A Decisive Moment

A Decisive Moment – March 2019 Competition

Last month, we asked our students to seek out those quiet and contemplative moments and capture them in a way that tells a story. As a follow-up to this, we’d now like you to consider a more dynamic approach and submit a photo that embodies ‘A Decisive Moment’.

Many of you will have heard of the concept of the ‘decisive moment’, a phrase coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe the exact moment in a sequence of events that capture a mood, encapsulates an idea and defines a story.

He got this idea from 17th century Cardinal de Retz who said, 

“Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif” 

“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”

The best way to describe the ‘Decisive Moment’ is to show examples of the master at work:

Henri Cartier-Bresson. France. 1932

Look at this shot of a stairway and cyclist. This is the perfect example of finding an interesting compositional shape and just waiting for the right subject to enter the frame. 

Bresson was ready to capture the precise moment when the cyclist appeared to complete the composition. This moment of decisive action was all that was needed to create a striking image.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alicante, Spain, 1933

There is so much movement in this shot of the girls having their nails done in Spain. The composition of their arms flows beautifully through the frame, and yet each woman has a somewhat confrontational gaze as if they have been caught out. 

They are engaged in the act of beautifying themselves and yet all stare directly at the camera in a challenge at the photographer. It’s a decisive moment of surprise and muted hostility. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Srinagar, Kashmir, 1948

Sometimes the decisive moment can be a photograph which poses questions without giving answers. In this shot, we see mysterious figures staring at the sky.

One is raising her hands in prayer. We can almost hear the religious chanting, but we do not know what occasion has brought them to this place to worship. Without the decisive moment of the raised hands, this would be a very different, more static and contemplative portrait of the figures staring out to the landscape beyond. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson. ITALY. Rome. 1959

The decisive moment in this shot is the perfectly placed woman as she perfectly bisects a group of priests in Rome. This shot poses questions about the insular nature of priesthood and how they are segregated from women. 

Notice how they form close groups, comfortable in their roles and with their backs turned to the woman. Those who do face her do not even glance her way. She is insignificant to them yet dead centre in their lives. This decisive moment is also a commentary on the priesthood as well as being compositionally magnificent. 

Bresson said, “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 organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.

Your decisive moment should:

– Be a fleeting moment within the frame which enhances the composition and/ or narrative.

– Have an obvious decisive moment. Although someone frozen mid-jump would fulfil the brief, try to think more deeply about the concept and produce a more complex narrative. 

– Create a question in the viewer’s mind

– Underline and enhance the narrative of the photograph

Although Cartier-Bresson’s work is largely within the documentary and reportage genres, this idea of the decisive moment can be applied to all branches of photography as a way to heighten interest and visual impact. 

You can find entry details on the Course Platform.

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