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.


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.’

Assignment 3 – random further thoughts (and a decisive moment of my own)

In a previous posting, I concluded that the ‘decisive moment’ is a tautology; it is the moment that the photographer decides the timing and composition is right to press the shutter button. It is not the moment that is decisive, but the photographer.

I also discussed ‘spray and pray’ and concluded that it was a way of deferring that decision until post-processing. Except in fast-moving situations, I considered it a lazy way to work. It is therefore slightly worrying to see how much I used burst-fire in each of my three possible sets for Assignment 3 (regatta, white water or pub gig). In my defence, most bursts were of only 2 or 3 images, rather than a full ‘machine-gun’ treatment.

With a deadline looming, it is time to decide which set to move forward with as my assignment. I have decided to work with the regatta for several reasons. It is the subject matter that I am most comfortable with; as a racing sailor myself, I was able to anticipate developing situations better than with the other two sets. It is also the set that has the greatest variety in situations and subject matter.

The next stage is to select the final images. There is good guidance in the literature.

Michael Freeman (2010,156) in a chapter titled “Interactive composition” gives a case study and describes the process of exploring a scene to find the best composition and timing. Although the image finally selected in that case was the last shot (no.37) he notes that this is by no means always the case.

The Magnum contact sheets book (Lubben (ed) 2014) is a fascinating read – and will be the subject of a review – which highlights iconic images and presents them together with the contact sheet and sometimes the photographer’s notes. This gives a good insight into the process of editing, although I sometimes find myself disagreeing with the editor’s choice.

I hope to live up to a comment by HCB, “Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share” (Cartier Bresson, quoted in Lubben 2014, 18)


Freeman, M. (2010) The Photographer’s Mind Lewes:Ilex

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

Decisive moments at a pub gig

As a change from water-based activities, I photographed a performance by a local veteran-rock band in a public bar. This brought its own set of challenges, some of which are illustrated by this image. The challenges fall into three main types.


Space: The venue is not designed for performances, so the band is crammed into a small space at one end. The two musicians in the back row (drummer and bass guitar) are obscured by the front row. The bar itself was crowded, so I had limited freedom to move around (I eventually found three vantage points I could move between without annoying too many of the audience) It is also necessary to consider the visual clutter of music stands, mikes and speakers.

Lighting: There is no ‘stage lighting’ and the general pub lighting is rather dim and designed for visibility rather than effect. The singer/lead guitarist stands below and slightly behind a ceiling light, there is bright light on a white painted alcove at the rear left and, for the early part of the evening, there is light from a window. All three sources have different colour temperatures. I dealt with this partly by avoiding the alcove and window where possible and partly by tone control and partial desaturation in Lightroom. The camera is a Pentax K-1, mostly used at ISO25600 which I regard as magic in comparison with the low-light ‘performance’ of my previous cameras.

Subject: It was necessary to watch the performers carefully to pick my decisive moments. Although they tend to stand in one place, there is a lot of body movement. Facial expressions change rapidly, and a singer can make some rather grotesque expressions. Also, for some reason, musicians tend to shut their eyes while performing.

In this set of images, I have isolated each performer in a sort of environmental portrait. Exposures were between 1/15s and 1/50s at apertures between f/2.8 and f/5.6. The most difficult capture was the drummer as I had to wait for the front-row performers to move out of the way and give me a clear shot. In attempting to find a typical pose, I had to observe and analyse each man’s movements to decide what constitutes a ‘typical pose’, then to anticipate and shoot it.

Of course, the whole point of a band is that the musicians are performing together. The final set of images in this posting each show two or more band members and, in my opinion, convey the atmosphere of the evening.


Decisive moments in white water

A camera club outing to Lee Valley White Water Park gave me an opportunity for another sport/action set. On the day, the only activity scheduled was white-water rafting as team-building for a large accountancy firm. Because the water channel and weirs are artificial, there are set-piece dramatic opportunities, although viewpoints are some distance from the water and there is a lot of background and foreground clutter.

Images in this set were made with a Pentax K-1 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Most of the images were shot between f/2.8 and f/4 to use shallow depth-of-field to concentrate on the subject and reduce the clutter.

I started with the preparation and briefing area, which is surrounded by a first floor terrace, giving almost all-round viewing access. The principal problems are that there are just too many elements and that the predominant colour scheme is red, which does not fit with the predominant blue of events on the water.

This set illustrates some of the problems to be avoided. Visual clutter is noted above, best dealt with in most cases by tight framing. In places , the crews are instructed to hold their paddles vertical, which gives boring shapes, not as dynamic as when they are actively paddling. Where two rafts are close together, there is confusion of shapes. Water splashing, despite being the whole point of the activity can also obscure the boats and crews.

This sequence, shot in burst-fire mode, shows a boat passing through a weir section. The ‘decisive moments’ are shortly before the plunge, with expressions of anticipation and anxiety on the faces, or as the boat emerges from the spray. However, at the end, the crew are more randomly arranged which is often not photogenic. In the two middle images I feel that the white water hides too many important elements. On examination of the whole day’s contacts it appears that the bow of the boat is particularly important.

Here, I am exploring the effect of focal length to give some variety. Broadly, there are three ‘scales’ of zoom which seem to work: (a) filling the frame with a single boat, (b) framing very tightly to concentrate on the faces of some crew members or (c) showing a complementary but blurred ‘wider picture’ background. If I select this theme for my eventual assignment, then I will use a variety of framing.

Small changes between images can make a difference. In the second image the boat is oriented pointing directly to camera, which shows the helmsman/instructor to advantage. Also in the second image, the starboard front crew member has started to actively paddle and has a more determined expression.

The activity carries managed risks. In this case, a boat had nearly overturned and has spilt most of its crew. The sequence shows them in the water near the boat, and then being swept away downstream. The large image is the best compositionally as the boat forms a strong diagonal and appears to ‘enclose’ the people in the water. In the later images, they are more disconnected.


This image illustrates the difference between ‘peak of the action’ and ‘decisive moment’. The helmsman has been catapulted clear of the boat and is at maximum height. However, the crew have not noticed, so there is no reaction, and the airborne figure’s face is turned away from camera.


This is my favourite image of the day and is a real ‘decisive moment’ as all of the composition elements have come together well. The boat is emerging from a splash  with several faces visible and reacting. The paddles make a good arrangement and the helmsman is upright, attentive and clearly in control.

I believe this venue shows promise for Assignment 3 but I do not have enough variety of images. If I am to use it, I will need to revisit when there is white-water kayaking scheduled and combine the two activities into a single series.

Decisive moments at a regatta

Over the past weekend, I was Race Officer at a regatta for Shearwater catamarans at my local sailing club (Isle of Sheppey SC). Seeing the possibility of an unusual (although not exactly unconventional) theme for the ‘decisive’ moment assignment, I took my camera along and finished the weekend with about 1000 images. I used a combination of single-shots and short ‘machine-gun’ sequences (usually 3-5 in a burst)

Let’s be honest, most of them are rubbish for reasons discussed in this posting but I will be able to find the required 6-8 images if I decide to use this event for my assignment. I have posted a subset in a Facebook album.

The main issue is the viewpoint. I spent most of my time on the committee boat, anchored at a fixed point, the start/finish line, but could not capture starts or finishes because I was otherwise engaged. Likewise, because it takes an hour or so of preparation to set up the racecourse, flagstaff etc. I was not ashore to photograph the competitors setting up their boats and launching, which would have given plenty of off-water decisive moments to complement the on-water action.

For instance, in this sequence early in the day, raising a mast has echoes of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the US flag being raised on Iwo Jima. The decisive moment in the sequence is the third image, before the mast is secured; the man is still holding it up, the woman clearly has the forestay in two hands with good arm positions, and there is eye-contact between them. Unfortunately, the background is cluttered.

