The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, 1952. Cover, Henri Matisse

I recently had the privilege of looking through Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book, The Decisive Moment. It sells for $2000 these days. The Decisive Moment is a legendary book, a retrospective of his photographic work that established his prestige and inserted a new phrase into photographic terminology…

“…if the shutter was pressed at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.”

C-B disowned the phrase in later years but it usefully captures an important aspect of his practice. It’s about the medium’s genetic link to the subject of time and hence timing, and you can see how his timing worked in this photograph from the book, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932. Aiming his camera through a hole in a fence, he caught this little ballet, a man jumping a puddle and his reflection, corresponding shapes on the ground, a circus poster in the background which echoes it all. It’s the earliest ‘serious’ photograph I can recall seeing, at about 15, and it helped propel me into a lifetime of photography.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932

The focal point of this photograph is the man and his reflection, specifically the foot about to touch the water. More specifically, it’s that gap between the foot and its reflection, the suspense created by the absence of closure. I’ve Photoshopped the feet to eliminate the gap so the foot has touched its reflection. The tension has gone, and so has the particular thrill of this image.

“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…”

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