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Monthly Masters DiscussionMonthly Masters' Discussion: June 2017 - Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment

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Monthly Masters' Discussion: June 2017 - Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment

Post by minniev » Thu Jun 01, 2017 6:03 pm

Here is my first ever Monthly Masters' discussion for Photomentoris. Please join in the discussion. There is no right and wrong, just a chance to dig a little deeper into an image and consider if/why/how it is successful and how we can use the knowledge it contains in our own work.

It’s a likely bet that every photographer on this forum is familiar with Henri Cartier Breton, and has heard the famous quote about “The Decisive Moment.” But what, exactly, did he mean? The Decisive Moment is the title of Cartier-Bresson’s photobook originally titled Images à la Sauvette (Images On the Run), published in France in 1952.) The book’s preface opens with a quote by Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of forms must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.

We look and perceive a photograph as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.

In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment on the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.

The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail – and it can be subordinated, or it can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.

Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace it on the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.


Finally, here is another excerpt, found elsewhere in the preface, which most succinctly summarizes Cartier-Bresson’s idea of decisive moment:

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

[heading]Questions To Consider[/heading]
For this discussion, let us use this image, which is not his best known but a fairly typical Cartier Breton image from his Cyclades portfolio. Please read over his quote, above, and check out some of the resources linked below. Then consider the image. Here’s some questions to get you started.
  1. What do you make of the image from a critical perspective? (composition, perspective, framing, presentation, technical)? Would you want it on your wall? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think there is a decisive moment involved here? Why or why not?
  3. How does this image fit into Cartier-Bresson’s larger body of work? Is it “one of the good ones”? Why or why not?
  4. Do you seek a “decisive moment” in your own photography? If you’d like, attach an image of your own which you believe to illustrate this concept, and tell us why you think so.
[heading]Resources[/heading]
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Post by Didereaux » Thu Jun 01, 2017 8:12 pm

It has all the correct W-B-W factors. Lots of lines, no curves or circles. ONE, and only one focus point (all diagonal lines lead to it) and in the space there is the one and only moving/living object in the images universe, A running girl. A quickly running girl, you know that from arm position, leg positions and the skirt position. She was there in that center of the universe for a moment only....the 'decisive moment'. That is it in a nutshell, anything else is fluff from the viewers imagination. Since we know it was Bresson who took the picture it is safely assumed that he patiently waited for something 'decisive' to happen at that one point.
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Post by LindaShorey » Thu Jun 01, 2017 8:26 pm

1. Composition, framing: does anyone else wonder if the image were posted by an unknown, in digital today, would the photographer lose points for not straightening it? HA!

After reading his quotes about geometry, I squinted to reduce the image to fewer details and more form. I love the vertical rectangles of dark and light on each side framing the steps. The main shadow has an interesting outline, and then the architecture has a lot of pleasing details once you go beyond the overall composition of shapes and light. Yes, definitely I'd hang it on my wall.

2. Does this represent a decisive moment? He says, "photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event"..."you wait and wait..." If the photographer was unknown, I would question whether he asked the girl to run up the steps. He could have even told her to stop and pose "just so." So for me this photo doesn't work in the same way as some I looked at. I also don't get that sense of "significance of event." I would actually like this image better without the figure!

4. The article, "The Psychology of the Decisive Moment" touches a tiny bit on landscape photography and quotes Cartier-Bresson as saying, "you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative… Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

From the perspective of my teensy-tiny, miniscule "talent," I think I have - on rare occasions - the ability to see the moment unfolding (light, shadow, overall composition) and capture it - not going to try to share one in same thread as Henri, though - lol. An excellent topic, Minnie. More brain work than I've had to do in ages...
"What's important in a photograph and what isn't." http://photographylife.com/whats-import ... -what-isnt

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Post by St3v3M » Fri Jun 02, 2017 6:33 pm

LindaShorey wrote:... I would actually like this image better without the figure! ...

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Post by St3v3M » Fri Jun 02, 2017 6:51 pm

1. What do you make of the image from a critical perspective? Would you want it on your wall? Why or why not?
- I like the image for the use of the harsh blacks and whites, find the composition pedestrian, but probably the best offered, the framing well oriented to lead the eye, and the technicals good for what they are. I could see this on my wall but I'm a fan of clean blacks and whites. I like other images more, but like this one.

2. Do you think there is a decisive moment involved here? Why or why not?
- The movement of the girl is the obvious decisive moment, but like Linda when I thought the same when I first looked at it. 'Here's a peso to run up the stairs.' I'm sure in some way though we've all manipulated an image or two to our advantage to tell a better story so if so what's the difference here?

