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The Art: Decisive moment

We have been talking a lot about the technical stuff. Let’s not forget the art part of photography. There are various reason people take photographs. Most just want to record memories. The art part of the photography doesn’t concern them much. For others it’s a medium to express themselves and their surroundings. And there are some others who just want to take beautiful pictures. The last two categories comes very close to using photography as art. Though recording memories can also turn to be very artistic like in case of Wedding photography.

I am dedicating this series “The Art” to the artistic part of photography. I will divide the post in two parts. In first part I will discuss a composition technique. In second part, I will pick a photographer and discuss few of his works.

I am starting the series with legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) and his concept of decisive moment. Let’s start with the concept of decisive moment and then get introduced to HCB.

Decisive Moment:

The decisive moment is the precise moment when random actions intersect in a single instant at the right location that makes the perfect photograph. Once that moment is lost, it’s hard, if not impossible, to recreate it in exactly same location (unless of course you pay everyone to do exactly the same thing). Enough of talking, let’s see some example to make things clearer. Since Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB) is today’s featured photographer as well as pioneer of the concept, I am giving examples from his collection.

The first picture was taken by HCB in 1932 behind Saint-Lazare Station in Paris, France. The shot was taken just a moment before the man landed in the water pool. The reflection in water pool is unspoiled. A moment later everything would be gone. A moment early will be a moment too early. The distance between the soul of the shoe and its reflection is perfect in the shot. Also pay attention to the composition of the shot. The photographer took the entire reflection of man in the frame and didn’t concentrate only on the foot. The geometrical patterns and features is a very prominent theme in HCB’s photographs. In this shot we see the railings in the background as well as reflected in the pool. However, the main subject of the photograph is out of focus. But the focus is not a big deal for this photograph. The composition and perfect timing more than make up for the focus.

Decisive Moment. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1932.

Photo 1: Decisive Moment. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1932.

The second example is a photograph of a boy carrying a painting. This was taken by HCB in Mexico City in 1963. The geometric forms are very prominent in this shot. The fence on the right and left side of photograph forms a perfect frame. The zigzag pattern of road in the middle of the two is emphasized by the fence on the right side. Had there been no one in the picture, this shot would have looked very empty. But having this kid exactly where he is adds a new dimension to the shot. All of the sudden it’s not the picture of fence and road but of a boy carrying the picture and still none of the feature is obstructed by his presence. He is at the right position at the right time. That is the decisive moment.

Decisive Moment. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Berisson, Mexico City, 1963.

Photo 2: Decisive Moment. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mexico City, 1963.

Let’s now move on to the photographer of the day.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004):

Henri Cartier-Bresson is often referred as father of modern photojournalism.  He was one of the first to take 35mm film photography. He was one of the first street photographers. His claim to international fame came when he captured Gandhi’s funeral in India.

Decisive moments and geometric patterns were key features of his photographic style. Few examples:

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, France. 1932. The Quai St Bernard, near the Gare dAusterlitz train station.

Photo 3: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, France. 1932. The Quai St Bernard, near the Gare d'Austerlitz train station.

Photo 3: Note the geometric pattern in this shot. The opening of bridge from one end of shot to the other divides the photo in three distinctive zones. Slums on the left, railroad in middle and two well dressed gentlemen on the sidewalk in the right. And the change in the area of opening in middle gives a sense that they all started at one point and were separated later on.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. France. 1932.

Photo 4: Henri Cartier-Bresson. France. 1932.

Photo 4: Yet another example of geometric pattern and decisive moment. Note the complex pattern of stairs and railings. They seem to compliment each other (horizontal and vertical patterns) in a unique way. The curvature of street  seems to follow the curvature of railing. The only empty space in the whole frame is where the cyclist is. His placement in otherwise static frame was again a great example of decisive moment.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Shanghai, China. December 1948-January 1949.

Photo 5: Henri Cartier-Bresson. Shanghai, China. December 1948-January 1949.

Photo 5: A  great photojournalistic photo. The event was gold rush in Sanghai, China. As the value of the paper money sank, the Kuomintang decided to distribute 40 grams of gold per person. With the gold rush, in December, thousands came out and waited in line for hours. The police, equipped with the remnants of the armies of the International Concession, made only a gesture toward maintaining order. Ten people were crushed to death.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Tamil Nadu (Madurai), India. 1950.

Photo 6: Henri Cartier-Bresson. Tamil Nadu (Madurai), India. 1950.

Photo 6: This is one of my favorite photo by HCB. Note the pattern of circular wheel being repeated by the hand of the mother and rib cage of the child. The shot captures the restlessness in India in the aftermath of partition.

HCB authored several books along the way. Few recommended ones:

  • The Decisive Moment, 1952, Simon & Schuster, New York.
  • The Europeans, 1955, Simon & Schuster, New York.
  • China in Transition, 1956, Thames and Hudson, London.
  • Tête à tête, 1998, Thames and Hudson, London.
  • The Mind’s Eye, 1999, Aperture, New York.
  • An Inner SIlence: The portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson, 2006, Thames and Hudson, New York.

If you want to see more photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, click here.

Few of my favorite quotes/tips from HCB:

  • [Photography 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.
  • To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.
  • [Flashes are] impolite…like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand.

That’s it for today. Will be back with DOF photos soon.


November 24, 2008 Posted by | Art | , , | 3 Comments