The Decisive Moment: My Thoughts (Research Point)

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. You’ll come back to this in Assignment Three.


I have struggled with this because when I first read the “definition” of “The Decisive Moment” as described by Henri Cartier-Bresson, I instinctively felt it was too narrow and whilst I admire Bresson’s work I do not necessarily agree with the amount of luck or intuition required to capture these shots.  In fact it seems that Bresson himself “set up” the shot if only by identifying the frame in which he wished to capture a “moment” and then waiting hours for it to appear!  To me the “decisive moment” in a literal definition is something that is in the moment and as such may well be missed because it is fleeting.

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.

– Henri Cartier-Bresson,Foreword,” The Decisive Moment

Bresson made the term famous because of his ability to capture such shots and in doing so influenced photojournalism in the 20th century.

However, Ghazzi in an article suggests that the term is “more a cliche than a reality even for it’s creator”.  He goes on to say however, the decisive moment cannot be ignored because of the impact it has had on photojournalism.  The decisive moment is a small and unique opportunity for a photographer to produce interesting and sometimes humorous moments through the lens. (accessed 25.2.2015)

There is nothing in this world that does not have
a decisive moment.  Cardinal de Retz (b.1613 – d.1679)

Source: The Decisive Moment: Understanding Convergence | FYNN[i]

The concept of the decisive moment is difficult to understand as it can be interpreted in a number of ways and the difficulty in capturing the elements that Bresson describes can be a mammoth task with a lot of luck thrown in.  For this reason some question the literal translation of what is meant by the decisive moment.

Eric Kim[ii], in his zonezero blog “Debunks the Myth of the Decisive Moment”  (accessed 28.2.2015)

In his blog Kim, publishes the contacts sheets of several of Bresson’s shoots which show that he did not just turn up at a location and capture the precise moment in one shot.  It appears from the contact sheets that he took several shots of the scene from different perspectives taking many shots to get that iconic one. This is also the view of  John Barbiaux[iii] in his article Setting the trap for Great Shots. (accessed 28.2.2015)

Where he too has studied the Magnum Photos contact sheets and concludes that Cartier-Bresson would wait at the perfect set up and the perfect subject to enter the luck involved. scene.  Barbiaux also suggests that choosing the right scene reduces the amount of luck involved.

A google search for Henri Cartier-Bresson contact sheets revealed that many of the Magnum and other photographers used this method to choose the decisive moment. (accessed 28.2.2015).

With that in mind I was more comfortable with the concept.

[i] Fynn S (2012) “The Decisive Moment : Understanding Convergence”, SudioFynn  September 2012

[ii] Kim Eric (2014), Debunking the “Myth of the Decisive Moment””Eric Kim Street Photography Blog , May 23, 2014

[iii] John Barbiaux (2015),  Street Photography.


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