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Reflections on the decisive moment

‘II n’y a rien en ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif” [there is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment] ….. ‘and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.’

Cardinal de Retz, quoted by O’Hagan.

There are so many opinions expressed about Bresson’s Decisive Moment (originally published 1952) that I wanted to read it myself, first hand, rather than second or third hand through the voices of positive and negative commentators. For such a seminal book, it is surprisingly difficult and expensive to come by, even following the reprint in 2015. The book’s photographs can be readily seen on Magnum’s website and Bresson’s narrative can be found in the reasonably priced book, The Mind’s Eye.

The Decisive Moment is a personal account by Bresson of how he defines his specific type of photography (reportage, and what could now be called ’street’), he states, ‘I have talked at some length, but of only one kind of photography [photojournalism]. There are many kinds’. He explains that he doesn’t attempt to define it for everyone, saying, ‘I only attempt to define it to myself’. While it is a book of its time, I find it problematic when Ghazzal suggests that the decisive moments are not possible to capture in a dull modern landscape, with his focus on photos as the output, rather than Bresson’s words as principles. It is self-evident that a modern urban landscape will not present the same context for images that Bresson found 50 years before Ghazzal’s writing. To me, Bresson’s words relate more to his principles of photography than to specific subject matter and these can lend themselves to application in any environment, producing photographs stylistically very different to Bresson’s own.

Often quoted from the book is Bresson’s personal definition of photography, ‘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 organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.’ However, the remainder of the text provides valuable context, leaving little reason to second-guess Bresson’s intention or meaning. He talks about his reportage work as a ‘picture story’. In some cases he says that a single picture is a whole story, ‘but this rarely happens’. So, he does not suggest that a decisive moment is common-place.

Bresson contrasts photography with other arts, saying ‘of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instance ….. the writer has time to reflect. He can accept and reject.’ Photography is necessarily, decisive.

The importance of awareness and discrimination in photography is emphasised, ‘to avoid shooting like a machine-gunner and burdening yourself with useless recordings’. Bresson explains that ‘it is essential to cut from the raw material of life – to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination’.

He emphasises the importance of the relationship between the photographer and the photographed, saying that ‘a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin everything. When the subject is in any way uneasy, their personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it’. He talks about the importance of approaching the subject ‘on tiptoe’. The event may lose its significance and the connection between subject and environment, if the subject becomes too interested in the photographer.

Composition is of the highest importance to Bresson, ‘the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye’. He talks about ‘plasticity’ in lines made as a scene unfolds in front of a photographer and how ‘inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance’. This being the moment photography must seize.  Decisive. However, he clearly explains that composition, ‘at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition’. With analysis left for ‘post-mortum examination of the picture’.

On developing photographs, Bresson doesn’t have many words, but they are concise, saying ‘… it is essential to re-create the values and mood of the time the picture was taken; or even to modify the prints so as to bring it into line with the intentions of the photographer at the moment he shot it. It is necessary also to re-establish the balance which the eye is continually establishing between light and shadow.’ This aspect, for most photographers now, means being adept in the use of Lightroom or similar tools, rather than Bresson’s dark room.

Bresson’s words are wise suggestions for how to approach reportage / street photography and they can act as principles that can be applied differently in different places and times. As O’Hagan suggest, in  modern context ‘it might be better applied to, say, Garry Winogrand or Joel Meyerowitz, photographers who pounded the streets in search of the right convergence of light, action and expression rather than patterns and geometry.’ However, in one important aspect Bresson’s words are incomplete for the modern reader – colour photography was in its infancy and digital photography (and Photoshop) a distant horizon at the time of writing, so we will never know his thoughts on these aspects.


Bresson HC (1999). The Mind’s Eye, writings on photography and photographers. Published by the Aperture Foundation, New York.

Ghazzal Z (2004). The indecisiveness of the decisive moment [online, August 12]. Available from http://zouhairghazzal.com/photos/aleppo/cartier-bresson.htm [accessed 5.5.15]

O’Hagan S. 2014. Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his decisive moment has passed. 23 December. The Guardian [online]Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography [accessed 14.4.15]


Magnum photos [online]. Book – the decisive momement [showing images from the book]. Available from http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRG6C5YD0 [accessed 6.5.15]

Pantall C. 2012. The present17 May. The Photo-Eye Blog [online]. Available from:http://www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2012/05_17_The_Present.cfm [accessed 14.4.15]

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