a blog by knut skjærven

Decisive Moments: How Many Are There?

Sporting Life. © Knut Skjærven.

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 :-).

Don’t forget to visit Berlin Black and White and Photos of the Danes and Barebones Communication. There you will find much more of the same.

Have a good day.

Here are the books mentioned in this post. The numbers in brackets are references to pages in Galassi’s book.

Library Thing: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye.

Library Thing:  Peter Galassi: Henri Cartier-Bresson.


8 responses

  1. Jerome

    “A Proscenium theatre is a theatre space whose primary feature is a large frame.”

    I even agree with HCB, even if he used a 35mm camera which is the manifestation of a decidedly small frame :-).

    HCB and Galassi both had a firm grip on how to define an observed Decisive Moment; Knut—as I interpret the definition. Your writing in the P. and P web site point this up nicely.

    “Do you think that Professor Chan-fai Cheung, is reading this monologue?” He, as I may greatly profit from both the discussion and the accompanying imagery. I want him to weigh-in, too, His actual commentary could be informative.

    To answer your question, Knut, There are 3 decisive moments occurring in the reference scene–Sporting Life.

    “Are we in agreement?”

    January 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm

  2. Hmm, many thanks, Jerome.

    You pose interesting questions.

    Yes, I am sure that some scholars pop by this blog from time to time. I have no idea who exactly. I have not done much to promote this blog yet.

    I am not quite convinced that I even buy Peter Galassi’s idea of two decisive moments. And now you talk about three decisive moments? How would you, in few words, describe the three decisive moments. I understand the first two, but where do you find number three?


    January 24, 2011 at 11:27 pm

  3. Jim

    Hi Knut:

    Interesting point you have brought up here. IMO as a photographer and someone who has a tedency to break down things logically, there is only one decisive moment from a photographers point of view.

    Peter Galassi’s comments about having two desisive moments might be true in the sense that the event will happen whether your there or not as a photographer, to me is irelevant.

    If nobody is there to photograph the moment nobody knows it happened nor is there any record that it every happened. So not sure what the point he is trying to make or the significance of his point.

    HCB wrote that passage about the decisive moment,(which he actual despised later on in life) to sum up how he made his photographs. From what i have read, he was “forced to put the pen to paper”.

    However, to break down his own words about the 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”, you have two elements. Timing, composition (organization of forms)to create the significance of the event.

    I have seen many of his quotes and comments but what you really don’t hear much about as far as analysis of his images, is his detailed training as a painter (meaning what he was taught)or the techniques he uses in his images, overlapping root 4 rectangles, dynamic symetry etc. IMO composition was his ultimate expression in his photographs and nothing about his compositions is random or by accident.

    Its precise and well thought out. HCB was a master designer and without his knowledge of design he would not be considered the greatest photographer that ever lived. Its all pure design. In the interview with HCB and Charlie Rose, Richard Avedon says that “his images go beyond analysis”, but thats simply not true.

    You can break down his images and analyze them the same way you can break down a Degas, Picasso etc. And everything about his image techniques is taught to master painters. HCB doesn’t just fire of shots with his camera hoping for the best, he knows where all the gridlines fall. Andre Lhote even said that his skill in photography directly came from his training as a painter.

    To really get into HCB’s head you have to have an understanding of pure design. For me, and my interpretation of the decisive moment, its just a romantic and simplified way of explaining his method of approach to image making.

    As Kenyon Cox said “without design there maybe be representation, but there can be no art”

    HCB elevated photography to the level of art, and this is why.

    Great discussion.

    February 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm

  4. Many thanks, Jim, for this very clever and competent comment.

    Please give me a couple of days, and I will return with a comment to your comment. This is too important for me to deal with “on the fly” :-).

    I agree: great discussion.

    February 7, 2011 at 10:37 am

  5. By the way, Jim, did you see my review on the new book Kairos. You will find it on page 137. Just follow the link below.


    Have a good day :-).

    February 7, 2011 at 10:41 am

    • Jim

      Hey Knut, i have not seen this yet but will take a look tonight. Another great book is the “Zen of photography”.


      February 16, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      • jim

        Sorry, Meant the “Tao of photography”. Also find a copy of the artless art. If you get a chance also see the HCB interview with Charlie Rose. The only thing he really associates in that interview is sensitivity and geometry.He is very humble in the interview, think you will really like it.

        February 16, 2011 at 8:35 pm

  6. Hi Jim

    First of all let me apologize for the late comment. It was my intention and ambition to write more lengthy then I will do here, but I cannot find the time for that right now.

    I have two points. This comment deals with the first point: Influences.

    On influences I agree with you, but I might add HCB’s links to surrealism, as well. That influence seems to somewhat counterweight the rigidity of the early “design school”.

    I will also mention that the encounters with individual photographs seem to have helped bending his way, as well, e.g. the shot by Martin Munkácsi (running boys – 1930).

    Last, but not least, the influence of the Americans should be recognized. I am thinking of his connection to the Cosbys, the Powells and Julian Levy. I would guess that these relationships count for something in terms of shaping his style in early years.

    I am sure that there are many more :-).

    Let me come back to the two decisive moment in another post.


    February 16, 2011 at 10:27 am

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