Past Square Print Sale
The (More or Less) Decisive Moments
An exploration of the decisive moment by Magnum photographers
As we enter our 70th year, we take a look back at one of the photographic theory famously associated with agency co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson with The (More or Less) Decisive Moments, asking Magnum photographers to explore what the of notion of decisive moment means to them, and how – if at all – it manifests in their own practice. Photographers have responded with a chosen image and a supportive text, opening up something of a discussion.
The term ‘decisive moment’ was originally coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s English language publisher, who, in 1952, translated the French title of his book, Images à la Sauvette, to The Decisive Moment. Since then, it has become a fundamental notion in the study and practice of photography.
Years later, Cartier-Bresson playfully annotated Martin Parr’s personal copy to read ‘The More or Less Decisive Moments’, hinting at the plurality and ambiguity of its meaning.
The decisive moment is often described as an ephemeral or spontaneous composition perfectly captured by the photographer; as Chien-Chi Chang notes of his image, “the decisive moment is a moment of grace, when the light is right, the circles are in harmony, the legs upraised just so. Click.”
However, the decisive moment is also an expression open to interpretation, playfulness, and even rejection: this project explores what the concept of ‘decisive moment’ means to Magnum photographers.
Alex Webb reflects on his own relationship to Cartier-Bresson and the decisive moment, “Probably, no photographer has influenced me for as long as Henri Cartier-Bresson… ever since I first saw my father’s copy of The Decisive Moment in the late 1960s, I’ve been uneasy with the title. The notion of a ‘decisive moment’ seems just too pat, too unpoetic for such a complicated vision. Years later, it was gratifying to discover that the original French title was Images à la Sauvette— ’Images on the Sly’— a humbler notion more in the spirit of his early street photographs, work that embraces the mystery and uncertainty of collaborating with the world. ‘It is the photo that takes you,’ as he once said.”
"It is the image that takes you"
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
Every photographer within Magnum was invited to select an image from their archive and to reflect upon how the photographic concept of ‘the decisive moment’ touches their practice.
“The decisive moment, when you think about it, is a one-dimensional concept. It deals with time or timing. It fails to do justice to the larger meaning behind Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea or the 20th century master’s elegant and much more broadly decisive approach to photography. This includes the decisive composition, geometry, quality of light and subject,” states Stuart Franklin. He continues, describing his image, “this picture, from Moss Side, Manchester, chimes with the larger meaning and the spirit of Cartier-Bresson’s influence on me. I took two or three rolls of film of this scene as it unfolded, but there is only one picture that works, where all the elements come together: timing, composition, geometry and the situation as I wanted to remember it.”
On observing her photographer husband, and early Magnum member, Werner Bischof, joyously capture what he immediately recognised as a decisive moment (and what has become his iconic image Courtyard of the Meiji Shrine, part of this project), Rosellina Bischof wrote in her diary: “Suddenly Werner runs away with his camera. I stop, terrified. What happened? He comes back after a little bit. Still out of breath but overjoyed he admits: I just took THE picture of Japan!”
Robert Capa wasn’t always so sure. For him, images become iconic because of their public, and the editors who publish them. “You never know if you have a prize picture or not because when you shoot nearly every picture is the same to you and the prize picture is born in the imagination of editors and the public who see them.”
Perhaps being able to capture what will become a decisive moment is all about state of mind. As Jean Gaumy describes his approach to taking pictures: “Being ready. Recognising and framing what comes suddenly to the surface, without having ever really considered or planned it. Making choices in the instant, choosing instinctively, under the effect of submerged references, more or less conscious. To make choices, to choose incessantly, this is one of the most interesting and beautiful aspects of art and of photography.”
Jonas Bendiksen elaborates on his own approach to photography: “Actually, I often don’t think so much at all when I photograph, it is more gut instinct working, just lots of reactions. For me, the thinking and categorizing is better done before and after the actual photographing…Whatever it is, the shutter had better be open at the right time.”
"Whatever it is, the shutter had better be open at the right time"
- Jonas Bendiksen
A decisive moment doesn’t always occur in the present. Stephen Mayes gives a metaphorical insight into the late Tim Hetherington’s practice, his relationship to the photographs he took, and when he chose to release them: “Tim stored his photographic moments like bottles of wine, maybe inactive for years but never forgotten, and he would dip into the cellar to turn them occasionally until the moment matured.”
And for some, the decisive moment can be a long time coming, laying down groundwork to make an image come to life at the right time. “Two weeks of time literally down to two seconds of opportunity. Worth it all, of course,” says David Alan Harvey of his image of the clubbing crowd in Ibiza. Or, as Olivia Arthur noted, on missing a bolt of lightning, sometimes “what you think you’re looking for is not always the most important element.”
In the words of Matt Black, “To me, the act of observing is what makes a moment decisive. It’s not a moment until it is seen and recorded. What is interesting to me is what happens internally that leads to that instant of clarity. A decisive image stops movement, but it also preserves thought.”
For many, the decisive moment becomes a very personal notion. As Hiroji Kubota notes of his color image of the monks at the Golden Rock, “That was my decisive moment, to become a color photographer.”
Martin Parr’s image of swimmers about to swim freezing waters yields a different meaning to the notion: “You can see here the waves were so fierce, they were experiencing their own ‘Decisive Moment’ as they pondered if they dare go into the sea or not.”
Over seventy Magnum photographers and estates have given an insight into their practices through this project, which can be browsed in the slideshow above. Together, these classic and contemporary images and texts create a collective portrait of the creative relationships that define the agency.
The photographs from this project are temporarily available for purchase as signed, museum quality Magnum Square Print, exceptionally priced at just $100, from June 6th, 2016, at 9AM EST until June 10th, 2016, at 6PM EST only through the Magnum Shop.
The edition is not limited by quantity, but limited by time. All Magnum Square Prints are signed on either the front or back, depending on the photographer’s preference. Estate Stamped Prints are stamped on the back. Each photographer’s accompanying text about the image’s significance is printed on an archival label that is affixed to the back of the print.