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The Dramatic Moment

Magnum is one of the most prestigious photo agencies that has ever (or will ever) exist. It was founded to give it’s members the ability to pursue any story or subject matter they wished, profit from their work, and retain ownership of the images they made. Magnum was founded at the end of World War Two by photographers who had covered the war. Their main clients were editorial publications (magazines and newspapers). So naturally that they thought of themselves as journalists.

One of Magnum’s founding members, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, had a philosophy he used when working. His goal was to make a perfectly composed image, from precisely the right spot at the exact instant when all the elements he was observing came together in poetic harmony. When this happened, he called it “The Decisive Moment”.

"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

He was a master of recognizing the decisive moment and managed to capture a great deal more (of them) than his share. To him, the decisive moment was present in all situations. The only question was whether the photographer would find and capture it before it disappeared.

Which is what photography is, a quest to discover the under-seen, the fleeting moments of life (which most of humanity misses), in the most perfect way possible. This was (and still is) a radical idea. Painters tried to do this (to some degree), but despite all their hard work and genius level talent they didn’t have the right tool. The invention of photography gave them that tool. Artists who wanted to continue painting stopped trying to capture reality and started trying to capture their impression of reality. Artist who desired to capture the reality of life’s splendor, picked up a camera (although Bresson’s Decisive Moment would not come into play until cameras became small enough to be easily carried).

There are three fundamental problems with photographers that try to set up pictures and pass them off as an honest attempt to capture reality.

One, it shows a great deal of arrogance. To think that you can come up with a better idea than what the world is offering you (in exchange for a little patience) is foolhardy. Life is more creative than you. Spend some time looking around and it will give you images that you could never imagine yourself.

Two, You’re cheating yourself. Winning awards, being widely published, having your work hang in museums is all fine and dandy, but at some point, perhaps on your deathbed, you’ll realize you’re a fraud and the body of work you spent your life creating is a lie. (Then again maybe not, one shouldn’t overestimate a person’s ability to deceive themselves.)

Three, the tool to replace photography as the ideal medium to record the human condition hasn’t been invented yet. When that tool is invented, feel free to take photography into it’s impressionistic phase. Until than, you’re just splashing paint on canvas in the hope of convincing someone you’re brilliant.

Photography is all about you, there’s no getting away from that fact. But, if you want to be great, you damn well better make pictures that don’t need you. Images that don’t need an award or a gold star placed on them by a photo editor or museum curator to make them good. That’s a tough trick to pull off. Would your pictures still be great if none of your friends or supporters know they were made by you?

Let’s call it the Vivian Maier test. If you and all your friends are dead are your pictures still good?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should make “objective” pictures. We have drones flying over our heads to do that. What I’m asking is to know a little bit about you through your photographs. There should be a hint of you visible in your images. Now, just because your work is “subjective” doesn’t mean you can abandon honesty. I want your honest take on the world, and you can’t get that by hiring or conning people into modeling for you. Posing pictures to support your preconceived ideas, isn’t being honest, it’s just a way to reinforce your prejudices. Once you start down that path, I don’t know how you avoid taking up residence in your own private echo chamber.

Listen, HCB didn’t have motor drives, auto focus lenses or high speed sensors like you. It really shouldn’t be that hard to follow in his footsteps. There are photographers out there who have been following The Troubles or chasing hot light in half made worlds for decades and they seem to do well without cheating themselves, their viewers or the people in their pictures.

Is that too much to ask?

Update - I just became aware of this film clip that almost captures the moment when Cartier-Bresson made the image of the Gestapo informer being exposed. Somewhat humbling, no?


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Well said, and a really great post. :)

Thanks, Kenneth!

Patrick Downs

Great followup, Ken.

Jonathan Beiko

I'm a little heartbroken and amazed at the same time :')

Jenny Lynn Walker

I have always liked the HCB approach. I love it and this piece explains the kind of photography that I do, but if others want to mix portraits or different genres of photography in with candid documentary moments to create a story, so long as the subject is respected and they disclose it in the caption, then I think its okay. These are changing times in the language of storytelling but the HCB "Decisive Moment" approach will remain my personal preference.

Cyndy Green

thank you for that clip...HBC has always been an idol of mine

Denny Simmons

Reminds me of a quote that I believe Dorothea Lange used to keep near her (I, myself, keep it in the driver's side door pouch). "The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention." – Sir Francis Bacon –

alex avakian

Well said as always, old friend.

Chris London

Technology and advancements that have enabled greater ease in shooting and the proliferation of many who choose to call themselves photographers has not actually resulted ironically in any greater mastery of truthful art that is represented by the works of Magnum Photographers. Magnum is still the standard one by which to measure photographic art. There are dead men who worked with lesser tools whose work still stands the test of time against many modern day photographers who have presumably had access to greater technical equipment.

wayne hiebert

I have been through that video clip frame by frame and am somewhat perplexed in that I can not find the moment at which HCB took his famous photograph. In the photo the Gestapo informer has clearly not reacted to being struck while the hand of the the woman who assaulted her in the video has clearly already passed by her head. In the video you can see the informer react immediately as she is struck. Does anyone else see the problem with this?

A Fellow Montanan

Thank you, Mr. Jarecke.

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