The decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one: the
result is not a story but a picture.
(Swarkowski, 2007, p.5)
You know it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything
looks just the same.
(Eddie in Stranger Than Paradise, Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
Submit a set of between six and eight high-quality photographic prints on the theme
of the ‘decisive moment’. Street photography is the traditional subject of the decisive
moment, but it doesn’t have to be. Landscape may also have a decisive moment of
weather, season or time of day. A building may have a decisive moment when human activity and light combine to present a ‘peak’ visual moment.
You may choose to create imagery that supports the tradition of the ‘decisive moment’, or you may choose to question or invert the concept. Your aim isn’t to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series there should be a linking theme, whether it’s a location, an event or a particular period of time.
2. Assignment notes
Submit assignment notes of between 500 and 1,000 words with your series. Introduce your subject and describe your ‘process’ – your way of working. Then briefly state how you think each image relates to the concept of the decisive moment. This will be a personal response as there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course. You’ll find it useful to explore the photographers and works referenced in Project 3, if you haven’t already done so. Don’t forget to use Harvard referencing.
Post your prints, no larger than A4, to your tutor together with your assignment notes.
Transience and Tradition-
Inverting the decisive moment, experiments in durational space.
The English seaside town is a mix of tradition and the transient. Holiday makers in transit pass through the town but are ultimately only a temporary presence. During the summer months populations increase and holiday makers seek the sun, sea and the trappings of the coastal town. This work does not set out to tell a story but rather, share a number of moments that are bound together through a sense of the contrast between the fixed and the temporal. It attempts to explore how these two notions are bound by a sense of place. Most importantly I set out, all be it in a very personal way, to try and achieve what Paul Graham (2012) described as:
“the breaking down of the decisive moment, not allowing life to become this single frozen shard, trying to reflect something of the flow of time in the work”
Introduction and influences
Assignment three challenged me to think differently, to experiment and to move even further from my traditional comfort zone. I reflected on the brief and a number of key factors struck me as starting points around which to plan and execute this assignment.
The first was the note in the assignment brief that stated:
“This will be a personal response and there is no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course” pp72
This specific line motivated me to take a more experimental approach to the brief and to utilise what I had learned through the course to date. In addition, I was keen to experiment in response to my experience of attending the OCA study visit to the Science Museum the see the Revelations: Experiments in Photography Exhibition (a full write up of of this study visit can be found at: https://johnaorroca.wordpress.com/2015/06/14/revelations-experiments-in-photography-media-space-science-museum-london/).
The second key factor was the exploration of the work of a number of the photographers highlighted in the third section of the course. In particular the work of Michael Wesley, Francesca Woodman and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Although all quite different in their style and outcomes, I found a unifying theme in their shared use of long exposure image making. In Woodman’s case only a few seconds, for Sugimoto a few hours and for Wesley several years. Considering the work of these photographers really made me think about the concept of the ‘durational space’ and the cameras power to reveal different perspectives on time and the world around us.
I was also struck by Pantell’s (2012) reflections on Paul Graham’s work, ‘The Present’. In particular his statement about the work suggesting:
“Maybe this is a homage to Friedlander, Frank and Winogrand, but its with the proviso that Graham is doing something completely different. He is not so much showing us something as posing a question; what do we look at when we look at a photograph?”
Both Pantell (2012) and Joby (2012) describe Graham’s work in this photo book as a reaction to the tradition of the decisive moment. Indeed Graham (2012) himself states:
“the breaking down of the decisive moment, not allowing life to become this single frozen shard, trying to reflect something of the flow of time in the work”
Looking at the work on-line, Graham’s images of New York in The Present are a different take on the decisive moment. To me, Graham manages the create a sense of time that is very different to the classical street photographers and traditional notions of the decisive moment. Specifically there is not a sense of the whimsical or the humorous but rather a deepening sense of place, time and people going about there often ordinary business. It the very ordinariness of the scenes he records that to me creates a sense of time and place.
Copyright Paul Graham
The cumulative effect or exploring the work of the artists described above was to make me rethink the notion of the the decisive moment. Whilst the decisive moment might have been a 1/125 (although not literally) of second event for Cartier Bresson (and or indeed many other photographers), the notion of the ‘moment’ is ill defined and does not I believe have to be a brief instant. Indeed there are a number of dictionary definitions of just what a ‘moment’ means. These range from a brief point in time to something altogether longer. The longer exposure work the Wesley, Sugimoto, Woodman and and the images from Graham’s: The Present are to me no less a decisive moment, they just happen to be different.
With this idea of the decisive moment as an extended space in time I set about looking at the work of a range of other photographers whose work entails a different interpretation of the durational space. This formed key preparation and indeed influence in developing ideas for the assignment submission.
