Henri Cartier-Bresson has had a huge influence on photography. His phrase “The Decisive Moment” echoes alot with photographers trying to find that special moment when action and composition come together. Olivier Duong (2013) of Inspired Eye magazine says “the idea actually comes from the 17th century writings of Cardinal de Retz when he penned “Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif”. “There is nothing in this world that doesn’t have a decisive moment”. It’s one of the aspects of photography that Cartier-Bresson teaches a photographer. Invariably in a sequence of photographs one photograph captures a moment better than all the others. Cartier-Bresson says ““What matters is to look. Most of them don’t…they press the button…” (Cartier-Bresson 2001). This is one of the impressions you get from his photography, it’s as if he has the composition lined up and that he waited for a subject to enter the frame to complete it. Then he pressed the shutter.
What surprises then is when he says in the film ““It is luck that matters. You have to be receptive to luck” (Cartier-Bresson 2001). This would give the impression that his photography was a series of lucky shots but with the number of memorable photographs he took it was the combination of preparation and belief that something would happen that made his luck.
An earlier thought he had was “Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick. So, if you miss the picture, you’ve missed it. So what?” (Cartier-Bresson 1971). This indicates his level of preparation to take a photograph, Henri Cartier-Bresson ‘lay in wait for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image which he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing’ (Wells 1998, 91).
“Today the decisive moment is often criticised for having become something of a stylistic cliché. In the decades after the 1930s, the most creative phase of Cartier-Bresson’s street photography, thousands of photographers learned the techniques of the ‘moment décisif’ – leading inevitably, perhaps, to derivative work. ” (OCA 2016)
My own thoughts on this is that this is a general problem of photography. With over one trillion photographs taken in 2015 (Worthington 2016) almost every type of photograph is in danger of being considered cliche. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment photographs have certainly caught the imagination of many a serious photographer. The street photography genre is very popular and inevitably to a seasoned observer the work becomes derivative. I think the word cliche is thrown around too loosely. It’s used as a substitute for not spending time examining photographs that happen to look similar to photographs you’ve seen before. Rather that looking for differences its dismissing them as similar to other photographs. Every photograph is different, no two photographs are exactly the same. Every decisive moment photograph captures it’s own particular decisive moment. They are worth examining on their own merit and not superficially dismissed as cliche. My own criticism of the decisive moment is the apparent lack of spontaneity in some of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs. He’s like a sniper laying in wait with the perfect composition waiting for the subject to arrive. It would have been interesting to have followed him for a day to see how truely he did it. I found the quote from a friend about the photograph Simiane, La Rotonde, 1970 about not even noticing him taking the photograph interesting. “I didn’t see any children that day, nor did I notice Henri holding up his camera and taking a photograph, we were walking, he didn’t slow down, but here is the result of that moment of passing by “. It looks like a photograph that he waiting for the composition to come together but it seems to have been a spontaneous photograph. This perhaps in the end shows his mastery of the decisive moment.
(Bresson 1971) Cartier-Bresson, H, 1971. The Camera – LIFE Library of Photography. 2nd ed. P214: Time Inc.
(Bresson 2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson 2001. L’mour de court’ [ONLINE] Available at: www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF [Accessed 3 January 2017]
(Doung 2013) Doung, O, 2013 How to Understand the Decisive Moment. Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.theinspiredeye.net/understanding-the-decisive-moment/ [Accessed 03/01/2017]
(Wells 1998) Wells, Liz. 1998. Photography: A Critical Introduction. London: Butler & Tanner.
(Worthington 2016) Paul Worthington. 2016. One Trillion Photos in 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: http://mylio.com/true-stories/next/one-trillion-photos-in-2015-2. [Accessed 3 January 2017].