Part 3

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.

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(1) Ghazzal, Z. (2004) Decisive moments. Available at: http://zouhairghazzal.com/photos/aleppo/cartier-bresson.htm (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.

Research notes – Maarten Vanvolsem

The following comments follow from reading the article “Motion! On how to deal with the paradox in dance photography” (1) by Maarten Vanvolsem, a Belgian photographer and scholar.

Dr Vanvolsem, which main area of research is the relationship between photography and time, writes on this article about the limitations of traditional photographic equipment (ie cameras equipped with a central shutter) to capture the essence of dance, that is the choreographed movement. He talks about how various other photographers have tried to resolve this problem, including the use of various dancers moving simultaneously (see for example, here), in the same way as the timed sequences of chronophotography popularised by Dr Etienne-Jules Marey in the late 19th century to study the movement of animals (the so called Marey-effect (link)). The problem with this, Dr Vanvolsem reasons, is that none of these attempts are able to overcome the issue of stillness that is inherent to central-shutter photography: you are only able to capture a particular moment of the dance, a specific movement or passage in the sequence, but there is no way to get a feeling of the timing and the choreography. As a result, most of the traditional dance photography is primarily focused on the dancer rather than the dance itself.

Dr Vanvolsem then suggests that one way of overcoming this is by using  the slit-scan technique, which aims to capture a small strip of the frame over time, rather than the whole frame at once. This is, in a way, like a small motion picture captured in one frame of film. The technique of slit-scan allows the viewer to get a sense of not only motion, but acceleration as well, which would then enable the photoghrapher to depict the choreography of a dance. There are, however, limitations to this. Dr Vanvolsem uses some of his own images to illustrate his research and in my opinion, this shows that the technique is not very effective for choreographies that do not require the displacement of the dancer. In his image “Contraction of Movement 3” (link), the dancer seems to be girating on her feet and is difficult to get any sense of timing or acceleration in here. His image “Silent Move 12” (link), as well as another of his dance images available in http://www.kunstinhetdorp.be (link), are actually more effective at showing what the choreography would entail, as they include both vertical and horizontal desplacement of the dancer as well as a sense of the acceleration of her moves.

The slit-scan technique can also be used from a different perspective, which is that of the dancer. In a way that is not different from the use of action cams these days, Dr Vanvolsem explores how the choreography can be depicted by the moving of the camera around the space in the same way as the dancer moves: there is no fixed perspective or central point of view, resulting in an image that resembles a twisted 360 degree panorama (link). In these cases, because we do not have the reference of the dancer moving against a fixed background, is more difficult to decipher the choreography. Nonetheless, the images convey a clear sense of movement and acceleration, and are likely to be more suitable to depict dances where the performer does not displace his or her body too much.

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(1) Vanvolsem, M., Motion! On how to deal with the paradox in dance photography. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 23 (2008). Available from: http://www.imageandnarrative.be/timeandphotography/vanvolsem.htm (accessed on: 13 November 2016)

Research notes – Robert Frank

Robert Frank (b. 1924) is a Swiss-American photographer
The following notes are in connection with his book “The Americans”(1). These are some general comments on the layout and format of the book.

  • Book is presented in landscape format
  • Only one picture per two page spread
  • Pictures are all black and white
  • Most pictures are in landscape orientation, but some are in portrait orientation.

Robert Frank’s pictures in The Americans were primarily made in the “decisive moment” tradition whereas a particular gesture, action or interaction between the elements make the picture unique and attractive. But is there anything beyond that?…I think there is when you consider the collection of pictures as a whole. They depict various aspects of American lifestyle as well as some of its history and contradictions. The flag features prominently in many of the pictures, but is not the only symbol of America present, you also have images of Santa, large cars, elaborate jukeboxes, dinners. 

But is not only people or decisive moments. There are also more contemplative images, particularly towards the end of the book: pictures of deserted towns taken from a high window, partially blocked by mesh; magazine stands against imposing skyscrapers; abandoned rural townships; cars parked in a driveway, protected by a fabric cover; empty barbershops. All of these can be related to aspects of America, and to human activity, but the lack of action in these shots allow for pause, for the viewer to be able to stop and reflect upon what the photographer is trying to say, without the distractions of gesture and timeliness. Frank arranges these pictures in the middle of action shots , and in some cases the juxtaposition works particularly well. The shot of the covered parked car (link) is followed by one in which cowboys look at what looks like a cadaver or a carcass, similarly covered by cloth (link – this picture was taken after a car accident), thus providing a visual link between the prosperity of some of America’s urban areas against the neglect and deprivation of the countryside.

