Exercise 5.3 -Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare

Unfortunately, this photograph is no longer on permanent display at the V&A. It is in a study collection, available by appointment only, so I was unable to view it on a recent visit. However, there are numerous reproductions in print and online. This is one of the better examples.

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source: pinterest

This is a curious image, not one of HCB’s best – I prefer the keen observation and humour of his 1937 photos from of the crowds at the coronation of George VI that were exhibited in Strange and Familiar. It is not even that good technically, with its motion blur, clogged-up shadows and heavy grain. However it is pretty much the image that defines ‘the decisive moment’.

Look at the action. The man is crossing a large puddle or flooded yard. He is the first to have come that way for a while – the water is almost entirely unrippled – and has taken two or three rapid steps (we know they were rapid because the water has not rippled far yet) along the makeshift ladder and launched himself off the end.

HCB catches the action with the man’s foot about a centimetre above the water – only a few milliseconds before touching down and causing another ripple or a big splash to destroy the pristine surface. What happens next? Will he keep his feet dry or will the water overtop his shoes? We don’t know how deep it is. Sometimes I imagine a ‘Vicar of Dibley’ chest-deep puddle.

If that were all there is to the image it would be interesting enough, but there is a Barthesian ‘punctum’, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. Not immediately obvious until one has spent a bit of time viewing the image is the figure in the background poster mirroring the man’s leap. Was he conscious of it? Probably not. Was HCB conscious of it at the time of taking the shot, waiting for the man to poise himself in imitation? We don’t know, but he would have seen it when examining his contacts – and had the genius to print it.

HCB tells us (in L’amour tout court) that this was a lucky shot, grabbed blind through the railings. To some extent that is true (he cannot have timed his shutter release to the millisecond) but I am reminded of the great golfing put-down (variously attributed to Gary Player, Tom Watson or Ben Hogan) ‘Yes, it was a lucky shot, and the more I practice the luckier I get.’

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(In)decisive Moments

Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log.

I start this posting agnostic on the question of “the decisive moment”: whether it is fundamental principle of photography, a cliche or just irrelevant. Partly it is because the concept is slippery to get hold of and partly because I am not convinced that HCB intended the phrase to have the importance later authors have ascribed to it. For instance, the phrase appears nowhere in O’Byrne’s film ‘L’amour tout court‘ (O’Byrne 2001).

The phrase first appears in a photographic context as the title of a 10-page essay forming the preface to HCB’s 1952 book ‘Images à la Sauvette‘. The original book title does not translate easily into English (it references the French phrase ‘vendre à la sauvette’ meaning unauthorised street trading or street peddling (Reverso) which looks like a good parallel with street photography) so the American translator and publisher adopted the essay title ‘The Decisive Moment‘ for the entire book. (Assouline 2005, 140)

From then onwards, Cartier-Bresson was established as the photographer of the decisive moment. Thus are legends born. The effect was to blur his image in the United States, for by radicalising his ideas in so restrictive a manner, the description had fixed him once and for all (Assouline ibid.)

As with my posting on originality, it is necessary to heed Humpty Dumpty (as reported by Dodgson and collected in Gardner 1970, 269) on the meaning of words. It is possible to create or to escape from a problem by the way we define our key words.

HCB describes, rather than defines the concept:

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. (Cartier-Bresson, reported by Fotografia 2015)

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. (Cartier-Bresson, ibid.)

In L’amour tout court (part 2, 2:11 and 4:30), HCB tells us that form and geometry are everything. His ‘decisive moment’ then is the moment at which the elements of the image come into a formal composition and he decides to press the button.

For me, the best illustration from popular culture is the old Channel 4 station idents, collected here on YouTube.

My favourite example is at 1:59 because it could be a real-world situation, not invoking levitation. Of course, these clips are not a perfect analogy because the scene and the motion are pre-defined to create an artificial ‘decisive moment’. However, they illustrate the point that there is an instant when everything comes together correctly.

Eric Kim takes a similar view and tells us ‘This moment is fleeting, meaning that once you miss that half of a second to capture that moment, it is gone forever. You can never recreate the same circumstances in terms of location and people… Capturing an image half a second too late or early can greatly influence the outcome of an image.‘ (Kim s.d.)

Derrick Price describes HCB’s technique thus:, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson lay in wait for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image which he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing. This he called ‘the decisive moment’ a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder‘ (in Wells 2000, 98)

All of these descriptions converge on the idea that ‘the decisive moment’ is the moment that the photographer decides is right to take the photograph. While this is a useful idea to have in the back of one’s mind, it is also a circular definition analogous to, in other fields, Darwin’s  concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ (where ‘the fittest’ are defined as those most likely to survive) or Lord Atkin’s ‘neighbour principle in Donogue v Stevenson (1932) which is the foundation for the law of negligence (paraphrased: I owe a duty of care to my neighbour; my neighbour is a person to whom I owe a duty of care)

Therefore, in my opinion, ‘the decisive moment’ is not so much a cliché as a tautology. In the example given on p.69 of the course notes, the unknown photographer’s 1953 image is poor not because it is derivative but because it is badly-executed.

Michael Freeman (2011, 146) notes that some photographers have challenged ‘the decisive moment as not being relevant to their way of shooting, citing Garry Winogrand’s ‘indecisive moment’ and Arnold Newman’s comment that ‘there are many moments’

He also (2007, 98) notes that the concept is not unique to street photography and the decisive ‘moment’ might play out over minutes or hours.

