The Decisive Moment: a definition

CRR_5149_17_stop.jpg«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.» —Henri Cartier-Bresson

All photographer with at least one month studying Street Photography or Photojournalism have heard the term «decisive moment», coined by the acclaimed artist Henri Cartier-Bresson. The phrase was the choice for the English version of his seminal photography book «Images à la Sauvette». The translation is not exact, because the french term «sauvette» is more proximate to the term  «in a hurry», than with the concept of «decisive» in English. By his explanations, the conception is about the perfect timing, the right perspective , and the harmonious composition of the frame space. Whereas the concepts of instant and timing had built a strong foundation under the expression, the other underlined ideas had, sometimes, missed or simply omitted. Let’s take some lines to write about time, perspective, and form.

Undoubtedly, a street photo is a snapshot in an instant, a fraction, of a second. The life pass in front of your eyes, you see, and then you shoot or you lose. You could remember the forms, the structure of the light, but you couldn’t store or register the light in your memory. Despite the common opinion, the instant of the view isn’t innocent or completely spontaneous. You got to be there—because partially you chose to be there—, you found the location, pursued the subjects, positioned in a vantage perspective. With time, an experienced photographer will sense that a good view is coming to his or her viewfinder. Then, the photographer stops and waits, or runs to the subject, or dances «à la Cartier-Bresson» approaching the scene to take that little fraction of a life.

But that is not the whole of a picture. What you see now in a photo is what someone saw from a particular perspective. The eyes were in that space, pointing to something, someone. The perspective is an essential element of any photo. It’s not to say that the perspective is recognizable or the main character in the composition. Sometimes, the position of the eyes is taken for granted. It’s the case with classical portraits, for example. But as a photographer you can’t omit your perspective. Looking from the «eye-level» is ordinary and common. No surprises there. Everybody recognizes the eyes position in such photos. Changing the perspective—lowing the camera or taking the image from the cenit, or using a macro to get very close—can shift the picture forms to other level of an aesthetic paradigm. Any picture that can’t be seeing from a routinely position captures attention and stays in the inner eyes for minutes, hours, forever. But let’s clear that images from the eye-level aren’t dull, or boring. On the contrary, many pictures from this perspective allow the viewer to be «in the scene», living what it was lived, feeling the emotions and senses, the anxiety, the fears, the happiness, embedded in the elements of the photo. Sometimes, the spectators see what otherwise they couldn’t look by themselves in a lifetime. They go to Yosemite, Paris, the Taj Mahal, the Everest. They see coyotes, lions, condors in the wild, fighting, fishing, or playing.

The sometimes used comparison with a sneak, a voyeur, for photographers is not far from the real. In action, you see from side, oblique.  You hide, you take risks, you get the most strange or unusual positions to view, to grab the no-repeatable images. You have to think about «where do I need to be in this part of the world, in this precise instant; where is the vantage point». The perspective convey the transient relations of a human being with the visual. In the photo you persist that relation.

The impulsive decision, the selection of the perspective, should be driven by the lines, the forms you will get with the view. The composition, the harmony of the subjects within the environment in this short—that millisecond—instant has to be there. If it’s not, the picture wasn’t in that space-time fraction of the universe. No harm done. A picture is only one of the infinitely instances of such harmonies: the perfect relation of time, perspective, and forms. There are many, too many. Most of them missed. For a feverish mind, the lost images of the past, what the most prolific painters have missed, are real tragedies. Imaging what artists could have captured if photography have existed under ancient Roman or Greek times!

What rules the beauty in composition is complex. Intuition covers most of the part in the decisions of the photographer. You see and feels the right. At «postmortem», critics and spectators will explain why this or that brings rhythmic elements, converges formal or light harmonies, balances the contrasting oppositions. Why do you want to return and repeatedly watch some pictures? Why the obsession? Why the pleasure? Is there any objective reason for the beauty? For sure, there is a minimal objective baseline why the viewing is possible. You can’t see the sun without pain. You can’t open your eyes under an acid pool. From there, it seems that we have an extensive field of possibilities. However, there are some guidelines or «rules» recommended to follow. The «rule-of-thirds», the «golden-ratio», the «inner-frame», are well-known visual patterns. They don’t guarantee the beauty; they only show a path to reach it, a hint to track back. If you found the beauty, you were lucky, or a genius.

The «decisive moment» is a global, visual, pattern. Good for photography. Good for any visual art, I must say. But while in other artistic mediums, you can spare time to think, organize, try one, two, infinite times similar views; in photography you only have a millisecond. All the thinking and planning were before you reach the scenario; where the life goes on, showing off arrogantly, flashes, blinkers of light.


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