Decisive Moments: How Many Are There?
From time to time I read in the little, brilliant book by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye.
There are many reasons for that. One of them is that it is the only book that holds all the major texts explaining what Cartier-Bresson understood by “decisive moments”. Most important in that respect are his introduction to “The Decisive Moment” from 1952, and his introduction to “Europeans” from 1998. The original French version of the latter being from 1955.
This time, however, I am doing a tandem read. Alongside Cartier-Bresson’s original texts I read the extensive introduction to the photographer and his work by Peter Galassi in his recent book “Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Modern Century”. It was published for the opening of the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at MoMA in New York earlier this year.
Peter Galassi is no doubt one of the people that knows the most about his former friend Henri Cartier-Bresson. His extensive knowledge of the works and thoughts of Cartier-Bresson shines through in the introduction and are, most certainly, a very enjoyable read.
Here are a couple of things from Galassi’s book that I have made notes of this far:
First note: Peter Galassi makes a distinction between Carties-Bresson’s pre-war and post-war photography. He sais:
“If many of Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs are collages ripped from the fabric of the street, the model of his postwar style is just the opposite: no matter how busy or calm the actual circumstance may have been, the image functions as a nicely proportioned stage on which a few figures have gathered to enact a tableau vivante. Like well-trained actors, they never turn their backs to the audience, and their faces and gestures are models of expressive clarity. The frame, like a proscenium, encloses the action and reveals it to the audience.” (41)
Second note: Peter Galassi operates with two different notions of “decisive moments”. He sais:
“In such a photograph, there are two quite distinct decisive moments, as Cartier-Bresson suggested in his famous formulation: “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.” (45)
The last sentences fall in a context where Galassi is discussing a famous photograph by Cartier-Bresson shot at Dessau concentration camp in Germany just after the liberation in 1945. A woman is about to slam her hand into the face of what might be a former German collaborator. The photograph is shot just in that “decisive moment” when events are to unfold. See the photograph.
Galassi then suggests that there are two decisive moments simultaneously at work here. The first being the decisive moment of the event. The event is in itself significant. It is decisive.
The event, however, is quite separate from being photographed or not. Meaning that the event would unfold even if there were no spectators to it. Much less a photographer present.
Let us just hold on to the distinction at present. One decisive moment, then, is the event itself, the other one is the photographer’s recording of it.
Let’s have a look at the photograph at the top of this post to discuss this a bit further.
What you see in the photograph above is a young couple “sitting” of a bench, embracing. In the background there is a jogger stretching out. All are in somewhat awkward bodily positions captured by the photographer “in a fraction of a second”.
Peter Galassi would probably have it this way: There are two decisive moments at work here. First (decisive moment 1) there is the decisive event that is a decisive moment in itself whether observed, photographer or not. Roughly speaking, this event is the three people present in the photograph in their different bodily positions.
Then (decisive moment 2) there is the decisive moment in the photograph, meaning that a photographer was present during the decisive event, and he managed to take the photograph from a reasonable vantage point – at the right time. Roughly speaking, this is a combination of camera settings, photographers spot when shooting, and his more specific vantage point (high, low, et cetera).
Getting complicated? Yes, I think it is.
I will leave this note here. I need to discuss the continuation of this post with myself for a time before I finish it. The reason is that I am not quite convinced that this distinction is one that you want to do have at all. However, I am not sure about how to handle the argument. So you need to be patient. From a phenomenological point of view, the distinction could be problematic, hmm …
Then again Peter Galassi might be perfectly right in his statements.
Anyway, both books are incredible reads. Galassi’s book contains the best introduction to the world of Henri Cartier-Bresson that I have ever laid hands on. The pictures, and prints, are absolutely beautiful.
A decisive event, that’s what it is :-).
Have a good day.
Here are the books mentioned in this post. The numbers in brackets are references to pages in Galassi’s book.