Henri Cartier-Bresson and the other decisive moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson helped develop a style of photography that influenced generations of photographers that followed. He was a master of quick composition and became known as the photographer of “The Decisive Moment” (the title of his 1952 book).The idea of photographing the decisive moment is sometimes misinterpreted by new photographers as photographing ONLY the decisive moment. That is, getting it in one shot only. That was my impression when growing up. But a look at Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets reveals that in fact he shot very prolifically. A new article in The Independent notes that he shot one scene 16 times. I love the article’s quote from Truman Capote (from The Dogs Bark (1973)):

Cartier-Bresson is another tasse de thé entirely – self-sufficient to a fault. I remember once watching Bresson at work on a street in New Orleans – dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas swinging from straps around his neck, a fourth one hugged to his eye: click-click-click (the camera seems part of his own body) clicking away with a joyous intensity, a religious absorption. Nervous and merry and dedicated, Bresson is an artistic ‘loner’, a bit of a fanatic.

That reminded me of a comment on the Leica Users Group (by B. D. Colen):

And for all the talk of the decisive moment, he shot like a machine gun, and really worked his scenes. Eugene Richards tells the story of first being voted into Magnum, and immediately heading for the filing cabinets that held HCB contact sheets. He said he was amazed at what a prolific shooter HCB was shot after shot after shot after shot of the same subject, worked from every conceivable angle.

Although we photographers try very hard to capture the decisive moment, there is also a secondary decisive moment: when we go through and edit all of our work, and decide which photos represent the decisive moments. 🙂

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