“The Indecisive Moment” Backstory
It was Henri Cartier-Bresson who first formulated the idea/event called the decisive moment:
“The decisive moment refers to capturing an event that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.” — Joshua Sarinana
And here is the Cartier-Bresson photograph most often associated with the “decisive moment” principle:
I confess that I was never sure what the “essence of the event” was in this photograph: futility? the meaning of life? the folly of hope? the fallen ladder as an abbreviated symbol of a train track? I admit that there is a certain compelling quality to the capturing of this elusive incident. But what the quality might be, I am still at a loss to articulate.
In the instance described in my own visual essay, “The Indecisive Moment,” I tried to explain why I had failed to capture such a decisive moment. I hesitated, and the opportunity was lost. Since that time, I have other moments where I may have succeeded:
And many others that simple eluded me.
Ansel Adams clearly possessed such an instinct for the decisive moment. He prepared himself, waited patiently, then captured the instant that he wanted. Much of his magic, however, took place later in the darkroom. His decisive moments always underwent the laborious refinement made possible by optics and chemistry in the laboratory.
There are other photographers who also seem to possess the knack of capturing the decisive moment. Lois Greenfield’s images of dance have a kind of surreal, almost sculptural quality formed by the precise movement of her dancers:
But of course, such moments are not simply captured on the fly, like those of Cartier-Bresson. Greenfield's photos are studio work. She had the luxury of asking the dancers to repeat and repeat a move until she got exactly (or close to exactly) what she wanted. Such photos in a controlled environment deserve to be called “decisive” only in a sense existentially removed from the intentional meaning of Cartier-Bresson’s pronouncement.
Weegee ( Arthur Fellig ) comes closer to the kind of revelation of the moment posited by Cartier-Bresson. In “Their First Murder” (1945), the subjects reveal, in an instant, their reactions to a tragic event. We, as “readers” of Weegee’s image, are invited to consider the range of emotional responses of the witnesses of children and adults to a violent and tragic event.
Painting, in Western Culture, has long been devoted to capturing and setting forth scenes with a decisive moment. Such representations usually involved the ancient prescription for the purpose of art “to instruct by pleasing.” Take, for example, this painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, “Pollice Verso” (“Thumbs Down”):
The context of the decisive moment is rendered with what Gérôme offered as a precise — or, at least, imaginatively precise — image of a gladiatorial event in the Roman Coliseum. We see the Emperor, the crowds of spectators, the Vestal Virgins, and the combatants in the arena. The warrior xxx has vanquished his opponent. His victim squirms helpless under his foot, appealing for mercy. The Emperor is non-committal. But the Vestal Virgins are not: they want — emphatically urge — the loser put to death.
Struggle, victory, defeat, the cry for death — these are all part of the decisive moment rendered by Gerôme. But there is one more detail — easy to overlook at first glance — that adds another dimension to the revelation of the meaning of the moment: the winning gladiator has a slight pot belly. How did he acquire it? By vanquishing younger but inexperienced opponents. As the old adage has it: “Old age and guile will defeat youth and inexperience.”
Herein we find the decisive advantage of such painting over the even the most poignant of “decisive moment” photographs: traditional artists can and does build significance into their works, They start with a blank canvas and build up detail to reinforce meaning. Photographer must take reality as they find it — a reality in which the “decisive” subtleties of significance may not exist, except as superimposed into the image by viewers.