Waning Light at Black Sand Beach, Vik, Iceland.
Sony a7RIV, Sony 24-105mm, f/14, 30 seconds, ISO 100, Singh-Ray 5-stop Mor-Slo ND
French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson by all accounts was the earliest pioneer of street photography and a master at capturing unique candid moments – later to be termed a “decisive moment.” He was also a co-founder of Magnum Photos.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published a book of images that was titled in English, “The Decisive Moment.” It included a portfolio of 125 of his “decisive moments” images.
Cartier-Bresson was quoted as saying, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said.
“Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
In my early studies of art and artist/photography masters, I was more involved with my love of sports photography and studied great sports photographers’ work. Of course, sports photography is all about
the decisive moment, the key play, the winning touchdown.
Back then, landscape photography was my escape from the pressure I put on myself as a sports photographer. I did not need an editor to bash me; I clearly knew if I had the key moments of a game captured or if I’d miss them. I made it my goal to work as hard as I could to allow the camera and lenses to become as familiar to me as my toes and fingers.
“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture.
Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
As I started to dive deeper into my landscapes, it became even more clear that there were fleeting moments in nature also, and if I was not in tune to what was happening, the moment would be gone.
Looking across all genres of photography, there are moments. Portraiture certainly has fleeting moments of expressions, light, looks. It may be subtle to an untrained eye, but the best portrait photographers are tuned-in to every nuance their subject presents.
In my workshops, I do my best to teach this seemingly simple concept, but it isn’t until a student has missed moments repeatedly that most begin to understand. This can come across during an image review session where another student captured the moment while the untrained student missed it. It’s all part of the learning journey that we are all on. In my opinion, there is never an end to the learning process when it comes to the arts. There is not a mythical finish line.
Being in-tune with moments comes with experience. Out of that experience grows the intuition of which Cartier-Bresson refers. You must be willing to put yourself out in nature on a regular basis. Moreover, one must also be willing to accept failure.
My father taught me a long time ago that failures are only failures if you fail to learn from them. As a sports photographer in the film days that meant hours and hours of viewing images on a light table through a loupe. It was the same for my landscapes.
My father taught me a long time ago that failures are only failures if you fail to learn from them.
I can recall times in my younger years of taking slides and throwing them across the room in disgust because they were not the moment I thought I had captured. Of course, nowadays, that feedback is instant.
Then at some point, my dad’s words played back through my mind, “failures are only failures if you fail to learn from them.” I can remember retrieving a bunch of slides from the trash and taking a second look, then a third, fourth, and so on. I consider that a huge transition period in my growth as a photographer because I finally calmed my mind and asked myself, “why did this image fail?”
I began to swallow my pride and seek out answers if I wasn’t sure. If we are all willing to accept that we will fail far more than we will succeed, then we have cleared the path for ultimate growth.
Cartier-Bresson’s notion of a “decisive moment” was not a reference to a peak moment; rather, it was defined as a notion of when all elements in the frame accumulated in perfect harmony to form the perfect image.
Being in-tune with moments comes with experience. Out of that experience grows the intuition of which Cartier-Bresson refers.
This concept of elemental harmony is what drives my landscape photography. Why? Because it is not easy to achieve. It is like the old line from the Tom Hanks movie “A League of Their Own.”
In a scene involving Hanks (manager Jimmy Dugan) and lead actress Geena Davis (Dottie Hinson) there is a point when Hinson tells Dugan that she is going to quit the game, to which Dugan replies, “Baseball is what gets inside you. It is what lights you up. You cannot deny that. “Dottie: “It just got too hard.
”Jimmy: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
Just substitute photography for baseball… Well, you get my point.
To this day I believe that some of my best imagery comes from when I am shooting by myself.
Admittedly those days are becoming less and less but I still try to carve-out some time to get into nature on my own, where I can be totally immersed in what I am doing. My mind is not distracted by idle conversation. It is quite and absorbed. That is when I am at my best. That is when I am most in-sync to capture a decisive moment.
Challenge yourself to get into nature as often as possible, to become a student of light, to see the world as a conglomeration of elements and then put a frame around what you see and feel. Share your successes and learn from your failures. Let your soul fill with joy and never stop the journey.