Behind the Lens - Decisive Moment
This group of photographs demonstrate the visual concept of the 'decisive moment'. By being in the right position, the coinciding of a photographer’s attention on a subject and an action by the subject can result in a distinctive photograph.
In describing the construction of a silhouette photograph in last week’s column, I referred to the term “decisive moment” to describe a visual concept that contributed to the photograph’s success. Of all the photographic devices I’ve written about, I feel this is the trickiest to master but the one with the greatest impact.
French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson made the phrase famous and wrote this: “The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”
While most events and activities reveal key moments, not all photographs capture or depend on a decisive moment. But in the right situation, the coinciding of a photographer’s attention on a subject and an action by the subject can result in a distinctive photograph. The trick is to recognize the possibility in all subjects and be prepared to capture them.
Here is the way I break down Bresson’s concept. To document any event or subject, I first choose a point from which to take the photograph. This is where I “organize my forms,” as Bresson writes. I look at the subjects’ background and determine where to position myself so I can eliminate what I don’t need or include what contributes to the image. This step begins to shape the structure of my photograph and is where my lens choice is determined.
Next, I anticipate an action or reaction by the subject, what Bresson calls the “significance of an event.” At a birthday party it may be the honoree blowing out the candles. At a championship basketball game, it may be the game-winning shot. Whatever the event, I need to anticipate action as it unfolds in front of me. And it can unfold fast. Cartier-Bresson’s “simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second” acknowledges that my decision on when to snap the shutter is crucial to the success of the photograph.
If I have followed this formula, my positioning, anticipation and timing have provided me with a formula capable of documenting a decisive moment. Rather than memorize Bresson’s definition just keep in mind my simple acronym P.A.T. — positioning, anticipation and timing.
For examples of some photos that incorporate this strategy, visit LJWorld.com.