At this point in part 3 of the programme of study the course materials request that I set down a few words as to where I stand on the debate around the notion of the decisive moment.
I have pondered on the concept throughout this part of the course and through exposure to the work of photographers like Francesca Woodman, Michael Wesley, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Paul Graham, Alexey Titarenko and Trent Parke I have re-evaluated my own position.
There is a right and proper homage to the work of Henri Cartier Bresson and he not only created some defining moments in the art of photography, but also he created to sense of the medium as a powerful communicator of human emotion. Interestingly though from all my reading about him, photography was just a tool and ultimately it was painting that he turned to
But I have to own up to recognising that I have moved into the camp of those that have some concern, even cynicism about the concept of the decisive moment in the contemporary world. Henri Cartier Bresson’s work defined a time in photography when image makers, in possession of the then relatively new 35mm miniature camera were liberated from the limits of larger film and plate cameras. Photographers could immerse themselves in contexts and settings in a way that had perhaps not been possible before, or certainly not as easy in the past. Although Henri Cartier Bresson’s contemporaries, such as Frank Capa and George Rodger (fellow founding members of Magnum, along with Chim) both used 6×6 Twin Lens reflexes, I think it can be argued that the 35mm camera opened up new possibilities for photographers in the 1930’s and beyond. If anyone is in any doubt about the value of 35mm, Henri Cartier Bresson defines its immense capability through the work he produced with his relatively small format instrument.
That said, there can however be something of a cliché in many of the images that claim to capture the decisive moment and I recognise the point being made Ghazzi (2004) when he suggests:
“At its core the decisive moment is indeed mostly anecdotic-composed of short accounts of humorous or interesting incidents”
For many that followed Cartier Bresson (and indeed many of his contemporaries) the search to capture and share precisely what Ghazzi describes above would appear to have become the hallmark of the decisive moment. One only has to look at the vast number of online street photography sites to see what can appear to be the relentless search and repetition of versions of same moments. I have recently revisited a book I had not looked at for 20 years, Baudrillard’s (1981) –‘Simulacra and Simulation’. Its strikes me that I have to ask a question about what is the genuine reality of what I am seeing in many of these images. I also need to apply the same critique to my own work too!
When I look at more contemporary work aimed at street photography enthusiasts there are many interesting and engaging images, some are poignant and a few are genuinely moving, capturing moments that tell a deep story about the human condition. In general though, and this is a highly personnel statement, the vast majority are at best cliched and in some cases rooted firmly in the crass.
There is also another dimension to my critique of the ‘decisive moment’ that that raises questions. When I look at the work of photographers I have to enquire as to whether an image was the result of the serendipitous press of the shutter, as Henri Cartier Bresson did when he captured ‘Behind the Gare Saint Lazare’, or one of a sequence of many shots where the artist chooses the best of a collection?
As a fan of the work of many of the photographers of the Magnum Agency, of whom Henri Cartier Bresson, I have spent much time looking at the work of the agency and particularly enjoy the book -Magnum Contact Sheets (2014). To those not familiar with the work it is a weighty volume of some of the most iconic Magnum images over more than 70 years. The images are shown in the context of the contact sheets from which the final images were drawn. What is clear to even my uneducated eye is that in many cases the decisive moment has been carefully selected from a number of attempts at the same subject.
Copyright Magnum Agency
Copyright Magnum Agency
Again it raises questions about which was actually the decisive moment? If this was a feature during the age of film, there are even more questions of the digitally made image that could be merely a moment in a long electronic frame burst. So, just what is the decisive moment?
Ghazzi, Z. (2004) The indecisiveness of the Decisive Moment at: http://zouhairghazzal.com/photos/aleppo/cartier-bresson.htm
Lubben, K. (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets, Thames and Hudson
Baudrillard, J. (1981) Simulacra and Simulation, UM Press