‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment’
When Cardinal de Retz (1613-1679) made this statement he was talking from a political perspective, suggesting that the art of leadership is strengthened by the ability to recognise and seize the ‘moment’. The phrase ‘the decisive moment’ came to the attention of the photographic world when it was used as the title of the English version of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, ‘Images à la Sauvette’ (1952). Nowadays it is – particularly in the world of social media groups – a buzzword for countless photography enthusiasts and seems to simply relate to the decision – often misguidedly – to press the shutter button. The original, intended meaning – ‘when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation’ (John Suler, The Psychology of the Decisive Moment) is, to some extent, lost.
One early photographer who embraced the idea of such a moment was Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946): he appears to have had the patience of a saint (as well as a strong constitution, lol) in waiting for the above moment: three hours in a snowstorm, reportedly. Here are his own words:
‘On Washington’s birthday in 1893, a great blizzard raged in New York. I stood on a corner of Fifth Avenue, watching the lumbering stagecoaches appear through the blinding snow and move northward on the avenue. The question formed itself: could what I was experiencing, seeing, be put down with the slot plates and lenses available? The light was dim. Knowing that where there is light, one can photograph, I decided to make an exposure. After three hours of standing in the blinding snow, I saw the stagecoach come struggling up the street with the driver lashing his horses onward. At that point, I was nearly out of my head, but I got the exposure I wanted.’
I have always enjoyed the resulting photograph for a variety of reasons, not least because I believe the photographer achieved his intention.
Following the stoicism of Stieglitz, it seems somewhat trite to mention that I waited almost five minutes for the photograph above. On the promenade at Cleethorpes. On a sunny day. I had initially been attracted by the shape of tyre tracks in the sand before I noticed a strolling couple on a course that I believed might coincide with those tracks. The judgement proved accurate; the silhouetted figures in the background were, interestingly, all separate and, because my attention was centred on the woman and child, I feel this is an example of luck. Whatever, I only noticed this once I had downloaded my image.
I had to hold my nerve for the snap of the ice cream vendor, above. Only a minute or so wait, camera to my eye, but on a busy-ish day with several passers-by. I was going on the hunch that sooner or later, someone with their head down and involved with a task will look up. I tried to half hide behind a giant plastic ice cream and the result was that luckily, although I was discovered, it appears (to me, anyway) that the attention of the salesperson is drawn to that giant piece of gimmickry.
And on to ‘the lucky break’, unexpected moments that add to the success of an image rather than, as is more often the case in my experience, ruin it. I had already made one photograph of the scene below – I was attracted by the geometry of it – but felt I needed to slightly reposition myself; just as I made the second photograph a figure appeared into the scene. In white, catching the sunlight and carrying a clipboard which made an interesting shape. The intrusion enhanced the photograph in my opinion; the original intention, the play of line and shape, was still there but now there was some human interest. I can’t claim it. Or can I? As the saying goes: ‘you make your own luck’.
In the course of preparing this blog I came across two very interesting articles. ‘Alfred Stieglitz: The Terminal and Winter, Fifth Avenue’ by Linda Tate (www.thestoryweb.com) and ‘The Psychology of the Decisive Moment’ by John Suler.
My pictures were taken using an Olympus OMD with a Zuiko lens.