The Decisive Moment • Tutor feedback and responses

I have had my tutor feedback on Assignment 3 (The Decisive Moment). No rework required (phew!) but we may have a conceptual difference about what the phrase ‘decisive moment’ means. But hey, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’ (course notes, 72) so this is maybe a topic to be developed in future postings.

Feedback here, as a Word document

The substantive text of the feedback is presented below in blue text. My comments and initial responses are in black.

Overall comments

The work presented for this assignment demonstrates a clear understanding of technique and composition. These skills have been applied to the Image making process and have been analyzed to ascertain the most appropriate methods of presentation. There has been good research carried out to underpin your approach to the work and this has been carried through to your reflections upon it.

Thank you.

You have interpreted this assignment in relation to Cartier Bresson and from your own research it is apparent that you are aware of other ideas in making images and also of critical views regarding the concept of the decisive moment.

The images that you have submitted for the decisive moment project indicate a reaction to this genre of photography. In the context of the work of Cartier Bresson the concept of the decisive moment is humanist in nature rooted in the recording of people and their activities. The work that you have submitted could have perhaps been better described as the frozen moment in that your choice of subject matter was capturing sporting moments. The work that you have produced is somewhat static in nature whereas the decisive moment as practiced by Bresson is about movement.

At this stage in my studies, I am not sure that I recognise a difference. My take on the ‘decisive moment’ is that it is the photographer, not the moment that is decisive. We take a subject in motion and isolate a moment of that motion, which will necessarily freeze the action.

You have discussed in your learning log the original phrase used by Bresson “it references the French phrase ‘vendre à la sauvette’ meaning unauthorized street trading or street peddling”. Another translation of this is in haste, hastily, furtively and “image a la sauvette” is generally taken to mean an image taken on the run.

I was aware of the interpretations ‘… on the run’ or ‘… on the sly’ but found them rather strange in a book title. I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ when I came across “vendre à la sauvette” which has an obvious parallel with street photography.

You quote Bresson again “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.” This moment encapsulates not only the subject but also the meaning inherent in the image. As such the viewer is invited to contemplate the social, cultural and environmental symbols within the image.

I feel that in this work there is perhaps a barrier that prevented you from fully engaging with the concept and that this may be down to the very nature of the subject matter which is working against you and also that you were anchored to a specific spot.

I agree with this. Given freedom of movement, there would have been other photo opportunities on the water (upwind of the start, mark rounding) and on land (preparing boats, event briefing, launching) which would have allowed me to present a more rounded view of the event.

The genre of sports photography can of course produce many decisive moments and these are usually represented by the struggle of the individual within the context of the activity. The limitations in this genre from the photographers point of view is that they are not always able to be close to the subject and the lack of intimacy often leads to the recording of an event rather than any effort to interpret it.

To get close to the subject would interfere with it and, therefore, change it. I could ‘get close’ only when the competitors got close to me. Incidentally, with sailing there are two levels of ‘individual’; there is the boat and crew as a competitive unit, and there are the individual sailors working to control the boat. I tried to show both.

You researched in some depth the decisive moment concept that has led you into a questioning mode and to reconsider Bresson’s influence within the context of contemporary practice and the cult of personality that has grown up around him. It is worth bearing in mind that photography is prone to fads and fashions just as any other medium and that ultimately you must find the direction that is true for you. There are reassessments of this practice and its relevance within contemporary photography. The writing of Zouhair Ghazzal is worth looking at for an alternative point of view and a quote from the American photographer Les Krims that may be apt to a lot of contemporary practice.

“ I am not a Historian, I create History. These images are anti-decisive moment. It is possible to create any image one thinks of; this possibility, of course, is contingent on being able to think and create. The greatest potential source of photographic imagery is the mind.” 

Two names to check out. Ghazzal is mentioned briefly in the course notes.

In relation to Bresson it is worth recalling that he was one of the founders of Magnum and that this agency’s purpose was to sell photographers work. The creation of myths in no way hinders this purpose

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

The technical quality and presentation of the work submitted is good.

The images submitted record part of a sporting event. They suffer from distancing the viewer from the subject due to the fact that the photographer is not close to the subject. As a record of a sporting event they perhaps have to be considered more within that genre and as such they are good images that fulfill their purpose. You have assessed these images and your own criticisms are apt particularly in relation to the images that have the subject turning away from the viewer. The aficionados of sailing would find these images relevant to their own particular interests but how do they impact upon the general viewer?

I hope that the general viewer will be engaged by the image with two boats racing toward camera from a turning mark and, possibly the closeups. I agree that the others may be of more specialist interest.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

There was quite a lot to cover in this assignment and it is apparent that there has been a focused growth in your response to developing your ideas from the brief to the finished work. It is clear that you engaged with a number of ideas in carrying out the exercises prior to formulating your final piece. The research into the work of other photographers and critical reading is good and this has opened up new perceptions and an engagement with new ideas. However there may be a need to reflect upon your relationship with this material. How far has this research influenced your thinking and your work?

It has clarified my thinking about the decisive moment (had I given it much serious thought before enrolling on this course)

It is right to reconsider Bresson’s influence within the context of contemporary practice and the cult of personality that has grown up around him. The significance of Roland Barthes essay Death of the Author refers to this personalizing of work “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.”

I have downloaded ‘Death of the Author’ for future review, and seen a short YouTube explanation of it. The question of whether it is the photographer or the viewer who has the more valid interpretation of an image is parallel to Matthew’s question in his Assignment 1 feedback about whether it is the photographer or the viewer who is the voyeur in the case of candid photography. One for a future posting.

I would like you to have developed in depth your critique of Paul Graham’s work within the context theoretical and critical reading.

Tricky. I considered the work shallow and pointless, therefore difficult to critique in depth – there isn’t any. I gave my reasons in the original posting.

I was interested in your comments “My view on ‘spray and pray’ is that it is a way of delaying a decision. In principle, it allows us to select a ‘decisive moment’ post-hoc and in post-production. In practice, it encourages laziness at the point of shooting and involves lot of work in editing”

Perhaps it might be interesting to consider that new technology has freed us from the potential tyranny of the decisive moment and that it allows us the reflective ability to work on and develop our images.

I wonder if it has replaced one tyranny with another, the need to spend more time in selecting and editing than hitherto.

We would not consider it strange that a painter would make many sketches of a subject before attempting to finalize it in a painting and if necessary return to it many times. Bresson himself may have found this need for reflection when he abandoned photography in 1968 and returned to painting.

I agree, and that is the message that I took from study of the Magnum contact sheets album.

Overall this assignment has evidenced a good broad scope of research and reading supplemented with exhibition visits.

Thank you.

Suggested reading/viewing

Henri Cartier-Bresson “Pen, Brush and Camera”

Death of the Author – Roland Barthes

Both downloaded for future review.

Apart from the above I will not suggest too much specific reading at this point as you are already well underway in this area. I would like you in the learning log for the next assignment to select and refer to texts/photographers that have had an impact upon the work and the development of your ideas.

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