Some of the pictures are grainy, out of focus and in some cases the composition is very unconventional. Sometimes is does work well (the opening picture with the lady partially blocked by a flying flag – link, there picture of the celebrity out of focus, with the focus on the fans in the background – link), but in other cases the pictures are too loopsided (the best example of this is the man in black standing just below a wooden staircase, with his head fully blocked – link, but it is also noticeable in other pictures like the one of the soldier walking alongside his girlfriend, where the soldier is partially out of the frame and there is space to the left of the girlfriend that seemingly adds nothing to the picture – link). Judging by the quality of the prints in the book, it is clear that Frank was not as concerned about clarity and sharpness of outcome, as he was concerned in portraying his vision.
Many of the pictures have blocked views, or include reflections. It seems that Frank was interested in this to the point of making it the most attractive feature of some of the images (eg school of art picture – link, previously mentioned picture of man standing below staircase, man playing tuba – link). Other pictures also include elements that are in the border of the frame and sometimes the frame is tilted to allow for this, all of which creates additional drama (eg corpse at a funeral – link).  

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(1) Frank, R. (1993) The Americans. United Kingdom: Cornerhouse Publications.

Research notes – Hiroshi Sugimoto

The following comments are made in response to the video “Contacts vol 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto” (1) which can be found here.

When I first read about Sugimoto’s work “Theaters”, I imagined that the long exposures would be of the people in the cinemas, not of the actual screens. The idea for “Theaters” actually came to Sugimoto while talking to himself. It is interesting to see that he had a vision of what he wanted to show, and that such vision later came out as he imagined in his head. In the same way as I, as the espectator, had an idea of what his “Theaters” pictures would look like before seeing them (although in this case turned out to be incorrect), Sugimoto’s previsualisation is also helpful as a tool for the artist before undertaking any work, in as much as it provides the blueprint for delivering his or her vision. One, however, should be open to dealing with unexpected results and be able to either overcome or embrace the obstacles between the pre-vision and the final result.

Sugimoto’s work is highly conceptual and one gets the sense that photography in his case is just a means for delivering something else. His series “Seascapes” for instance, arguably breaks several rules of conventional photography: the scenes are without a clear focal point, the horizon is right in the middle and in some occasions it seems he is photographing nothing but haze or fog. Yet when one hears the artist explain his motivations and what he wanted to achieve, and one looks at the pictures in this context, it does work and it does elicit a reaction which is compatible with that concept.

Another interesting aspect of Sugimoto’s work, and something that connects many of his series, is his attempts to incorporate concepts of time and age within a visual medium. The most direct example is his usage of long exposure in the “Theaters” series, but his idea behind the “Seascapes” series was to create a scene devoid of any human influence so as to transport the viewer back in time to the origins of mankind, to the scene that the fist man on earth would probably have first seen when reaching a coastline for the first time. Likewise, in his “Wax Figures” series and his “Buddha” series Sugimoto tries to replicate, respectively, the lighting conditions used by the old masters in the 18th and 19th century, and the lighting available to people in medieval times, to alter the aesthetics of the photographs and transform them into something which is out of sync with their reality (for instance, some of his “Wax Figures” photographs do resemble actual sitting portraits of a living person, rather than the mere record of inanimated dummies), thus creating a sense of doubt in the spectator.

In his “Wax Figures” series, Sugimoto also explores the idea of what is real and what is an illusion. By using portrait lighting techniques on realistic three-dimensional models, Sugimoto creates realistic portraits that at first do not look like wax mannequins, but represent “idealised visions” of the actual persons portrayed, with Sugimoto pointing out that “people tend to believe whatever the photographic image is”. On the same theme but creating the opposite effect, in his “Architecture” series Sugimoto shots famous buildings deliberately out of focus, creating the immediate impression that one is not looking at reality, but a simplified representation of it. Sugimoto also plays with time in this series, his intention being to go back in time to “…capture the image of (the) architect’s image of the building before they build the building…”. In that respect, these images also represent idealised visions of those structures, as they were in the mind of their creators, with their defects being stripped out by the severe blur created by Sugimoto’s focusing decision, and appearing as if in a dream.

