The (In)Decisive Moment
I kept walking the streets, high-strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality, but mainly I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image. Photographing, for me, is instant drawing, and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera.
. . . There are those who take photographs arranged beforehand and those who go out to discover the image and seize it. For me the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry . . . It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis. It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s originality. It is a way of life. (Henri Cartier-Bresson and Clément Chéroux, 2014)
The Decisive Moment echoes Henri Cartier-Bresson, although the concept and title of his book are somewhat misleading. The original title is Images a’la Sauvette; the idiom is suggestive of swiftness, speed and furtiveness and not the completely unnuanced, almost inaccurate, much heard English translational attempt: “Images on the run”.
As Hofstadter noted; the Decisive Moment implied that as a photographer he had some preternatural grasp of the unfolding of events, that he was able to discern those objective instants when people’s gestures supposedly betray the moral nature of their actions. The truth was otherwise, for Cartier-Bresson had little feel for storytelling and never excelled at composing photo essays or catching historical moments; in fact, one of his maxims is “The anecdote is the enemy of photography.” (Hofstadter, 2015)
Outside the scope of this assignment, but stunningly applicable here, (and even more, on this special day of the British elections) I have read the book “Against English”(Lotte Jensen et al., 2019). Cooperative writing by a selection of Dutch professors at the University of Amsterdam, as a warning to the Anglification in the academic, art and culture arena and its unwanted consequences. Where (lingual) nuances, essential in art, are rolled flat by a one- way anglosphere vision and interpretation and by insufficient language usage (Globish).
Inaccurate translations or simply differences in cultures, almost always expressed and reflected in a language. The double false altering from “Images a’la Sauvette” into “The Decisive Moment” and backwards to “Images on the Run” is perhaps the best example.
Nevertheless, the concept The Decisive Moment as we all, historically at least, agreed to accept, originated in a different time, another era in the short but hectic and overwhelming history of photography. The world population was, the time Cartie-Bresson started his stunning photographic life, under 2 billion and risen to almost 8 billion now. Only a few could afford photography and even less had access to galleries and museums or magazines. What contrasts to our lives now, where everybody snaps and shares everything, with everybody, constantly. No wonder that it is easy and perhaps hypish to disposition the artisan craft of compositional photography as cliche, oldfashioned or dull. Globalisation equalises everything, so nothing is worth noticing anymore as Ghazzal pessimistically tries us to believe.
However, is it about the importance of a subject, the grandness of an event or the diversity of our surroundings? Isn’t it about that specific method of registration and depicting, the tension, combination or even oscillation between time and place or even movement, history and future, here-there and now-then? (Cutler, 2019). The unstaged slice of life with an intrinsic question mark on its origin or its future combined with pictorial aesthetics.
To depict even the smallest of unstaged events or situations, with a glimpse of recognition and reflection perhaps to our own life with a certain uncertainty on its unfolding or origin. Not with the intention to simply register, but to visualise pictorially and aesthetic amenability.
“In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms” (Henri Cartier-Bresson and Clément Chéroux, 2014)
The subject Decisive Moment is undoubtedly one of the most reflected concepts in photography. The sheer amount of articles, essays, books, video’s, interviews and opinions is overwhelming. The search results within Google on the combined words: “the decisive moment photography” are a stunning 12.900.000 within 1 second. Nevertheless, I could not find a single conclusive satisfying definition. We all more or less, understand its meaning and can roughly define the genre or concept. However, even after reading dozens of essays and psychological research, looking at thousands of photographs, supposed to be within the definition, going back to its origin seems the most sensible and plausible option:
“(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 organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson and Clément Chéroux, 2014)
Going into this assignment, it was apparent from the start; I would dive into the strictest meaning of the concept. Holding on to the Cartier-Bresson definition, I made photographs in the city, not Paris, as he did in his early days, but Amsterdam. Trying to see special moments, special situations, generating a question mark and whenever possible, register them pictorially. My personality and my lack of craftsmanship have some difficulty with the term “precise organisation of forms” so I downscaled that to “aesthetically pleasing organisation of forms”.
Sometimes I find little comfort in the mindset of Cartier-Bresson: “I never think. I act, quick” (Cartier-Bresson, 1971)
To enhance the cohesion of the series in this assignment, all images were taken in relatively poor/low light conditions, mostly during dusk or dawn, some under an overcast, dark sky and mist. Following the concept, most images include an “event” some tend to shift more to “pictorial”, but as a series, I tried to get some balance with sufficient variation. Nothing is staged or manipulated in form or structure, although I granted myself the (disputable) luxury of cropping slightly and of course intensive selection between all the failures I have made:
…It’s seldom you make a great picture: you have to milk the cow quite a lot and get plenty of milk to make a little bit of cheese. (Cartier-Bresson, 1971).
Although Cartier-Bresson in undoubtedly and undisputedly synonym to the decisive moment as a concept, I sometimes prefer slightly less rigidity and tend to drift towards the romantic Robert Doisneau, the poetic dreamer Kertész or the more suggestive BrassaÏ.
Assignment Selected Photographs