The first of these is the photographer Alexey Titarenko (b.1962). On the recommendation of my tutor I had begun to read and regularly revisit Howarth and McLaren’s (2010) work: Street Photography Now. This introduced me to the work of a range of contemporary Street Photographers. Titarenko’s work stood out for his ethereal phantom like images. Using film and a medium format camera, Titarenko captured the fall of soviet communism in his home city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in a very unique way (see my Blog entry for more detail about this work: https://johnaorroca.wordpress.com/2015/09/06/alexey-tikarenko-city-of-shadows/)
I was captivated by not only the beauty of his work but also how time dilates in his images and the viewer witnesses an extended decisive moment, and in doing so is offered a different perspective on the world. Titarenko says he was was influenced by the limitations early European photographers faced and exposures needed to be lengthy in order to record and image.
The stark juxtaposition of movement in the people in the image below, set against the the fixed, sharp and permanent surrounding buildings creates a real sense of dynamism that adds something to the scene. The movement of the subjects also asked me to consider the place, the street the image was made and the time of day.
Copyright Alexey Titarenko
As the Exploring Your Vision course materials suggest:
“While some photographers try to resolve the problem of capturing movement within a still image by freezing it, others prefer to leave a trace of movement within the frame.” pp 62.
Whether by intent or by design the slow shutter’s ability to catch movement that would otherwise be unseen creates for me an alternative way to view the world. While considering the work of Robert Capa (1913 –1954) and his iconic images from the Normandy beaches there is not only a sense of movement, indeed urgency, but the blurred movement of also adds to the sense of place. The image below highlights this notion of the trace of movement assisting the viewer gain a sense of the context and the time.
Copyright Cornell Capa
In many respects I would argue that the Capa image forces the viewer to look into the scene to create meaning in the absence of sharp well defined content. To the viewer the image is partially complete, this lack of detail rather than detracting from the image, asks questions of the viewer? Because we know it is a beach in Normandy in June 1944, what knowledge the viewer carries about D-Day is added to the engagement with the image. The viewers knowledge and the content of the image create a coherent whole and because the viewer has to think there is I believe a sense of satisfaction in looking and and thinking about this work. This principle of the image carrying some of the meaning and the the viewer recognising this and almost filling in the gaps, based on prior knowledge, started me thinking about semiotics and the construction of meaning.
As part of the research for the topic I also looked at the work of some of the photographers of the American civil war. This may seem odd but I had been struck by how powerful some of the images of that time had been when I recently watched Burns (1990) haunting and memorable documentary about the this troubled time in the history of the united states. I was struck by how evocative some of the most mundane images were. Whilst the work of Matthew Brady (1822 –1896), a well known photographer of the American civil war is perhaps best known, it was an image by Timothy O’Sullivan (1840 – 1882) that best illustrates the point I am making. O’Sullivan was born in Ireland but emigrated to America with his parents, as a teenager he worked for Brady in his studio and went on to be a photographer of the civil war and later for the US Geological Survey. The image below is in many respects very simple, but to me asks so many questions. It is not a battle scene and not typical of war photography, but there is a dynamism and interest to the scene that is in part created by the mix of sharp and blurred elements in the composition. Indeed the blur give the image an unusual sense of depth.
Copyright the Estate of Timothy O’ Sullivan
I am challenged to consider what this group of soldiers are doing, is this before or after a battle? There is a mix of cavalry and infantry soldiers, is that usual, what was the nature of their conversations? The composition of the image is engaging too, whilst at first glance it is cluttered, there is something quite ordered about the alignment of all the elements of the image. Most importantly for me though the blur and movement generates interest and intrigue, perhaps the movement makes the image all the more real, a tangible record of a moment in time long past but caught forever with silver and light!
Similarly the image below by another of Brady’s contemporaries and employees, Alexander Gardner (1821 – 1882), a paisley born photographer who as an adult emigrated to the united states and went on to photograph the civil war, I find particularly powerful.
The image shows residents walking in the ruins of Richmond Virginia in 1885, the spectre like presence of the women in black on the right and the translucence of man and child on the far left perhaps sum up how residents confederate capital must have felt about the war, the loss of loved ones and ruins of their once fine city. Again it is the slow shutter that creates a very poignant but different decisive moment. What also struck me about this image was its similarity to the work of Titarenko, all be it almost 130 years earlier!
Copyright unknown (source http://richmondthenandnow.com/Richmond-Then-and-Now-20.html)
Location, process and execution
As with Assignment 2 I made the decision to shoot this in black and white as well . Although colour offers lots of creative opportunities I also thought the colour could be a distraction and it also gave me one less variable to be concerned about. I had also been reading Scott (2013) and in his description of how street photography developed as artists moved out of their studios he summed up for me the rationale for why shooting in black and white would work for me on this occasion. He suggests:
“Colour is often taxed for being preoccupied with appearances, with distractive superficialising glamour; while black and white for its part, has all the gravity of a perceptual asceticism, which by dint of self denial is able to reveal and intepret underlying relationships.” pp21-22
This statement far more eloquently than I provides a real rationale for the value of making images in black and white. For this reason most of the images were taken with the camera in monochrome mode and the film images where shot on black and white film stock.
