Notes on the Decisive Moment

HCB presents two slightly contradictory views of the decisive moment. He says “Il n’y a rien en ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisive” (there’s nothing in this world that doesn’t have a decisive moment). Yet in his interview he talks of how you can’t go out searching for these images; you have to be receptive and trust that the image will come. The decisive moment, according to Zouhair Ghazzal, is “an infinitely small and unique moment in time which cannot be repeated” (2004). Hence an assignment to photograph on this theme is going to require some thought. Can you really go out and photograph one to order? Is it really decisive? Does it have the right “for this moment only” quality, the right constellation of participant(s) and environment, light and form, stillness and motion? If you took the same image 30 seconds later would the decisive moment be gone, or would another one be served up conveyor-belt style? Is life a stream of decisive moments?

Ghazzal also makes the point that the decisive moment is generally anecdotal. It tells us a small and perfectly formed story, and is done. It strikes me as something of a fait accompli, not least because many are selected retrospectively from a contact sheet, like HCB’s Gare St Lazare ; which could only be chosen retrospectively because he couldn’t see the image at the time of shooting.

I have so many questions around the decisive moment. Ghazzal talks about the US towns with no centre, and the US photographers who made their name photographing the normal, the banal, the mundane where there are no people to distract from the environment. Can we extract the decisive moment from its environment, or do we depend on the environment to give the moment its context?

Given the plethora of images of carnival/flash mobs/street entertainers, where do we look for decisive moments that have not been captured dozens of times before? How do we make images of the decisive moment that tell us more or give us something to think about?

An interesting discussion on the OCA discussion board –the possibility of a staged decisive moment that you won’t personally witness, and/or one that will happen in the future? How true and authentic does a decisive moment have to be? Can you make a conceptual decisive moment image? What about still life decisive moments, like the Fischli & Weiss images that show elaborate constructions, captured in the held breath before they collapse?

So where do I stand? I wonder if the Decisive Moment was more of its time then – with possibly more decisive moments (I’m not sure about that argument) and definitely fewer cameras and phones to capture them. I’m not wild about the “fait accompli” aspect of the decisive moment either, I like the idea of a decisive moment that doesn’t give you all the answers.


One thought on “Notes on the Decisive Moment

  1. Catherine December 13, 2016 / 3:57 pm

    I think of it more as the decisive moment being the moment your finger presses the shutter button. Sometimes the moment might be just right but then the photograph looks awful or the speed was wrong etc. Thinking of the staged decisive moment my best example was the photograph I created this time last year when the decisive moment turned out to be that of my dog taking it into her head to check the scene.


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