952)

I confess that I used to slightly misinterpret the concept myself until I reread The Mind’s Eye (Cartier-Bresson 1998) where the above quote is paraphrased, amongst a more detailed explanation of his thinking. I should also give credit to Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966) as his interpretation of the definition further illuminated my understanding:

“[…] that segment of time that Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment: decisive not because of the exterior event (the bat meeting the ball) but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order – because the image became, for an instant, a picture (Szarkowski 1966)

So this was my eureka moment. I had previously interpreted the decisive moment as needing to be the precise moment when something momentous happened in the unfolding of the event – the pinnacle or the turning point, something that ‘told the story’. Through reading Cartier-Bresson and Szarkowski more closely I came to realise that the decisive moment is not decisive to the event, but decisive to the forming of a good photograph. It does not need to be anything dramatic. At its simplest it’s just about finding the right time to press the shutter.

Another quote from The Mind’s Eye is useful here in teasing out the subtle nuances of the decisive moment [my emphasis]:

“Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes”
(Cartier-Bresson 1998)

My attempts

I must say that even with the above context, producing decisive moments on demand is not as easy as it looks!

1. Skateboarder

I only managed half a dozen pictures as it was a very busy street but the reason I chose the last one as the ‘decisive moment’ should be self-evident: I caught the moment of the jump. I had also done this in the second shot but a couple of passersby had walked into shot.


2. Bongo Players

This was an impromptu jam session that I stumbled upon, where the chap with the two drums was randomly joined by a stranger who asked if she could have a go on the drum he wasn’t using! In this instance I was strangely drawn to the shot where the guy in red on the left was paying least attention and nonchalantly fighting his cigarette. His inattentive demeanour seemed to juxtapose with the excitable drumming of the pair, and the admiration of the other two spectators. This felt like the most interestingly composed version of the shot.

Bongo Players
Bongo Players

3. Bird Man

This was the one I attempted on all manual settings – as you may be able to tell from the three underexposed shots. In this set I was looking for a shot where a bird was flying towards him rather than sitting on his hand, I was aiming to depict how he attracts the birds. The best shot was the one below. Strangely (or maybe not), once I’d dialled in the right settings I found it easier to work fully manual, as there was no autofocus lag.

Bird Man
Bird Man


Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s