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(1) Ted Tezeu (2011) Contacts vol 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto. Available at: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mcbEgEv2kUw (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

Research notes – Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander (b 1934) is an American photographer.

The following comments are in regards to the retrospective book “Friedlander” published by MoMA (1). I first make some general observations on the layout and format of the book

  • Large portrait book
  • Chronologically arranged
  • No particular subject, but themes are arranged by chapters and some themes are repeated (eg Friedlander made a series “at work” in the 1980 followed by another one in the 1990s)
  • Images are not particularly large and there may be several of them over a two page spread. There is plenty of room around the pictures.
  • Pictures are mostly black and white
  • Different orientations are combined (ie you may have a two page spread with two portraits and one landscape-oriented image)

Friedlander’s work is very comprehensive and includes not only portraits and street photography work, but many pictures of objects and contexts that would normally not constitute the most attractive of subjects (eg landscapes taken from the inside of modern cars – link, or fences – link).

Many of his pictures include a combination of actual subjects and shadows / relections, to great effect in some cases. The photographer’s shadow or reflection is part of several of his pictures and in some cases we can distinguish facial features but in many others his image appears blocked. One particular picture in which his shadow plays an important part is that of a lady walking down the street with the photographer head and shoulders’ shadow cast on the lady’s back (link). It gives the impression as if the photographer is about to fall on top of her.
Some of Friedlander pictures have a clear sense of timing, as in the “decisive moment” (eg tourist with shadow taking photograph in Florence, with the copy of the David (also casting a shadow) on the background – link), but in general he took pictures of objects and how these objects were arranged in the frame is what really made the pictures stand and being interested. He also showed great reception to what was going on around him, and his series of pictures featuring TV sets showing giant eyes or interesting facial expressions (link), in the context of modest room settings shows his ability to be ready to capture the precise moment for maximum visual impact. 
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(1) Friedlander, L., Galassi, P., Benson, R., Friedl, L. and er, P.G. (2005) Friedlander: [publ. In conjunction with the exhibition “Friedlander”, at the museum of modern art, New York, June 5 – august 29, 2005]. 2nd edn. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Research notes – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) was a French photographer and painter and a co-founder of the Magnum Agency.

The following notes are on the first edition (1952) of “Images a la sauvette”(1). First some general observations on the layout and format of the book

  • Book presented on portrait perspective.
  • Pictures are presented on every page, sometimes three on a two page spread. There is a combination of both portrait and landscape oriented images.
  • All pictures are black and white
  • The format of presentation is large and there is virtually no blank space between pictures.
  • Images appear to be over enlarged (some are too grainy and lack definition). The book is imposing, but the quality of printing is not there and the small format camera with which Cartier-Bresson took these pictures does not justify this level of enlargement.

My initial impression was that the whole point of “Images a la sauvette” was to portray the decisive moment (in which a photography works), but some of the images are surprisingly static: images of fruit for sale – link, horse harness blankets – link.

Some of the images make strong use of the tension caused by placing objects in the border of the frame, but Cartier-Bresson was sometimes careless about extraneous elements on the edge of the frame (which unfortunately he refused to crop?). This could perhaps be attributable to the imprecise frames of a rangefinder camera in some cases, but in others it is clear that he was either not paying attention to this or that he did not care. Some pictures are ruined by this (eg cyclist in front of empty tables – link).

——————- ooo ——————-

I also had a look at the documentary “L’amour tout court”(2). In its full version (which can be seen, with the audio removed due to copyright restrictions, in here), an interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson is intercut with short passages by some acquaintances of the photographer, including the writer Yves Bonnefoy, painter Avigdor Arikha and filmmaker Otar Iosseliani. Some of the comments made by these artists complements Cartier-Bresson’s view on photography (for example, both Arikha and Cartier-Bresson seem to agree on the importance of visiting museums as a way of learning how to “look”), but in some other cases these seems to be contradictory views. For example, in one passage Bonnefoy praises Cartier-Bresson ability to sustain a conversation with friends while at the same time being able to take a photograph. A few minutes later Cartier-Bresson himself would say that photography takes enormous concentration and that you cannot have a conversation while taking pictures.

