Jewish neighborhood of Baghdad in 1950, by Henri Cartier-Bresson, © Magnum



Une photographie est pour moi la reconnaissance simultanée, dans une fraction de seconde, d’une part de la signification d’un fait, et de l’autre d’une organisation rigoureuse des formes perçues visuellement qui expriment ce fait (HCB)



the indecisiveness of the decisive moment




Beirut, Thursday, August 12, 2004


Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) has been hailed for his photographic formulation of the “decisive moment” (le moment décisif), a title of one of his earliest books: “Il n’y a rien en ce monde qui n’ait un moment décisif.” But even though Cartier-Bresson’s photographs have much substance in them, and that there’s a lot in them that will endure the art scene of the 21st century, one wonders how much of the “decisive moment” would be relevant to photography—even to Cartier-Bresson’s own photographs. Granted that the decisive moment is more of a cliché than a reality, even for its own creator, it still has the status of a myth with too much of an unconscious impact on photojournalism to be dismissed too easily. Formulated in the 1930s soon after Cartier-Bresson bought his first Leica, when he proceeded with his most creative phase in street photography, the decisive moment has since then become one of those legendary didactic notions, something similar perhaps to “the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism,” or to Durkheim’s “social fact” (la chose sociale) or “collective consciousness” (conscience collective). Yet, practically every serious photographer in the last couple decades  had to forego the decisive moment to be able to create and produce—particularly in the U.S. and Germany—in territories where there are less and less decisive moments, and more repetitive urban landscape whose emptiness photographers are framing in sizzling colors rather than in HCB’s austere black-and-white and its shades of gray. At its core, the notion of decisive moment does not seem pretentious at all: considering that anything—any object, moment, event, and body—could be the target of the photographic image, an order is needed to reduce the flux of images to their most relevant ones. The decisive moment is therefore that infinitely small and unique moment in time which cannot be repeated, and that only the photographic lens can capture. Even though it is possible for landscapes and buildings to be captured at their most decisive moments, Cartier-Bresson’s photography is at its best with bodies and their gestures. Thus, even a casual look at Cartier-Bresson’s most well known relics reveals the importance of bodily gestures in each one of them. Besides their decisive look and feel—in the sense that their reproduction at other times and spaces seems unlikely—there’s something anecdotic in them. At its core, the decisive moment is indeed mostly anecdotic—composed of short accounts of humorous or interesting incidents. It is as if in the time flux that constitutes the essence of our lives, the decisive moment intervenes at a particular juncture—in that fraction of a second when the anecdotal moment reveals best the flux-as-a-whole. In other words, the decisive moment works best when the sudden cut in time and space that the photograph operates through the release of the shutter is meaningful, as it narrates to us in a single frame the before and after; while other photographs of the decisive type remain anecdotal, with no precise meaning, or with no meaning at all, relying instead on the juxtaposition of bodily gestures with symmetries created by light and space. Hence that sudden urge, when confronted with a Cartier-Bresson image, to narrate it—even though the photographer himself would feel indifferent to such a task. An image does not narrate: it rather creates an unbridgeable abyss between itself-as-frame and the rest of the unframed world—comparable to Sartre’s “existential hole,” which is only conscious of the absurdity of its own existence, or, more commonly, to a one-night-stand, as something that is given, but with no connection to anything else—in time and space, which pushes a hapless and confused imagination for a narrative. In sum, in that endless time-space flux, the decisive moment operates an all too sudden cut that is the most meaningful of all. That’s why bodily gestures are presumably an easier catch for the decisive moment, as no two gestures are alike: only gestures differentiate that endless and nauseating time-space flux. The photographer himself is also involved in a unique bodily posturing, since he too must seize the decisive moment in a unique gesture of his own: his (or her) body must be in a decisive gesture that would fit with the moment; that decisive gesture, however, is not what the camera captures—another work for the imagination to restitute.


Some of the top photographers of the last few decades, which willy-nilly did not base their photography on the decisive moment, would argue that the latter’s major weakness was precisely its sole  reliance on gestures. Walker Evans, who was probably the most decisive American photographer of the last century, did not have that many decisive moments in his large portfolio: his frames of ordinary homes, interiors, bridges, roads and highways, have mapped the American landscape at a time when all kinds of new technologies were being introduced, and most of them look static—as if inviting the viewer to keep looking on for ever—with no bodily gestures to distract. Even Evans’ famous photographs of the New York metro passengers of the 1930s, secretly shot with a camera hidden beneath his coat, have something else into them beyond that decisive moment that would be revealed into each one of those faces. With the New York metro photographs Evans invented serial photography: taken each one on its own, each face might autonomously expose something decisive about it; but their overall meaning, however, is divulged only in relation to one another. Once we look at all those austere photographs as a complete series, the decisive nature of each one vanishes into the whole. Whether we see this as a counter-method to Cartier-Bresson or not is not what is most revealing here. What Evans had already constructed in the 1930s was to haunt some of America’s most influential photographers, beginning with the likes of Winogrand and Friedlander. American photography, much more than the European, had to come to terms with cities in middle America and elsewhere that were new and decentered, and where not much was happening. Most of Friedlander’s photography, going back to the 1950s and 1960s, attempted to decenter the subject, since in those modern cities there was no “center” in the first place: where would the camera find then its focusing point? How to construct a frame without center? In Friedlander’s frames, the subject of a modern city like New York endlessly perceives himself mirrored in the city’s façades, stores, and neon lights, with no end in sight. More importantly, such mirroring exists for its own sake and does not bring any particular meaning. The subject ceases to be on solid grounds even in remote cities of the south and the mid West: in those landscapes, with the monotonous repetition of the same, the center ceases to exit—only the camera’s framing constructs centers but with no specific meanings.


American photography had therefore to struggle with its own landscapes, very different from the European, but which have become closer to the rest of the world. When Jean-Luc Godard said that Americans in Iraq invaded a country with a deep culture that runs over thousands of years, while the Americans have none, he’s right historically, but when it comes to imagery, Baghdad today with its infinitely scattered urban landscape is closer to Los Angeles than anything to Ottoman architecture or old Mesopotamia for that matter. When Cartier-Bresson did a snapshot of the Jewish neighborhood in Baghdad in 1950, in the last decade of Hashimite rule, the area still had its Ottoman topography of narrow streets, dominated by that warm and claustrophobic ambiance. HCB framed all that in a single shot; but there was no decisive moment per se here, as much as an instinctive feeling of what it meant to be in a neighborhood like this one: for hundreds of years the eastern Jews have survived as part of the millet system, a totally closed structure, without much leeways to the outside world. Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo, do still have neighborhoods with that kind of street life, but modernity came all too abruptly to such cities, expanding them indefinitely, and creating for the most part urban landscapes that are so monotonous and dull, that no decisive moment would be able to capture.





copyright © 2004 zouhair ghazzal