Notes on Henri-Cartier Bresson and ‘The Decisive Moment’


  1. O’Hagan, S. (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his Decisive Moment has passed.  ( accessed on 6/12/2016)

O’Hagan begins his article with a quote suggesting there is ‘nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment…and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.’  This sentiment was undoubtedly shared by Henri Cartier-Bresson (hereafter referred to as HCB) when discussing what became known as ‘The Decisive Moment’ (the French version of the book was known as Images a la Sauvette or Images on the Run).

O’Hagan argues that this concept has gone out of fashion due to advances in technology and staged scenes using models along with the use of photo editing.  The book itself contains 126 images and is divided into two sections which are geographically based and based on chronological order.  As in the videos (see under research point) O’Hagan refers to the importance of form to HCB.  As a photojournalist HCB was also concerned that his images conveyed a social and political message.

O’Hagan states that the Decisive Moment as outlined by HCB in his book is best encapsulated in the following quote:

“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.”

O’Hagan believes that the Decisive Moment has come to mean the absolute right time to press the shutter and that perhaps this is more in line with other photographers who undertake street photography looking for the right combination of ‘light, action and expression’ rather than HCB’s emphasis on geometry.

O’Hagan refers Gaby Wood who believed that there was an impersonality to HCBs photos now perhaps due to them becoming over familiar and he feels there needed to be more of a rawness to the photos or that they should be a bit more ‘indecisive’.  Would we then even know about HCB given it was these very photos that led to his fame as an influential photographer?

O’Hagan asserts that this style of photography is historical and belongs to a previous generation of photography in that it is in black and white, has a seriously considered approach and that the composition is excellent but it is prior to the advent of ‘colour and conceptualism’.  He believes that there are other photographers who have signalled the future.

  1. Bull, S. (2010).  Photography.  London: Routledge

Bull describes HCB’s decisive moment as ‘action is caught at precisely the right fraction of a second to summarise the whole event in an aesthetically balanced image.  He enlarges on this to say it was the taking of an image that makes some sort of ‘ordered scene out of the chaos of the ongoing world’.

He discussed that the modern equivalent has been the taking of still images from what has been initially taken as film and can involve editing after the event rather than as it happens.  In HCB’s era it began to become easier to get close to the action or to capture movement or expression in a composed image.  Bull refers to what HCB also talks about in the videos regarding the role Surrealism has played in his photography, i.e. of ‘chance encounters’.  He queries how ‘chance’ some of these encounters really are and how after some images have been challenged it has been determined that in fact they were staged.

Another argument centres on the subjectivity of the viewer –as soon as we see something it is an object of our individual experience and interpretation.

  1. Jeffrey, I.  (1981).  Photography: A Concise History.  London: Thames & Hudson

Jeffrey asserts that HCB photographed ordinary, everyday figures that could appear mundane and concentrating on ‘affairs of the moment’ (p.191).  To demonstrate this idea he refers to an image that is of a group of people having a picnic beside the river with their backs to the photographer.  Jeffrey feels that HCB believed that humankind needed to be represented undertaking some kind of action even if it would appear trivial to the viewer.  In the picnic image it is the placing between the participants and the difference between them and their boats that provides the meaning to the photo.  These action images imply that life goes on and that the moment can change in an instant.  Jeffrey feels that HCB’s image epitomise ‘the prudential nature of his subjects (p.193).

In terms of HCB’s book The Decisive Moment, Jeffrey comments that it “encapsulates the history of ‘human interest’ photography from an initial discreet mode … onwards through heroism and suffering into the tradition-conscious art of the late forties and fifties.”

  1. Badger, G. (2010).  The Genius of Photography. London:  Quadrille Publishing Ltd

Badger explains that for HCB a successful image was  when everything came together – this is particularly relevant to photography of moving things.  While it appears that HCB often shot his street photography on the move, other street photographers will hang out in a spot and wait for something to happen.  Badger is somewhat sceptical that some of this type of photography is in fact posed and not as spontaneous as it appears.  He feels that the concept of the decisive moment seduces the viewer into thinking that the photographer has captured a ‘fleeting moment’ of significance in the continuity of life.  Often it is thought that the decisive moment refers to the capturing of a fraction of life but in fact it was more about a situation where all the elements come together in harmony or in Badger’s words:

“The decisive moment is better defined as the moment when form and content come together to produce an image in which the formal, emotional, poetic and intellectual elements have substance – in effect, where they give an image a real meaning.”


However, this isolating of the image from the surrounding context which may lead to an erroneous significance being placed on the subject.

  1. Clarke, G. (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Clarke endorses much of what has already been outlined above.  He talks of the importance of observation and continued monitoring of the scene in order to compose the best image possible – a fraction of space may make all the difference – all of this evaluation takes place in the briefest period of time.  ‘Any moment is possible’ (p.207).  The way in which HCB presents the image is what makes it stand out and rise above their ‘historical and cultural contexts.  He often does this through a sense of humour but often making the viewer reflect on the image to try and gauge its meaning.  In this way he opens the world to the viewer rather than having a narrow frame of reference.

