The Decisive Moment, Explained

Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes the precise moment. We play with things that disappear and that, once disappeared, it is impossible to revive. For us, what disappears, disappears forever: hence our anguish and also the essential originality of our trade.”

“What comes out of that camera is no stranger to the economy of a world of waste, where tensions are increasingly intense and where the ecological consequences are already excessive.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Every street photographer eventually stumbles upon the dogmatic term of the “decisive moment”, and is almost certain that they hear it from someone quoting the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. It is true that he coined this term, but it wasn’t meant to be dogma, but more of a personal mantra.

This beautiful term that has become an almost-unreachable goal for many street photographers is so widespread that it has become vastly misunderstood — hence the need to explain how this term should be understood.

The beginning of the concept

To provide some context here, it’s important to say that during the early years of serious photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson (and many other great photographers, like Brassaï, Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, Robert Doisneau, Walker Evans, and many others) a global revolution in photography was flourishing. Lightweight 35mm cameras became more and more available, and were no longer viewed with disdain due to their ability to capture images quickly. These little cameras allowed photographers to do something that wasn’t easy to do with larger formats: capture people in natural, candid and genuine situations. Cameras were not just capturing reality, but also real moments.

I hope that a few mirrorless camera detractors are reading this article, because they should understand that even their beloved full-frame format was scorned by those who preferred medium- and large-format photography, and photography in general was rejected for a long time by the staunch defenders of painting.

Therefore, it is thanks to this increasingly popular format, more photographers were able to record more intriguing images. This format unlocked a new world of possibilities for many photographers — a world in which they were able to capture brief scenes by surpassing their ephemeral nature and transforming them into suspended moments in time. Peter Stepan says that Henri Cartier-Bresson created a visual counterpart of surrealist writing with his photography. Throughout his life, he defended the importance of not forcing photography, but letting it flow.

About his famous relationship with his 35mm Leica cameras, he wrote: “It became the extension of my eye, and it never left me alone.”

A personal mantra

The term “Decisive Moment” was a mature conclusion from Cartier-Bresson, and it was more of a personal thing to him. It can’t be taught; only pursued. The concept of the “decisive moment” implies that the photographer must be able to anticipate an important moment within the constant flow of life, and capture it in a fraction of a second. Therefore, the key thing about the “decisive moment” is the ability to anticipate. He also said that if he pressed the shutter button while seeing the moment he wanted to capture, then it was already long gone. Ergo, the necessity of being sharp enough to anticipate happenings — and the word “decisive”.

I want to pause here to talk about the price you have to pay when stealing candid moments with DSLR cameras. With non-intrusive cameras –from vintage TLRs to rangefinders and, of course, the modern mirrorless cameras — you can see the whole thing, even when pressing the shutter button, due to their lack of flapping mirrors. On the other hand, with DSLR cameras, an extremely high price is paid to capture beautiful moments through their viewfinders. The precise moment we are capturing will be there for us, in a frozen image. Still, we see only darkness when the exact moment happens in front of our eyes. Perhaps this video can better illustrate what I am talking about. I leave you with this small reflection about stealing moments, because it is better to steal candid moments without the harsh price of brief darkness.

Three elements must be considered when adopting a “Decisive Moment” mindset:

  • Time and anticipation: This one is pretty much covered by now; anticipation is key.

Photography itself seemed to be an easy activity. It is a diverse and ambiguous operation in which the only common denominator among those who practice it is the camera. Cartier-Bresson knew that photography had the unique ability to capture time, to suspend it and to keep it forever. He affirmed this: “Photography is, for me, the spontaneous impulse of a perpetual visual attention, which captures the moment and its eternity.”

Photographing something is to hold our breath when all our faculties are focused on the fleeting reality. It is then when capturing an image supposes a great physical and intellectual joy. To photograph is to put our heads, eyes, heart and soul in the same perspective, aligning not only our senses, but also our feelings and intentions inside that small viewfinder into which the whole world fits perfectly to us.

Only after overcoming the technical understanding required to capture light can we become unconsciously competent creatures of light. Only after mastering that ability can we start pressing the trigger of our camera at the decisive moment of the picture we want to preserve.

Personally, I think that if street photographers are going to see Cartier-Bresson as our master, it will be valuable to understand his ideas about photography. He said that since its very beginnings, photography hasn’t changed at all, but only the technicalities, which in his opinion didn’t matter so much. That summarizes his vision of the world. Apparently, we haven’t learned a thing yet.

Originally Published at Light Stalking

Scholar & Writer on Photography | PhD Student | Photographic Guidance

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store