The Decisive Moment

The idea of the decisive moment is underpinned by the notion that this is something that emerges from the scene, i.e. it happens independently of the viewer. Magnum stressed the ‘moment’ as being crucial to the interpretation and communication of the image.

Henri Cartier Bresson

It could be argued, though, that the decisive moment is effectively created by the observer who decides that it is in some way ‘decisive’. Moments only become ‘decisive’ through the act of observing and analysing.

What is ‘decisive’ depends on interpretation and meaning. Different moments of coincidence and contrast have different meanings.

There are also generally a continuum of decisive moments, corresponding to a multitude of observers. Different observers will produce different decisive moments.

The concept of the ‘moment’ raises questions about the photographer’s motivation and integrity.

  • Is it acceptable to engineer this moment or should a photographer wait to capture it in its honesty and purity?


Simon Bainbridge 2011 Hereford Photography Festival

Graham Clarke, The Photograph (pp.145–87). Discussion of how Cartier-Bresson, Werner Bischof, Robert Capa and others put their personal style into an image, for example in Capa’s war photography. ’the moment’ and social class as a motivating issue for the documentary photographer.

Importance of technology

Getting the moment is still a challenge for modern photographers but current practice is based on portability, with a return to the smaller but very high-quality digital camera. Much of Magnum’s style and the numerous ‘moments’ they captured were delivered through a technology breakthrough – the Leica 35mm rangefinder camera. The Leica gave flexibility and the ability to be inconspicuous, unlike the full- and half-plate cameras that had been used before and which involved setting up a tripod and a wood or metal 5×4 camera. Quick and instant, the Leica was made to capture the moment. The camera itself changed the photographers’ practice and delivered an ability to move quickly and get in close. (Capa later used Contax and Rollei cameras, but not until after the Spanish Civil War.)

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