Having explored in a degree of detail the work of the photographers described above I resolved to explore the concept of the durational space and either use multiple exposures or slow shutter images in meeting the requirements of this assignment. In the first instance I set about experimenting with multiple exposures. To do this I used a medium format film camera, medium speed black and white film, a tripod and a cable release. I was still deciding on a location but wanted to undertake some test images that were more about experimenting with technique. I made a number of multiple exposure images but ultimately decided that single slow shutter images would better suit the effect I wanted to create. Although interesting the multiple exposure approach did not have the impact that I was seeking.
Again, using a medium format film camera I made a number of slow shutter(¼ of a second up to 4 second) exposures. I experimented in a fixed location and quickly realised after processing the film that once the exposure goes beyond 1 second in normal daylight conditions moving object such as people and vehicles in effect disappear and you are left with the impression of an empty space. As I wanted to capture people in motions I then decided to move back to digital equipment and experiment with a flash gun as well as long exposure shots.
After the period of experiment and test shooting in Norwich city centre I then chose the seaside town of Cromer as the final location for the assignment and spent two days looking for vantage points and then taking images. Cromer was very busy and it was a sense of the ‘busy’ that I was seeking. In the end I narrowed the shooting locations down to the junction of the main streets in the town, the pier and the he promenade. I could have looked more widely but decided that too many locations would lead to a disparate sense of place and I would run the risk of the work not being unified and linked by the location.
This proved to be a productive approach and this was the technique I deployed when I went to the final shooting locations to make the images for the assignment. From a technical perspective I realised I needed to manage light. With ¼, ½ and 1 second exposures in bright seaside conditions real challenges are presented in ensuring images are not vastly over exposed. Even setting the cameras ISO to its lowest setting and shooting with lenses set to f16 and f22, there was still too much light for the sensor To manage this I used a range of Red, Yellow and Neutral Density filters to bring the exposure back under control. That said even with the Red and Yellow filter together the days I made the images were so bright I still had some over exposed pictures as the contact sheets illustrate.
The final images were all taken with the camera operating between ¼ and 1 second. During the exposure I manually fired a high power hand held flashgun, I wanted to ensure that I illuminated the people in motion and minimised the risk of subject disappearing during the slow shutter exposure. The flash is not evident on all of the images but on some it really did make the difference, contributing to the effect I wanted to create. On some of the my long duration ‘decisive moments’ I believe the images benefited from this approach. I did however get some strange looks from passer by, as I fired the flash multiple times during the longer exposures, even though it was bright day.
Assessment and Self review
From more than 200 digital images and 40 images on film I narrowed the selection down to about 20 and then down to a final 7. The contact sheets illustrate the range of approaches I took and for me are a good record of the process of refining a broad collection of images down to a final coherent set that meets the brief, are technically acceptable and most importantly feel right. The process of planning, experimenting, then executing the assignment was really engaging and enjoyable, my only frustration was the limit of time available, I would have liked a little more time. I am sure this is something many students feel though.
This has been a very interesting assignment to research too, as has been the the write up and assembly of the images for mailing to my tutor. In many respects I am not happy with the final set but I am happy with my learning journey and what I have gained in knowledge and experience on the way! I believe that the positive learning through this section of the course outweighs my dissatisfaction with the final set.
I need to qualify this sense of dissatisfaction though. The images don’t quite achieve what what I visualised in my head. But I believe I am several steps closer to translating a personal vision into a set of images that I would be happy with. With this in mind I will revisit the approach I used in the assignment and further refine the process. I need to take many more images, I need to experiment further get and use a range of darker neutral density filters and I am certain I will work more with the idea of slow shutter scenes.
Since finishing the assignment I have looked further at Titarenko’s work and also the images of Australian photographer Trent Parke. Parke’s work is gritty and fluid and he revisits many of the same places, but it is his use of light, harsh contrast and at times a slow shutter that I am most drawn too. As I further refine my search for a personal voice I am certainly learning and discovering some amazing photographers whose work has me itching to hit the streets and make more images. My journey continues!
Bloomfield, R. (2014) Photography 1, Expressing Your Vision, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley
Burns, K. (1990) The Civil War– A film by Ken Burns, Florentine films
Howarth, S. & McLaren, S. (2010) Street Photography Now, Thames and Hudson, London
Joby, L. (2012) Paul Graham- The Present- Financial Times, February 10th 2012
Pantall, C. (2012) The Present by Paul Graham (review) found at:www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2012/05_17_The_Present.cfm
Parke, T. (2013) Minutes to Midnight, Steidl
Scott, C. (2013) Street Photography- From Atget to Cartier Bresson, IB Tauris, London
Titarenko, A. and Bauret, G. (2015) The City is a Novel, Damiana, London
Whelan, R. (2001) Robert Capa- The Definitive Collection, Phaidon, London