Assignment 3

Assignment 3: The Decisive Moment. Updated following Tutor’s comments

Following feedback from my tutor I was encouraged to explore the work of a number of photographers, and to contextualise my images in relation to others’ work.  The decisive moment, as quoted by Cartier-Bresson, generally applies to street photography as that was the genre of his work.

My dilemma is understanding the difference between street photography and documentary photography, if there is a difference, and does it matter.

I concluded that documentary photography includes images which follow a particular theme or situation, such as in the case of Don McCullin, known for his war photography.  In a recent interview he said that he now photographs landscapes in his local area of Somerset, in order to try to erase the emotive war images from his mind, but he is also mindful of the disappearing landscapes in Britain and the need to document what may no longer be in existence in the future.   So he is still producing what he sees as documentary photography.

Looking at the work of Diane Arbus, she generally engaged with her subjects.  Many of her images were of “marginalised” people, such as circus performers, transvestites, etc.  However, she also photographed ordinary people going about their daily activities, such as the young boy about to cross the street.  So one could say Diane Arbus’ images were of both documentary and street genres.

Street photography tends to focus on capturing ad hoc images with no specific theme.  Cartier-Bresson was a master at capturing images as a snapshot, generally without the subjects being aware of the photograph being taken.  More recently, Tony Ray-Jones photographed ordinary street scenes with no specific theme, later developed further by Martin Parr.  The main difference between these two photographers is that Martin Parr produces very brightly coloured images, and seeks out scenes which, to some, would seem to ridicule the subjects’ behaviour.  Tony Ray-Jones images, on the other hand, were black and white and recording scenes which may be humorous, but not ridiculous.

I revisited my photographs selected for the “Decisive Moment” and feel my inspiration came mainly from Tony Ray-Jones work.  The photograph of the bicycle chained up next to a very clear sign stating that no cycles should be left there.  But no one had removed the cycle.  An amusing situation, but not ridiculous.

My journey in reviewing other photographers suggested by my tutor has helped me to align my work with others, and to understand more about reading other photographers’ work.




Assignment 3

Assignment 3 – The Decisive Moment

Ever since Henri Cartier-Bresson used the term “the decisive moment”, there has been a great deal of discussion as to what that actually means.  He used the term having taken the photograph of the man jumping over a puddle in Paris.  Surprisingly he could not actually see the person at the time but put his camera to a gap in a fence and clicked!  So “the decisive moment” must include luck as well.  Being in the right place at the right time.

The phrase “decisive moment” is usually seen as being the basis of street photography.  However, if you take the view that the decisive moment is actually the moment when the photographer decides to press the button then it could be applied to any photograph.   A landscape photographer may set up the camera on a tripod, and then wait for an hour for the sun to be in exactly the right place in order to cast the right shadows.  Or a sports photographer filming a motocross event may sit in one place next to a particularly muddy and slippery spot and take a number of photographs of spills and near misses during the event.  To get the perfect shot the photographer must press the button at exactly the right moment.  The decisive moment.

In his book, The Street Photographer’s Manual, David Gibson says that true street photography should never be staged in any way.

“Street photography’s core value is that it is never set up; this aspect is ‘non-negotiable’ because the guiding spirit of street photography is that it is real”

This view can be applied not just to street photography, but also to the above examples: the landscape photographer or sports photographer.  The decisive moment should not be staged, but an actual representation of events.

Andreas Feininger, in his book The Complete Photographer, said:

“Photography can be taught only in part – specifically, that part which deals with photo-technique. Everything else has to come from the photographer”

This quotation aligns with Cartier-Bresson’s view that the decisive moment is the point when the “geometry” comes together, the way the image is framed.  The relationships between the objects are in line.  Only the photographer knows when that moment is right. The photographer’s intuition.

I decided to use some photographs I took earlier in the year as I wandered around Oxford.  Street photography is outside my comfort zone, but I intend to do more in the future and hopefully become more confident as a result.  It was a cold day, starting out sunny, and then it started raining.  I managed a few puddle jumping pictures, in Cartier-Bresson style.  When selecting the photographs for this assignment I considered each one against Cartier-Bresson’s views: the geometry, the relationships, the decisive moment.


I loved the juxtaposition of this photograph: the stern notice about no posters or bicycles, below which is a bicycle securely locked to the lamppost, and posters on the telecom box.  At first, I wished I had waited till the car had gone, but then realised that it forms part of the story, life goes on around these small scenes tucked away in a corner.


A student walking past silhouettes of students.   The joke here is that in Oxford students don’t get together and throw their mortarboards in the air after a graduation ceremony.  It’s a very formal event, conducted in Latin.  Whoever was commissioned to paint this hoarding missed this point.


A happy little boy playing in a puddle oblivious to those walking around him.


This scene fascinated me.  A group of ordinary women have a very earnest discussion as though the jokey fluffy things on their heads were the most normal headwear in the world.    Which one was the bride?


I started to take the photograph of the man on the seat and as I pressed the button the cyclist came into view.  I think that was luck more than a conscious decision.


A photographer taking a photo of 2 people taking a selfie.  I would love to have known why.


The bird in the background had been hovering around these 2 girls for a while waiting for them to discard their crumbs.

The puddle jumpers.


Finally, I particularly like this photograph by Matt Stuart in 2006 in London.  It seems to me to follow all the Cartier-Bresson “rules”.  The feet are all in line and marching to (or from) work.  The pigeon is just another commuter.  The geometry is in place.


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