One modern debate arises from digital technology and the ease of taking multiple images in ‘machine-gun mode’ at effectively zero cost, rather than pre-planning and exposing valuable film at precisely the right instant. Darlene Hildebrandt (2014) dubs this technique ‘Spray and Pray’.  She prefers to get it right in camera but quotes situations where ‘spray and pray’ has an advantage: very fast movement, too quick for normal reactions, or where the intention is to create a sequence.

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.

Incidentally, Freeman (2011, 146) accuses Winogrand of doing the same kind of thing in film, shooting ‘haphazardly and in great quantity’ and leaving behind 8000 unprocessed rolls of film awaiting a selection process.

The course notes also refer to ‘The Present‘ a work of Paul Graham, as reviewed by Colin Pantall (2012) as being an example of ‘the decisive moment’ missing the point of our contemporary situation.

Pantall tells us ‘And what he wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.’ but he appears to consider this a good thing.

I agree that Graham’s images are the antithesis of the decisive moment and, frankly, I find them rather pointless. In the examples given in the review we see street scenes with no particular composition (or even attempt to hold the camera straight), two or three examples of each taken at random times with random passers-by. The big concept appears to be conning the viewer into believing there is some significance in doing a ‘spot-the-differences’ exercise.

In summary, and returning to the original question,  I believe ‘the decisive moment’ is a central concept to photography, but one that each photographer subtly redefines in his own image (if you will excuse the pun).

References

Assouline, P. (2005) Henri Cartier-Bresson: A biography [English translation] London: Thames and Hudson

Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye Lewes:Ilex

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Vision Lewes:Ilex

Fotografia (2015) The Decisive Moment as Henri Cartier-Bresson meant it [online] at: http://fotografiamagazine.com/decisive-moment-henri-cartier-bresson/

Gardner, M (1970) Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. Revised edition. London: Penguin

Hildebrandt, D. (2014) Do You Wait for the Decisive Moment or do You Spray and Pray? [online] at: http://www.digitalphotomentor.com/do-you-wait-for-the-decisive-moment-or-do-you-spray-and-pray/ (accessed 13 June 2016)

Kim, E. (s.d.) How to Master “The Decisive Moment” [online] at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2010/07/01/“how-to-masterthe-decisive-moment” (accessed 13 June 2016)

O’Byrne, R.(2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson L’amour tout court (with English subtitles) [online] at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF (accessed 6 June 2016)

Pantall, C. (2012) The Present [online] at: http://www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2012/05_17_The_Present.cfm

Reverso.(s.d.) ‘sauvette’ translation. [online] at: http://dictionary.reverso.net/french-english/sauvette (accessed 13 June 2016)

Wells, L (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge

YouTube (2006) Channel 4 idents [online] at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CVdllN67OQ (accessed 10 June 2016)

L’amour tout court

Raphaël O’Byrne’s film/interview L’amour tout court can be found on YouTube with English subtitles and split into five parts. Because of a copyright issue with part of the soundtrack, parts 4 and 5 are muted, but we are still able to hear Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (“HCB”) voice in parts 1-3. The film can be found as a single entity but the whole soundtrack is muted.

In the film we meet HCB as an old man, age 92 or 93, reminiscing and perhaps rambling a bit (this could be the result of editing) over a full life. His speech is slow and he is occasionally vacant or on the verge of tears as if a memory is particularly hard to reach, or painful. An example is the assassination of Gandhi, minutes after HCB had been discussing death imagery in a photograph with him.

Although one of the greats of photography, Assouline (2005) sees HCB as an artist, first and last, who expressed himself with a camera for a time. In the film (O’Byrne 2001, part 3 3:00) HCB tells us that he has not taken a photograph for a long time and prefers to draw. However, much of the same principles apply, “You look, you transcribe” and you have to know where to stop, where any more would detract from the image (HCB in O’Byrne 2001, part 3)

It is in parts 1 and 2 that we learn most about HCB’s philosophy of photography, through a series of quotes:

Most of them don’t look. They press the button… (part 1, 1:27)

This is about seeing and composing the image before taking it. HCB composed in the viewfinder and instructed that his images should be presented without cropping.

It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters… You have to be receptive, that’s all… Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance. If you want it you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens (part 2, 0:55)

HCB is being modest. I am reminded of the quotation (attributed by Gary Player to Jerry Barber) “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. HCB had trained his powers of observation; elsewhere in part 2 we have a third-party description (Yves Bonnefoy?) of the taking of a photograph of children in a covered square. The narrator had not even noticed children there; HCB snapped the image as he walked, without slowing down. While others are distracted or unobservant, HCB was on the lookout and ready to react.

I go for form more than light. Form comes first.(part 2, 2:11)

Sensitivity, intuition, sense of geometry. You have it or you don’t. Even now, that’s all that interests me (part 2, 4:30)

HCB’s images are composed (possibly ‘designed’ is a better word) in the viewfinder, which is why he would not crop them post-capture.

In parts 4 and 5, we learn of the influence of the Far East and Buddhism. In parallel, Assouline (2005, 127) records that a great influence on HCB’s approach was a copy of ‘Zen and the art of archery‘ presented to him by Georges Braque on D-Day 1944. This approach is seen in the way that HCB could apparently fade into the background so that his subjects didn’t see him, even at emotional times such as the Japanese actor’s funeral.

Overall a fascinating insight into the man and his philosophy. I watched it twice and was inspired to read Assouline’s biography as a result.

References

Assouline, P. (2005) Henri Cartier-Bresson: A biography [English translation] London: Thames and Hudson

O’Byrne, R.(2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson L’amour tout court (with English subtitles) [online] at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF