Assignment 3.1–The Decisive Moment

Background Study

“More subtle was the discovery of that segment of time that Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment: decisive not because of the exterior event (the bat meeting the ball) but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order – because the image became, for an instant, a picture.”

‘The Photographer’s Eye’  John Szarkowski MOMA 1966

The concept behind the ‘decisive moment’ is not immediately clear.  It may appear that the crucial feature of the decisive moment photograph is the suspension of movement at a critical point.  In many such images movement is indeed apparant, not neccessarily through sign (blur) but through inference. We may see a number of people for example, captured at a moment in time, and deduce that they were in motion rather than all standing perfectly still and that the camera has been used to select a point when their configuration – relative to each other, to other elements within the frame and the frame itself – reveals a harmonious whole and it is this wholeness, this gestalt, which characterises the decisive moment.  This is what I understand by the term – an instant  when the photographer records a scene in which he observes a cohesive arrangement of forms.

I have noted a number of different opinions concerning Cartier-Bresson’s work,  read a couple of biographies, a short one by Clemont Cheroux and the fuller Assouline work.  Other writers such as Gaby Wood are of the opinion that his work is too contrived and perfect, lacking raw authenticity.  Some insist that he was a pivotal figure whose work has continuing relevance.

My view tends to align with the latter.  I have no objection to his privileged early life and don’t see this as an obstacle to creativity, innovation and authenticity.  I am impressed by his thorough and dedicated pursuit of his photographic endeavors through some pretty uncomfortable locations.  I concur with his assertions on the nature of the decisive moment – that the camera can pluck out an image in which there is a harmonious and pleasing arrangement of forms. And I believe that he singlemindedly developed his (self confessed) innate ability to recognise such moments and that this dedication is apparant in his images. 

Research Visit – observations

So I’m all for HCB and went to see his original prints at the Fondation Cartier Bresson in Paris.  It’s quite a long drive from Poitou-Charante where we’re living and on the way my partner and I discussed the value of seeing original photographs.  It may have been the interminable motorway but I was a bit doubtful; for 3D work there’s obvious value in experiencing work first hand, likewise for performance.  Paintings have a surface texture and brush or pallete-work aspect which cannot easily be apprehended online or in publications.  But photographs are essentially 2D representations – maybe there’s little to be gained by direct experience?  As it turned out the HCB visit modified my uncertainties.  Whilst it may not be quite as important foir 2D work, I certainly noticed pronounced differences in the original prints when compared to those I had seen in print or online.  The tonal range of the prints was a good deal narrower although the gradation was in many instances remarkable, conveying a subtlety which eluded the reproductions.  It would appear that reproductions have had the black and white points drawn out and the contrast bumped up for effect;  I have to say I prefer the originals because in their presentation of the image they appear more honest and unassuming, allowing the geometry and formal relationships within the frame to speak quietly.  HCB rarely uses deliberate selective focus it seems.  There are figures, human or animal in the vast majority of the photographs; in this way he is a photographer of life rather than landscape or architecture.

The Brief

Submit a set of between six and eight high-quality photographic prints on the theme
of the ‘decisive moment’. Street photography is the traditional subject of the decisive
moment, but it doesn’t have to be. Landscape may also have a decisive moment of
weather, season or time of day. A building may have a decisive moment when human
activity and light combine to present a ‘peak’ visual 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.

Approach to this assignment

I was sufficiently engaged with the original ‘decisive moment’ interpretation to take it at face value and use it as my theme and in any case I reckoned I had used up most of my brief-wrangling leeway on the “Heads” assignment.  I had considered another slant though; a particularly decisive moment is approaching in the UK  – the triggering of Article Fifty – which will affect a large number of British people who have made their home in European countries.  Quite a few of them live in my locality, Confolens in France and I have been toying with the idea of a portrait series involving these people but I considered this to be too involved and time consuming for this assignment. I’ll keep it in mind.

My print submission for the assignment is a set of photographs taken in Paris during the aforementioned exhibition visit.  They were made around and on the Seine, from a tourist boat.  Whilst on the river I soon realised that a theme was emerging, an angle on the Decisive Moment which plays with the concept but doesn’t completely distort it.  Cartier-Bresson’s technique often centred on finding a suitable spot and waiting:

“First of all the photographer looks for a background that seems to him to have an interesting form. Sometimes it is a wall running parallel to the foreground of the image, or  a space proportional to the  graphic lines already supplied.   Then he waits for one or more living, moving creatures – children, a man, a dog – to take their place within this constellation of forms in what he calls a simultaneous coalition.  Thus one e;lement of the picture’s geometry is premeditated, while the other – in fact the more important element – comes about by sheer chance.  Contrary to what one might expect then, Cartier Bresson’s compositions have not been carefully thought out in advance but are seized instantaneously as a result of an intuitive awareness.

Peter Galassi, quoted in Chéroux, C. et al. (2008) Henri Cartier-Bresson.

It occurred to me that whilst enjoying our river cruise I was making an odd inversion of that technique; I was stationary but on a moving boat with the world and its occupants unravelling past me like figures on a Mobius strip (the trip was circular).  I could observe them against a continuous background as a series of instants offrered up by the boat’s travel.  It was late afternoon and although this would hardly have been of concern to HCB the light was striking, making shadows an integral part of many compositions.

Reflection on the approach and method

I would have liked to have gone round the Seine again (and again) but we had other sights to see. I have noticed that although it often feels as if I have taken a lot of photographs it turns out that I wish I had taken more.  I think this may well be because later, when reviewing the images, a different perspective emerges and I wish I’d spent more time  developing one or more aspects.  It’s an idea and approach which would probably reward further work so I’ll keep it as an open project if we return to Paris.

The prints were made on a simple Epson R300 using refillable cartridges containing five dilutions of carbon pigment ink.  The printer is controlled by a raster image processor (RIP) called QuadtoneRIP, developed my Roy Harrington ( The program allows the use of third-party inks (or in my case home-brewed) to print archival monochrome images with no metamerism on matt papers.  When the system works well it produces excellent quality prints with deep rich blacks and smooth tonal gradation.  Keeping it working is tricky because the desktop Epson printers were not made to work in this way and have to be coaxed into compliance.  Apart from the fine quality attainable a worthwhile benefit is that ink costs are negligible.  Carbon dispersions are readily available from commercial producers (who are often curious to see their product used to make photographic prints) and the additional chemistry needed for the dilutions is very basic.

 Assessment Criteria

In considering how this assignment shapes up against the Criteria I note that:

  • Technically the photographs are correctly exposed, sharp; the compositions range from disappointing to quite good.
  • I have communicated the idea I was working on – the disposition of figures on the embankment and their relationships to the shadows they make.  The background helps with this, being shallow, because the shadows often fall visibly on the wall rather than on the ground
  • Presentation is good – I intended b/w prints made using Quadtone RIP and hextone carbon inks on archival matt paper. (see section in learning log)
  • The approach is inventive, certainly different and would bear further exploration.
  • My research, reading and visit to the HCB foundation all informed my understanding of the Decisive Moment and influenced the way I produced the work.

Web versions of the submitted prints


 Contact sheets

Photographer Alex webb, himself a Magnum member, continues the tradition in this well-observed and anticipated image:

Alex Webb, Mexico 1978-2007




Assouline, P. (2005) Henri Cartier-Bresson: A biography: With 25 illustrations. London: Thames & Hudson.(Assouline, 2005)

Cartier-Bresson, H (1952) Images à la Sauvette Paris, Teriade

Chéroux, C. et al. (2008) Henri Cartier-Bresson. London: Thames & Hudson.(Chéroux et al., 2008)

Wood, Gaby (2014) Nothing to do with me, London Review of Books Vol. 36 No 11 pages 23-25

Szarkowski, J. (1984) The photographer’s eye. (2nd ed.) New York, Museum of Modern Art: New York, Museum of Modern Art; [1966].