Research notes – The decisive moment

The following comments are in response to the article “The indecisiveness of the decisive moment” by Zouhair Ghazzal (1)

The fundamental premise of Ghazzal’s article is based on the understanding that the concept of the decisive moment is no longer relevant in the context of the modern globalised city-town, where presumably communities have been homogenised and, in the words of the author “…where not much was happening” (1). Ghazzal’s idea of the decisive moment, in its most effective incarnation, requires the photograph to split time at the precise junction that would elicit from the viewer a narrative spanning the time before and after the moment of the capture, thus giving meaning to what was captured. This coincides with the view of Cartier-Bresson himself, when he mentions that “…photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression”(2). For Cartier-Bresson, the existence of an event was indeed fundamental to his photography, which was only there for the purpose of giving such event a meaning. Ghazzal goes on to argue that the less successful decisive moment-type photographs lack this meaning and primarily rely on the relationship of form, light and gestures to sustain interest from the viewer, without any lasting message.

The confluence of Ghazzal’s view on what constitutes an effective decisive moment image, and his observation that the modern urban landscape is devoid of character and variety, and consequently lacking any events worth  capturing, would sustain his view that Cartier-Bresson’s view of photography is no longer relevant. Yet one has to wander to what extent this premise is sustained by the alleged lack of interesting action (which is subjective in any case) rather than by the lack of ability or desire by modern practitioners to effectively capture (or even seek out) such fleeting but interesting moments that, when correctly captured, could elicit that narrative or meaning that Ghazzal considers central to the idea of the decisive moment.

Ghazzal’s critique of the decisive moment also seems to center on the reliance by that type of photography on gestures, with the implication being that either one would get tired of seeing gestures at one point; or that the photographer would be somehow severely limited in his or her expressive abilities by this. Both arguments may be strictly correct, but I am struggling to see how any of this would explain why the decisive moment seems to have fallen out of grace in recent times (if indeed that has happened). With regards to the second point, Cartier-Bresson never implied that his view of photography was anything other than his own (3), and one would expect that other photographers after him would have developed their own vision based on whatever technique and restrictions they would want to impose on themselves to deliver that vision. For me, the overreliance of the decisive moment on gesture is no less (or more) reprochable than the overreliance of certain Dusseldorf school photographers on the correction of perspective, for example, yet to me both types of photography, with their limitations, are equally valid as means of expression in the contemporary world.

As for the first point, I am left wandering to what extent the backlash against the decisive moment is more a question of saturation? Ghazzal talks at some point earlier in his article about the decisive moment becoming a “legendary didactic notion, something similar perhaps to “the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism”…”(1). I can sympathise with this view to the extent that most of today’s street photography, both at the amateur and professional level, seems to be rooted on the basic formula of juxtaposition of elements, but perhaps, as Ghazzal laments, mostly in a way that leaves the viewer in front of just an anecdote without meaning. This, however, is more that anything else an issue of quality and should not detract from the validity or current relevance of the decisive moment as a means of expression. Perhaps the future, as with everything else, is the evolution of the decisive moment beyond the gestures, but still somehow capturing the essence of that fleeting moment that would merge the vision of the photographer with the elements within the frame.

—————- ooo —————-

In connection with the subject of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the decisive moment, I also read the article “Nothing to Do with Me” by Gaby Wood as published by the London Review of Books in June 2014 (4).

Wood frames her critique of the decisive moment from a different angle than Ghazzal. Rather than focusing on the timing and the relevance of gestures, Wood’s main concern seems to be the excessive formality in some of Cartier-Bresson’s efforts, which rob the final photographs of a sense of humanity and intimacy. Wood notes that Cartier-Bresson himself “…sought to record ‘the emotion of the subject…that is, a geometric awakened by what’s offered” (5), but she doubts there is any connection between emotion and geometry, and then goes on to conclude that some of his most celebrated pictures feel impersonal because they are too precisely composed, with “…nothing raw about them, and you find yourself thinking: would it not be more interesting if his moments were a little less decisive?”(6)

Wood then makes the comparison between Cartier-Bresson approach as a photojournalist, essentially somebody reporting on something as an outsider, to that of his contemporary Jacques Henri Lartigue, who was primarily an amateur taking pictures of his family and close friends. According to Wood, the fact that Lartigue was an insider to the images he was producing allowed him to infuse them with a familiarity and perhaps intimacy that is lacking in some of the “decisive moment” pictures of Cartier-Bresson. Wood hammers this point later in the article when she talks about the photoghraphs that Cartier-Bresson took during the second world war, at a time when he was an escaped prisoner of war and consequently, more able to empathise with the subjects of his pictures, resulting in photographs that were “both powerful and difficult”(7).

Wood´s comments on Cartier-Bresson excessive formalism seems to have an indirect tie-back to Ghazzal critique: the juxtaposition of elements itself without a clear meaning will soon fall flat and bore the viewer. It is consequentially essential to be clear on what one aims to portray and to make sure that the message is given as much importance as the arrangement of the elements of the frame, which in the end must only serve the purpose of conveying that message.


(1) Ghazzal, Z. (2004) Decisive moments. Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

(2) Cartier-Bresson, H. and Sand, M.L. (1999) The mind’s eye: Writings on photography and photographers. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, p. 42

(3) In his article “The Decisive Moment”, Cartier-Bresson mentions that he has “…talked at some length, but of only one kind of photography. There are many kinds…I don’t attempt to define it for everyone. I only attempt to define it to myself” (Cartier-Breslin, H. and Sand, M.L., op.cit., p. 42)

(4) Wood, G. (2014) “Nothing to Do with Me,” London Review of Books, 36(11), pp. 23–25.

(5) Ibid, p. 24.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid, p. 25.


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