Practical issues on the water (see below) include the rolling motion of the boat, the fact that much of the action takes place up to a mile away, and that there are assorted ropes and other obstructions.

Action immediately after a start has all the competitors moving away, and stern views are usually not as dynamic as bow-on shots of a boat moving toward the camera. Sometimes (larger image) it can work well, in this case making a sort of study of concentration.

It is possible to get good views of competitors closer to the committee boat. For the purposes of this assignment I would eschew single-boat ‘portraits’ and action images where the boats overlap too much, causing confusion of shapes.

There is a length of course, of about 200m downwind of the committee boat where there is good dynamic action and plenty of opportunity for decisive moments. Burst-fire or ‘machine-gun’ mode shooting is useful because the relative positions of the boats changes quickly, as do sailors’ positions and eye-lines. Compositionally, it is better for both sailors to be looking forward, in the direction the boat is moving. In practice, a good sailor will also spend a lot of time looking at his sails and at the tactical situation with other boats, or checking the precise moment to tack for a mark. These five images were taken in a single burst.

My favourite is the large image (which I have cropped slightly to remove the third boat) because of the eye-line and apparent concentration of the crew of the leading boat and the position of the trailing boat relative to the leading helmsman’s head and the trapeze wires.

I believe this event shows promise, but there are other ideas and outings to explore before firming up on the assignment.

Assignment 3 – first thoughts (rambles?)

Submit a set of between six and eight high-quality photographic prints on the theme of the ‘decisive moment’. … You may choose to create imagery that supports the tradition of the ‘decisive moment’, or you may choose to question or invert the concept. Your aim isn’t to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series there should be a linking theme, whether it’s a location, an event or a particular period of time. … This will be a personal response as there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course. You’ll find it useful to explore the photographers and works referenced in Project 3, if you haven’t already done so.

This is going to be the most challenging assignment to date, mainly because ‘the decisive moment’ is a slippery concept that we all define in our own way. My view from a previous posting is that it is a circular concept: the decisive moment is the moment I decide to press the button, for whatever reason. Ideally, it is because I have found a composition that I like in the viewfinder. Therefore, I am not convinced that there is a ‘theme of the decisive moment’.

Still, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’, so I have some licence so long as the result is defensible. My first thoughts:

  • I want to avoid ‘street photography’ because (a) the link between ‘street’ and ‘decisive moment’ is a bit too clichéd and (b) I’m not particularly good at it.
  • The image elements have to be in motion, or at least changing, in order for a decisive moment to emerge.
  • I need an element of control or predictability because I have to produce a linked set rather than a group of random one-offs.

My first opportunity and attempt will come this weekend when I will be officiating at a sailing regatta, from the committee boat, which will give me a theme, movement and developing situations.

I have looked at many of the photographers referenced in Part 3 (there are not many in Project 3 alone) as I have worked through the exercises. My thumbnail reactions are:

  • Eadweard Muybridge: good analysis of movement but a basically mechanical/automated approach to exposure. Can any of his moments be considered ‘decisive’ if the shutter was activated by tripwire rather than by hand?
  • Harold Edgerton: single high-speed images show normally-invisible ‘decisive moments’ but still mechanically triggered (or incredibly lucky)
  • Eyoalha Baker: ‘Jump for joy’ images are ‘peak of the action’ rather than decisive moments
  • Jeff Wall: staged reproductions of ‘decisive moments’, which could be said to be cheating.
  • Robert Capa: war and street photographer. Decisive moments and not afraid of a bit of unavoidable blur. Panning, as in the Barcelona air-raid image, is worth considering to simplify backgrounds.
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto: long exposures smudge any suggestion of ‘decisive moment’
  • Michael Wesley: ultra-long exposures, avoiding the decisive moment altogether
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: forever linked with the phrase ‘decisive moment’ by a lazy translator. Skilled at finding formal compositions in messy situations.
  • Paul Graham: Nothing here for me. Randomness presented as something meaningful.

My inspirations are likely to come from photojournalists such as HCB and Capa, or from sports photographers.

(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).


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)