The documentary includes some insights into what is important for Cartier-Bresson as a photographer. One thing that comes across quite clear is that in many cases he was not particularly worried about the results and was more interested in the shooting process as a way of documenting life, not apparently unlike Gary Winogrand, for instance, who derived great pleasure from the act of shooting. His general attitude towards the technical elements of photography seems to be that of indifference. Some comments he makes seem to suggest that he did not develop his own film, for instance; while some photographs seem to have been “retouched” by the publishers of some of his books to improve the impact of the picture when viewed.

What seem to matter most to Cartier-Bresson is being receptive to the situation in front of us and prepared for the fleeting moment in which the subject will align in harmony with its surroundings. Cartier-Bresson attributes  some of his photographs to luck (Gare Saint-Lazare, for instance, where he could not see the man jumping the poodle through his camera’s viewfinder) and in a way seems to denounce previsualisation – at least for the purposes of street photography – as useless when he affirms “if you want it, you get nothing”. I have been wondering myself if he meant to say more by this, if what he really wanted to say was that there was no point in taking a rehearsed picture because there is no real life (as in spontaneity or sense of immediacy) in it, no real sense of the organic.

Notwithstanding the above, Cartier-Bresson places great emphasis in form (above even light) and makes the point, repeatedly, that photographs (like other visual art forms, perhaps) should adhere to the principles of the golden ratio when looking at the placement of elements within the frame. Geometry and proportion thus played an important part in his way of taking pictures, but there was more than that. He also placed great emphasis in the meaning and interpretation of what we shoot, in a deepening of the process of looking, of making associations between what we are capturing and how that can convey a concept. Many of the pictures shown in the documentary had an idea behind them, and the artists himself, or a critic looking at this, could elaborate on that idea, and how it was reflected in the interaction between the various elements arranged within the frame, at the precise time when such arrangement made sense. That, for me, represents the essence of the “decisive moment” and perhaps what separates Cartier-Bresson, and many other great practitioners of this type of photography, such as Friedlander, Winogrand and Frank, from the less successful imitators that just place organic and geometric forms together without any sense of purpose other than to satisfy a certain aesthetic.

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(1)  Cartier-Bresson, H. (1952) Images a la sauvette. 1st edn. Paris: Editions Verve.
(2) O’Byrne, R. (2001) Henri Cartier Bresson – just plain love (documentary). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYYwqo8HKbw (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

Research notes – Michael Wesely

Michael Wesely (b 1963) is a German photographer

The following comments are made on his book “Open Shutter” (1)

First I would like to record some observations on the book’s general layout and format:

  • The book opens in landscape format
  • Long text introduction precedes the pictures
  • Pictures are presented in black and white and colour.
  • Nearly all pictures are presented in landscape format, and there are shown one for every two pages (but there are two page spreads to provide details).
  • The location and time the picture was taken is shown on the left hand side page.

Wesely’s work is highly technical in his execution. One could perhaps draw parallels with Thomas Ruff’s JPEG in terms of the technique being central to the premise of the collection of images, but in this case there is something magical about the results. Every picture shows elements which are very clearly defined (and I believe Wesely’s choice of large format camera with quality lens for this work does indeed accentuate that), there are then elements that are slightly in motion, or which motion has been clearly captured by the film and there are others that are just barely recorded, perhaps just a glimmer of light or a slight shadow: buildings that started being part of the image but that were slowly dismantled, or those structures that were not there in the first place but were built step by step during the exposure time. In the very long exposures, humans passing by are not even recorded, their transit through the frame being too short for them to leave any trace, and all of that is what creates a metaphor for humanity’s ephemeral transition through time.

The longer exposures are quite enjoyable, but we must recognise that for all its technical preparation, and indeed Wesely shows a great degree of meticulousness in setting up his shots, in the end the results are essentially out of the photographer’s control, and in some cases work well but in others the effect is perhaps too subtle (eg Abbau Infobox, Berlin (link) and 15.06.2001 – 18.02.2003 MoMA NY (link)). While one would be tempted to believe this is the antithesis of the “decisive moment”, as conceived by Cartier-Bresson, the philosophy of both approaches is not that much apart. For Cartier-Bresson, it was very important to be able to observe and to be receptive to events as a precondition to being able to capture them. In many cases, as he himself said, our ability to capture such moments is primarily down to chance, to luck. I feel that Wesely’s work also shares that element of luck, while also being receptive to what was going in the locations where he set his equipment, and on and anticipating what may be captured by the camera.

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(1) Meister, S.H. and Michael (2005) Michael Wesely: Open shutter. New York: Distributed in the United States and Canada by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.