Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Dialogue on Defining Moments

A day at the (camel) races (12 of 14)
On August 18th, Scott Bourne posted an entry on the PhotoFocus blog with his thoughts on “Defining Moments.”  I encourage you to follow the link and read Scott’s excellent thoughts on defining moments in photography.
I would like to thank Scott for making this post – it sparked a good conversation with a close friend and fellow photographer; John Downey at Far Out Photographic.
Just to set the context, Scott’s post was inspired by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who was known for capturing defining moments; in large part due to his 1952 book The Decisive Moment.  So what does a defining or decisive moment mean?  I would begin by referring you to some of Cartier-Bresson’s photography.  This site provides a only small sample of some of Cartier Bresson’s work, but for our purposes it will suffice (you can also find a good number of his photographs by doing a Google image search).  Study his photography for a bit, and look for what the photographs have in common, and how they differ from the work of other photographers.
Urban Mountain Biking at the Lincoln
Here are my thoughts.  Certainly, the body of work accumulated by Cartier-Bresson is characteristic of the idea behind a defining moment.  Whether it is an act, a historical moment, the look on a face, the convergence of forms, his work represents moments in time through which story’s are told…in a fraction of a second.
Part of Cartier-Bresson’s notoriety for the defining moment comes from his first book…The Decisive Moment (1952).  The title along with the body of work could lead one to believe that story-telling, the split second capturing the subject of a historic moment, is the essence of great photography.  In fact, many would argue he meant something very different; and his best work was remarkable for the way it ignored (pointing the camera in the other direction), rather than focused on the usual dramatic props common place in the world of photojournalism.  A blurred flag behind President Obama giving a speech, the crowds of protestors in front of a political poster, and so on.
If you look at the breadth of work by Cartier-Bresson, and not just The Decisive Moment, you will find that instead of photographing the historic event, he would often photograph the crowd watching the event or some other tangential composition at the event.  One of his best known photographs taken during the communist overthrow of China in 1948-49 shows agitated Shanghai citizens "like a human accordion, squeezed in and out by invisible hands." The photograph captures a run on a Shanghai bank, but there is no bank in the frame.  There are no clues about the presence of money, gold or other valuables, and there is no evidence of the presence of police.  Instead, we are led to concentrate on the faces of the people and the frame filling crowd; is this any less of a defining moment than that of an outstretched hand of Ghandi before a crowd days before his assassination in 1948?
Grandma Terwilliger's Funeral  (32 of 55)
Cartier-Bresson wrote that photography "is at one and the same time the recognition of a fact in a fraction of a second and the rigorous arrangement of the forms visually perceived which give the fact impression and significance."
I like Cartier-Bresson’s statement on photography for a number of reasons. 
  1. It frees us from the oppressive weight that we must capture historical events at a very precise and decisive moment in order to achieve truly great photography…as Cartier-Bresson’s first book led many to conclude.  Cartier-Bresson demonstrated that these defining moments happen all around us - all the time.  There are special and significant moments in the ordinary.
  2. Photography is story telling…a challenge to tell a story captured in 1/500th of a second.
  3. And finally, that recognizing how the arrangement of forms (composition) is responsible for establishing the significance of the moment, is a fundamental principle.
Here is where we get to the comment made by my good friend John.  John said “I can only pre-visualize in terms of pre-selecting technical aspects of capture and then the rest is up to what happens in front of the lens.”  This statement fits very closely with the position taken by Scott Bourne in the post I recommended to you.  Scott said that he has difficulty thinking in terms of these types of momentous events so instead, intentionally seeks adventure…an opportunity to put himself in challenging positions which will surely (or hopefully?) lead to the opportunity for great photography.
Jose Tucson
John, Scott and Cartier-Bresson are all absolutely correct in my humble opinion.  So Here I will offer the Cartier-Bresson-Downey-Bourne rules (well, not so much rules as really good suggestions) for good photography.

  1. Be prepared for the decisive moment - master the techniques of photography and know your camera (Downey).

  2. Put yourself in positions where the decisive moment can reveal itself (Bourne).

  3. Be patient and let something happen in front of your lens (Downey).

  4. View your composition from the perspective of “what is the story you are telling?” (Cartier-Bresson).

  5. Take care to recognize how the arrangement of forms is responsible for establishing the significance of the moment (Cartier-Bresson).

  6. And one bonus suggestion from me; find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Defining moments are there for the seeing.
I have the greatest respect for both John Downey and Scott Bourne and I hope they both read my comments on their statements as the compliments they are intended.
A Camel was parked at a Mosque
Thanks for weathering this lengthy post.  If nothing else, I hope it motivated your thoughts on photography.
Go make some great photography!

No comments:

Post a Comment