  1. Grange, A. (2013) Basic Critical Theory.  Burlington: Focal Press

Chapter 3 of this book give Susan Sontag’s On Photography theory.  Sontag sees HCB’s work as an ‘intellectual paradox’ … a form of knowing without knowing …’ (p.50).  She feels there is a superstitious belief amongst the photographic fraternity regarding the element of chance.  Many modern photographers in a backlash to this theory will point out how images can be made different.  Certainly in the past photography was seen to be a truthful record of events/things while still attempting to show this in a different way to anything that has gone before.  This movement was known as realism and was about not what was really there but what the photographer really sees and their revelation of this reality.   She states that the use of basic equipment allows for the ‘creative accident’.

According to Sontag HCB’s use of black and white was  part of a tradition.  It was seen as ‘…more tactful, more decorous … less voyeuristic and less sentimental or crudely lifelike’ (p.53).

  1. Chéroux, C. (2008).  Henri Cartier-Bresson.  London: Thames & Hudson

This book covers HCB’s life and development in photography.  He discusses the concept of the Decisive Moment on p.96 stating:

“the expression represents a sort of apogee: at one precise moment, things arrange themselves in an order that is both aesthetic and meaningful.  It is a kind of photographic Kairos (Greek: ‘opportune moment’) in which there is a formal balance and at the same time a revelation of the essence of things.”


This requires a heightened sense of perception so decisions are made in a split fraction of a second.  This idea led to photography being considered as art.

However, while many latched onto this concept it also came under criticism particularly from a new generation of photographers who used the technique of staging or narrative stories to disprove the idea of a ‘decisive moment’.  They didn’t use geometry and also didn’t subscribe to HCB’s dislike of cropping.

  1. Plantell, C. (2012).  The Present.  ( _Present.cfm accessed on 11/02/2017).

Plantell reviews a recent book by Paul Graham called The Present and in this review states that the concept of the decisive moment misses the point of our contemporary situation , that is in this day and age if one undertakes street photography what you see is a street ‘with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for’.

This raised the question of what we are really looking at or looking for – it’s as if we expect some action so will flick back and forward through the photographs trying to find the meaning in the images.

Plantell implies that Graham’s images of New York are mundane; the people are not glamourous and everything appears pretty run down and doesn’t invoke feelings of nostalgia or romanticism.  They are going about their everyday business, looking harried and stressed.

It is ‘an existence that appears deprived environmentally, emotionally and culturally’.


Ghazzal in this article discusses what he calls the ‘indecisiveness of the decisive moment’.  He believes the concept of the decisive moment is more of a hackneyed phrase than a real idea these days  and even questions that HCB’s own images all displayed this idea.  However, he acknowledges the influence of HCB’s work on modern photojournalism and the backlash by a new generation of photographers who are using sizzzling colours in order to make mundane urban landscapes more noticeable.

He defines the decisive moment as a ‘small and unique moment in time that cannot be repeated and that only the photographic lens can capture’.

He goes on to discuss the importance of gestures and how each image in its own right tells a story which has made the photographers’ pressing the shutter a meaningful action.  He believes that as it is impossible to completely replicate body gestures these are the true ‘decisive moments’ as no two gestures are exactly the same.  Alongside the photographer’s pose is also unique to the image although not captured.

Others would critique the concept as having an over reliance on gestures.  I would argue that this argument loses some of the critical elements of HCBs decisive moment, i.e. of geometry, framing, lack of cropping and the use of black and white.

He contrasts HCB’s work with that of Walker Evans who photographed the American landscape where the images are static but also are serial inviting the reviewer to look at and compose a narrative around a set of images.  Any one image that may have a decisive moment disappears into the context of the whole series.

Modern cities are lacking in a centre so it becomes much more difficult to frame – he points us in the direction of modern photographers such as Friedlander who get around this by the use of mirroring through facades, shops and the use of neon lights without ending leading to a lack of meaning.

Where I stand on the decisive moment

For me it depends on what is meant by the decisive moment and the type of photography that is being undertaken.  At the point I am reflecting on this I have undertaken several attempts at capturing decisive moments.

I think there are some parallels in wildlife photography although even here much can be planned (see my notes on the wildlife exhibition I visited in London) but otherwise you need to be somewhere, where if you are lucky, you might capture a ‘decisive moment’.  I certainly found it harder and probably similar to what is described above when trying to capture ‘decisive moments’ on the street in urban Edinburgh and Douglas on the Isle of Man.  My switch to taking photos of children was more successful.

I think modern technology and the use of digital has also led to a reliance/expectation of images being in colour rather than black and white.  The vast and quickness of getting news around the world tends to de-sensitise the general population so images have to be vibrant to capture the attention.

Interestingly I attended a photo workshop yesterday.  There was a student at the workshop who is studying photojournalism at the local college.  It was our tutor’s view that the advent of improved digital technology in smart phones such as the Iphone and the availability of lens for these phones is likely to change the world of photography yet again.  I think it will be a ‘case of watch this space’.

Other types of photography such as portrait and still life are much less likely to lend themselves to still life.  Fashion photography is likely to consist of staged sets.










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