Thursday, July 14, 2011

Does the Decisive Moment still exist?

Henri Cartier-Bresson with his decisive moment concept has given one rule for street photography that has defined the aesthetic of street images for many photographers over the years. As many photo lovers and photographers I fell in love with photography because of him and I still consider him as one of the masters (The Master?) of contemporary photography. The decisive moment as he described it is the time where ‘everything is summed up in the supreme moment when form briefly takes on its essential meaning’. A good image has to be a straight and honest photograph where timing, form and content come together to reach perfection.
While the idea influenced many photographers, others, such as Paul Graham or William Eggleston have also totally rejected it. Today, particularly in America, it seems that the trend is to focus more on the forms of urban landscapes and the city itself and forget about the idea of a unique decisive moment. The idea that the photographer had to capture the perfect detail of urban life has somehow been replaced by the idea that a good photograph, and even street photograph can be accidental and any moment can create a good photograph. It can just be a random, banal, spontaneous snapshot that reveals the movement and chaos of modern urban life. 
But I guess both concepts are in fact not far away from each other. The decisive moment might not be unique, but actually part of a series of decisive moments. However, what makes it unique is the fact that the photographer decided to press on the shutter at that particular moment – be it subconsciously, after waiting for it to happen, by accident, by luck, by instinct… Once the scene is captured on an image, it becomes that famous decisive moment image, right?
Anyway here is proof that the decisive moment still exists today and that as long as photography exists, photographers around the world will still be searching for that decisive moment that makes an image so unique and incredible, somehow magical…
Alex Webb
I recently acquired ‘The Suffering of Light, Thirty years of Photographs’ by Alex Webb and that book presenting Alex Webb’s magical photography is one of the perfect examples of Cartier-Bresson’s heritage. But by adding color, Alex Webb took it one step further. In each photograph not only the form and the content come together to perfection but also the light and the colors create this mysterious harmony out of chaos. At that particular moment it seems like the world had stopped for a second or two just to give Alex Webb the time to take his picture.
In the afterword, Geoff Dyer qualifies Alex Webb’s images as ‘complicated’ and ‘exhausting to look at’ even quoting a student of Alex Webb describing them as ‘migraine photographs’. And indeed, when you look at any of his images you don’t know where to start. The image seems to play with your mind and your sense of reality. In every corner you discover a new surprise, in every shadow a different scene takes place, on every face a new expression, in every gesture a new symbol… and everything seems to come together in an artificial and almost spiritual collage created by this decisive moment just before it breaks…
You will have understood my admiration for Alex Webb’s work. I strongly recommend this masterpiece - on amazon: or (even better) go and buy it at your local book store:
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1980
Etroits, La Gonave, Haiti, 1986
Plant City, Florida, 1989
Barcelona, Spain, 1992
Manaus, Brazil, 1993
Sancti Spiritus, Cuba 1993
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, 1996
  More images from Alex Webb:

1 comment:

  1. I recently saw the show in New York and agree with Geoff.
    Very edgy photographs- not worthy of being compared to C-B