Incisive not Decisive?

As a young man I was very flattered when someone who I knew to be knowledgeable about photography came up to me at an exhibition and compared my work on show to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Not that I would ever claim to be in the same league, but it was good to be flattered.

Cartier-Bresson was at the time about the only photographer known by name, at least to an educated public, in the UK, and even those who couldn’t have brought his name to their lips would probably have recognised some of his pictures. To be a photographer at least for the general public was to strive to emulate him, though by that time I was one of a tiny minority who had got to know the work of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand and others.

There were few photographic books on the shelves in libraries or in any but truly specialised book shops (and London had the best of these in the Creative Camera bookshop in Doughty St, to which I made regular pilgrimage.) Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 ‘Images à la sauvette‘, published in the USA as ‘The Decisive Moment‘ still defined photography some twenty years later, a kind of photographic gold standard.

As often pointed out, the ‘decisive moment’ is perhaps a poor replacement suggesting something rather more static than the French, more literally translated as ‘Images on the run’, replacing its slanginess with formality, taking it away the streets and illegal activities and into polite and rather stuffy discourse.

Here is a quote from an article I published on Cartier-Bresson in 1999 (though based on earlier lecture notes):

It was however his next book, Images a la Sauvette, better known by the title chosen by its American publishers, The Decisive Moment that put his photography and ideas to a world-wide public. The French title uses the term for illegal street trading and could perhaps be translated as ‘Images on the Run’ or ‘Stolen Images’ and perhaps more accurately reflects the dynamism of Cartier-Bresson’s better work than the more static suggestion of the ‘decisive moment’ which has however become indelibly linked with his photography.

I’ve never owned the book ‘The Decisive Moment’ (by the time I came to photography it was long out of print and rather expensive), though I had it on ‘permanent loan’ for some years from the library of the school where I worked in the 1970s, and rather regret being honest enough to return it. It’s still perhaps the best single book of his work, although there have been many others.

You can read an interesting discussion of the ‘Decisive Moment‘ in a long article by writer, photographer and psychology professor John Suler, a chapter from his book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, which to my surprise includes a different quotation from my article above (though I have absolutely no connection to the Catholic High School in San Diego on which this short essay is still available.)

You can also watch the 18 minute film nade in 1973 , Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment in which the man himself talks about his work (in English) to a background of some of his best pictures.

But though I admire much of his work, I’ve never really found Cartier-Bresson’s metaphor productive (and it perhaps isn’t one that informs a great deal of his own published work.) And I also don’t share his view that documentary is boring; for me it is at the heart of photography.

When I think about how I work with a camera the image that comes to mind is that of a scalpel, attempting to cut a significant moment out of space and time. I don’t of course mean that I stand there confronting the subject camera in hand and think of myself carving out a picture, but there is something accurate and precise that I strive for in framing and composition and timing – and a delight in using instruments that do the job cleanly and well – like the Leica and Nikon – rather than blunter tools. Its a determination to try to be incisive.

There’s a tautness about a good photograph, and a focus, a wholeness, something that you look at and see as a picture rather than wondering why ever the photographer chose that particular place and time to press the shutter. I may hope I will produce decisive pictures, but the activity that lead to them is incisive.

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