What is a "Decisive Moment"?
Henri Cartier-Bresson wasn't the first to use the phrase, "decisive moment." That credit belongs to Jean François Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz. In his Memoirs of the cardinal de Retz, published in 1717, he said, "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment."
Cartier-Bresson, however, applied to photography the philosophy underlying Gondi's observation. Specifically, the concept that there is a "here and now" which can never be recaptured once it has passed. In a 1957 Washington Post interview, Cartier-Bresson explained:
Photography is not like painting. 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. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.Unfortunately, this explanation has been taken by many to mean that there is just one significant moment. The underlying fear of missing that "singular moment" is what leads to the "spray and pray" approach of maximizing a digital camera's frame buffer, or draining the batteries on a film camera's motor drive.
But in fact there is no single decisive moment which captures an event—there are many such decisive moments, individually and for every artist. In the continually moving flow of time and the unfolding of action, it is the artist's task to find the essence of the event and choose one of the many which the artist determines will best match the event to the particular artist's conception of it.
Anticipating a decisive moment is a result of your perspective and the series of conscious and unconscious decisions that have lead you to the unfolding of an event: the representative moment is filtered through you as an artist. If you are engaged in the moment, you are likely unaware of the process—which is exactly how it should be. Your awareness is from your mind, and in the act of seeing as a photographer, you're uncovering the decisive moment based on your experience and perspective.
|Some moments require waiting for specific action to unfold, and timing the exhale.|
Accordingly, to capture decisive moments, you have to have both an idea, and the ability to anticipate how the event will unfold so that you'll have time to pick your composition and timing. Ideas are discussed in depth here. Proxemics helps with the anticipation.
|If there's a door, eventually someone will come through it.|
|To express some moments requires decisive light.|
Hall's interest was in observing the effect of space in human interactions and communication. What he put words to was what we all know and experience on a constant basis: individuals require a certain amount of space in which to function, and react in predictable ways when those space expectations are violated. The amount of physical space required varies situationally, as well as culturally. The response to a violation of an individual's physical space depends on context.
|Remaining unintrusive works best in distances from personal distance out.|
Hall described four general levels of distance in human interactions: intimate; personal; social; and public. Briefly:
- Intimate distance is anywhere between six inches and eighteen inches. It is the distance of physical contact, and sensory input is nearly overwhelming: olfaction, feeling the heat from another's skin, amplified sound, and the distorted vision of close proximity. This is the distance of lovers or close family members.
- Personal distance is roughly one and half to four feet. Interactions at this distance are based on the possibilities of what one person can do to another, such as grabbing or grasping. Eye contact and facial expressions are relied on at this distance because they're more easily interpreted. When people stand together within this range, it's a strong signal about their relationship and their level of vulnerability. This is the distance of a shy child with a parent, or a couple who has been married for awhile.
- Social distance marks the limit of physical domination, and is therefore outside the distance of two people extending their arms out. Facial expressions are informative, and a normal level of voice can be used to communicate. This is the distance of people who work together, or who are at a casual social gathering.
- Public distance is from between twelve feet and beyond. This distance is a deep part of human evolution, and defines the area within which we feel we can perceive a threat and take defensive action. It's also the distance kept from people who are important public figures.
|A sense of being within personal distance can sometimes be achieved with longer lenses.|
|So long as you blend in, getting close isn't a problem.|
|Observing from public distance can reveal juxtapositions.|
** Hall wrote two books and many articles describing the details of proxemics. For a complete understanding, the original material is highly recommended. For our purpose of applying proxemics to street photography, we will deal with a very simplified version.