The Decisive Moment?

Every photo blog eventually discusses The Decisive Moment, an influential idea originally championed by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). Mentioning that phrase is the law, apparently, and you can’t avoid it any more than you can skip your first driving test. So I’ve decided I might as well trek to the Photo Blog DMV and get it over with.

“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson is quoted as saying, in a 1957 Washington Post interview. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

Cartier-Bresson worked primarily in street or documentary photography, of course. But the concept of that “decisive moment” has found its way into all areas of the field. It’s a vaguely defensive notion, in some ways; without the artistically magical Moment of Moments, it seems to some, photography becomes just a poor cousin of painting and the other visual arts. If you take the image as only a beginning, if you crop and play with it to evoke and present the scene as you felt it — or even reimagine it — then you are no longer really engaged in photography.

Now, this notion has been discussed and debated to a fare-thee-well, by critical luminaries and possibly by your Aunt Gracie and Uncle Fred, and I have no desire to hop on my own soap box — at least, not at this particular (indecisive) moment. But the concept did suggest itself as I thought about the two images presented here. The first image, in color, is called “Foglift, Strybing Wall.” The second, in a sepia monochrome, is “Endurance #1.” Both are part of my current show, Trees Love Light, at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. (Note: You can click on the thumbnails for a larger look.)


“Foglift,” I think, did indeed capture nature’s version of a “decisive moment.” San Francisco has no shortage of fog, but I could have camped at this spot (in between two parked cars, actually) morning after morning without a guarantee of capturing the particular type of fog burnoff combined with the particular angle of light that allowed this soft glimpse of the arboretum’s iconic Monterey cypress. Did I work on this image after pushing the camera button? You betcha. There were zoom limits to the lens on my camera at that moment, so cropping was needed at the top and sides; a stray branch broke the illusion in one spot, as did one of the cars’ antennae, so the Clone tool came to the rescue. But none of this, I think, alters the sense of a fleeting moment that I was blessed (albeit prepared) to capture with my camera.


“Endurance #1,” by contrast, makes no claim to special or fleeting time. Like the trees it pictures, it’s all about persistence. Fog was necessary to this image, but not unique fog; the same could be said of the light. And so I brought my camera to this spot, at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, many times in pursuit of this image. In fact, I continue to do so. What’s more, on my digital “canvas” I have worked up many different versions of this scene, started and stopped, erased, started again, in color or not, heavily contrasted or not, and so on.

In short, “Foglift, Strybing Wall” was about a special moment — perhaps a decisive moment — and my job was to try and share my version of it. “Endurance #1” was, is, about something that I keep trying to discover and perhaps will never name. I’m not sure that journalistic-style truth is even possible in a format that is two-dimensional, time-limited, and lens-mediated. But at any rate, I make no claim to it. Similarly, I lose very little sleep wondering whether either of these two works, or neither, classify as “real” photography. I wanted to make them — in some sense I had to make them — and I did.



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