Updated: Mar 21
Essentially, all elements of composition and timing come together in one moment. If you miss it, the image is gone. That is the essential idea I got from him.
I took the lesson seriously. It applies to a lot of things in life I think. We live in decisive moments even if our lives seem to us pretty mundane. I think it originates in an idea I have about God, the concept of Imago Dei, and it comes from Jesus, all things I’ve learned in almost 70 years. If “God so loved the world…“, the Bible verse announces, then there are implications. Life becomes a string of decisive moments for one, strings of decisions that integrate to a life. I also infer there are moments that are not decisive. But I digress.
Cartier-Bresson used one small camera and one lens his entire career, famously the Leica 35mm and a 50mm lens. Not a zoom lens. Not a motor drive. He said the 50mm lens was most like his eye, and the Leica camera and lens were an extension of himself. Consider for a moment the pounds on pounds of equipment a typical photographer carries about today. Discipline yourself. If you have a “standard” single focal length lens, go out for a day and photograph with it alone.
To me the photograph below is an example of how I practice the “decisive moment”. Coincidentally it was taken with a Leica M4-2 and a 35mm lens. It could just as easily been taken with my little Canon G11, which is smaller and quieter than the old Leica film cameras. I still miss the Leica. Selling it was one of my worst decisions. I say I could have used a Canon G11. Maybe not.
Kids at weddings. They could not care less about the ceremony. They are there for the food. They are lost in a crowd of adults, who are just as unmindful of them. The kid closest to the camera swills down the punch. The second kid behind him is in a predicament. He does not have enough hands. He has not yet learned how to successfully manage a plate with snacks and a drink at the same time. (Has anyone learned how?). I saw them and watched. The image came.
Point being, with “the decisive moment” in mind, if any part of the image changed – the woman’s hands, the man cutting the cheese, the first boy having put down his cup and wandered off… If one tiny element changed, the moment would no longer exist and the photograph would vaporize. If you are like me at all, you probably have a long list of mental images and regret the ones that got away.
C’est la vie. Life and love: The indecisive moments go unnoticed. But the ones where everything perfectly comes together and we just miss it, and worst of all, we realize it. Ah. Regrets of life pile up.