3. How does this image fit into Cartier-Bresson’s larger body of work? Is it “one of the good ones”? Why or why not?
- I've not looked at Henri's photos before so I took a look Henri Cartier-Bresson

4. Do you seek a “decisive moment” in your own photography? If you’d like, attach an image of your own which you believe to illustrate this concept, and tell us why you think so.
I tend to shoot landscapes more than anything so for me it's about light, the right light in the right place. (I'll look for an image!)

Everything has a decisive moment, it's finding it that's the key! May you always find it! S-
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Post by Charles Haacker » Fri Jun 02, 2017 8:09 pm

What do you make of the image from a critical perspective? (composition, perspective, framing, presentation, technical)? Would you want it on your wall? Why or why not?
Absolutely I would want it on my wall. It's beautiful, and mysterious, and a "rule breaker" if ever there was one (there are no rules, only guidelines). I simply don't have enough knowledge to be able to truly critique it (or any other picture, really). I always say all my taste is in my mouth (my bride used to say it, too). I don't know nuthin' but I knows what I likes. At the same time, I can't get down on all fours and analyze why I like it, but if I didn't know it was a Cartier-Bresson, I would still like it very much. I see it as pretty much perfect in all respects.
Do you think there is a decisive moment involved here? Why or why not?
There definitely is, and as been pointed out repeatedly it is the child racing up the stairs. Now, did Henri give her a peso to run, or did he patiently wait. As has been pointed out elsewhere, I don't think it matters. The child is really running, bounding two at a time. With his Leica Henri could make but one shot: this one. Now, I suppose if he did give her a peso and she came back and he told her he blew the timing and gave her another peso to make the run again...? But I doubt that. I doubt that he was even on a tripod. I agree with Monte; he had the scene, but it needed something, so he waited, and a little girl came racing along and started up the steps. In that fraction of a second he knew when he would trip his shutter; when she gets...just...THERE. l'instant décisif! Tout va bien! (I will be interested to hear what Linda thinks of the one Steve did without the kid. To me, it's nice, but... Needs something.)
How does this image fit into Cartier-Bresson’s larger body of work? Is it “one of the good ones”? Why or why not?
Yes, for me it is one of his best. Everything about it is clean. One of his most famous, from 1932, a silhouetted man attempting to jump a puddle, is astounding in its timing. The heel of the man's shoe in the very next fraction of a second will hit the puddle, destroy the reflection, wet him to the ankle, and ruin his shoes and the shot. But Cartier-Bresson managed to trip his shutter at the absolutely exact right fraction of a second. No question it is an amazing picture, but the fact is that I would not care for it on my wall because of all the messy distractions therein. Amazing timing, but...
Do you seek a “decisive moment” in your own photography? If you’d like, attach an image of your own which you believe to illustrate this concept, and tell us why you think so.
I do seek l'instant décisif. When I was working I prided myself on being a crack candid man. Shooting weddings with 6x6 cm cameras with 12-exposure backs did not favor spray'n'pray. It wasn't the same as waiting for something to happen, though; I had to anticipate where the action would be and be prepared to fire just as it happened, which tended to hone a fine sense of timing. I still think I'm a good candid man. I admit to shooting bursts of (usually) 3, but the interesting thing is how often the best shot is the first one. I still look for that moment, the decisive one, and fire just then, with 2 more for insurance.
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Post by St3v3M » Fri Jun 02, 2017 8:24 pm

Charles Haacker wrote:...
I do seek l'instant décisif. When I was working I prided myself on being a crack candid man. Shooting weddings with 6x6 cm cameras with 12-exposure backs did not favor spray'n'pray. It wasn't the same as waiting for something to happen, though; I had to anticipate where the action would be and be prepared to fire just as it happened, which tended to hone a fine sense of timing. I still think I'm a good candid man. I admit to shooting bursts of (usually) 3, but the interesting thing is how often the best shot is the first one. I still look for that moment, the decisive one, and fire just then, with 2 more for insurance.

You have an amazing sense of timing and a gift for making memories last. Thank you for sharing this with us! S-
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Post by LindaShorey » Fri Jun 02, 2017 9:33 pm

I have enjoyed reading the other comments very much! Chuck, yep I do like the "missing figure" shot best; thank you Steve :)
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Post by St3v3M » Fri Jun 02, 2017 11:35 pm

LindaShorey wrote:I have enjoyed reading the other comments very much! Chuck, yep I do like the "missing figure" shot best; thank you Steve :)

I wonder if we'd be talking about the image without her? S-
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Post by LindaShorey » Sat Jun 03, 2017 2:11 pm

St3v3M wrote:
LindaShorey wrote:I have enjoyed reading the other comments very much! Chuck, yep I do like the "missing figure" shot best; thank you Steve :)

I wonder if we'd be talking about the image without her? S-

Excellent thought, and I think no, we would not :)
"What's important in a photograph and what isn't." http://photographylife.com/whats-import ... -what-isnt

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