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The photographic time. Part 2 - What the hell is the decisive moment?

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As we stated in our previous article [The photographic time. Part 1 – What happens when we take a photograph?], the photographic time is determined by the selection of the moment we take a photograph and the duration of the shutter being open. Further, in photography we can identify time in diverse ways. We can identify the ‘freezing’ of a certain moment, we can imply durational time, for example through a long exposure that creates the illusion of movement, we can identify a symbolic representation of time through objects, symbols and forms, etc. In any case, we may identify time not directly by experiencing it, but through space, compositional elements and symbols. In fact, we invent time through the traces of its absence and only as a result of our own projections upon what we see. In all these though, photographer plays a major role in terms of deciding on the input of a critical parameter: the exact time at which a photograph is taken. As Platon Rivellis stated to in[+]frame in a recent interview [Platon Rivellis speaks to in[+]frame]:

« photography we have space, time, the reality of the subject being photographed and the intervention of the photographer, who transforms those three elements into a personal reality that would not exist without him...»

From a time aspect, this transformation is succeeded through the selection of the exact unique moment which one decides to ‘pull the trigger’ and take the shot. The photographic result depends on certain decisions made by the photographer and these decisions may or may not take the process of photography to a higher level of creation, which we commonly refer to it using the term ‘decisive moment’. This term was adopted as a title for Cartier-Bresson’s book (1952) published in English language (‘Images à la Sauvette’ in the original French publication) and the meaning the photographer gave to it can be summarized as following:

«...To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression...»

Further on, he explains that

«...inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it...»

So, obviously, the ‘decisive moment’ does not appear when we photograph a still subject (for example a still landscape or a portrait). The ‘decisive moment’ is about a crucial moment in time, in which an event unfurls (Cutler, 2012). This notion is similar to Lessing’s ‘pregnant moment’ in painting. Lessing (1853) argued that painting can

«...only represent a single moment of action and must therefore represent the most pregnant moment which best allows us to infer what has gone before and what follows… [This single moment] must be the most fruitful of all that can be chosen. Only that one is fruitful however, that gives free reign to the imagination...»

From Bresson’s and Lessing’s statements we can understand that they are not talking about time alone, but they also refer to the importance of the composition at a specific time. A composition that ‘gives free reign to the imagination’.

In addition, the ‘decisive moment’ has often been interpreted as a ‘story telling moment’, but as Lessing notices it is not really about an existing story, it is about the image’s capability to stimulate our imagination and help us project a story. Similarly, Szarkowski (1966) argues about Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’:

«…the phrase has been misunderstood: the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one»

In other words the photographic result is not a story, a drama, but a picture, where balance, clarity and order are achieved through the cohesion of form and pattern. At this particular frozen moment, when an event is detached from its inextricable binding with time, we witness a

«...spatial immediacy and a temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the ‘here-now’ and the ‘there-then’...»

(Barthes, 1977)

This dialogue between here and there, and now and then, is what makes ‘the decisive moment’ so interesting in photography. While all photographs are postures from reality, our time and space perception contradicts our eye and brain. As for the emotions provoked by the ‘hunting’ of such a decisive moment we cite Bresson’s own words:

«...I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung‐up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life – to preserve life in the act of living. I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes...»

In lieu of an epilogue

«...Immobilizing these thin slices of time has been a source of continuing fascination for the photographer. And while pursuing this experiment he discovered something else: he discovered that there was a pleasure and a beauty in this fragmenting of time that had little to do with what was happening. It had to do rather with seeing the momentary patterning of lines and shapes that had been previously concealed within the flux of movement...»

(Szarkowski, 1966)


  • Barthes, R. (1977). The Rethoric of the Image. In S. Heath (Ed.), Image, Music, Text (pp. 32–51). New York: Hill and Wang.

  • Cartier-Bresson, H. (1952). The Decisive Moment. New York: Simon and Schuster.

  • Cutler, R. (2012). Photography and time: decoding the decisive moment. University of Brighton.

  • Lessing, G. E. (1853). Laokoon: the limits of painting and poetry [translated from the German (1766) by E.C. Beasley]. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.

  • Szarkowski, J. (1966). The photographer’s eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art.


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