The Decisive Moment 

For exercise 1-7 we are asked to read Simon Bainbridge’s introduction to the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival entitled ‘Time and motion studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment.’ Bainbridge describes the term ‘decisive moment’, first coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson, as:

“one of the most enduring concepts in photography…In its most simple form, the idea was that every image of a ‘stolen moment’ had its own decisive moment, a split-second capture in which ‘simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms [expressed and signified] that fact.” (Bainbridge, 2011)

He continues by saying that the idea is no longer fashionable, the Becher school of photographers whose work can be typified by having no single important moment in time being an example of a recent photographic paradigm. He argues however that each of the five photographers in the exhibition (Donald Weber, Robbie Cooper, George Georgiou, Vanessa Winship and Manuel Vazquez) still embody this idea of the decisive moment through the process of editing and selection. The decline of the decisive moment as a concept is linked to changes to the way photography is experienced – away from newspapers and magazines and into what he terms “uncertain times” that mean photographers must now search for new ways to communicate – a reality that has led to different voices and approaches sitting side by side, “a sign that photography is maturing rather than a medium in peril.” 

Notes on the decisive moment: 

The term decisive moment is a near mythical concept originating from Henri Cartier-Bresson and something that has become so entrenched in received photographic wisdom as to become a cliché. Decisive moment is a seductive term, seemingly straight forward to define, and yet, full of connotations – many of which tap into the very essence and romance of the act of taking photographs.

Some definitions of the decisive moment: 

“that moment when every element [comes] together to form a perfect picture – a key concept when considering the photography of moving things.” (Badger, 2001: 11)

The idea of the decisive moment is one of the most seductive notions in photography: “the moment when the photographer anticipates a significant moment in the continuous flux of life and captures it in a fraction of a second.” (Badger, 2001: 104)

“The moment when form and content come together to produce an image in which the formal, emotional, poetic and intellectual elements have substance – in effect, where they give an image a real meaning.” (Badger, 2001: 104)

“the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which gave that event its proper expression.” (Warner Marien [quoting Henri Cartier-Bresson] 2014: 256)

“a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder.” (Wells, 2009: 73)

“In photographic terms it seeks the moment for a particular subject; not just in terms of its appearance at that moment, but in relation to its meaning within the context of an entire history. It makes anything and any subject open to the photograph.” (Clarke, 1997: 207)

The myth of the decisive moment: 

To understand how the term decisive moment has fallen into photographic folklore it is necessary to understand how Cartier-Bresson used the phrase to mystify his photographic style and elevate himself to the category of genius. A clue to the genesis of the term, and how this was manipulated in a calculated way, can be found in the original French title of Cartier-Bresson’s 1951 photobook which was translated into English as ‘The Decisive Moment’. There is no direct translation of ‘Images à la Sauvette’, however, the phrase means images taken on the wing/fly or stolen images – expressions that have much less positive connotations than decisive moment, which taken in this context seems little more than a synonym for snapshot. This also shows the influence that surrealism had on Cartier-Bresson suggesting the idea that surreal moments of everyday life should be seized upon.

The context of the emergence of the term decisive moment is an important consideration. The term is wedded both to Cartier-Bresson, who gave the term intellectual weight due to his stature, and also the beginnings of photography as an art in its own right. The photojournalistic practice of Cartier-Bresson was both wedded in the real world and also ideas of authorship and artistic genius. Previous attempts to prove photography’s worth as an art form led to movements such as pictorialism which chose to emulate painting in an attempt to distance photography from the negative associations with the mechanical nature of the process. Cartier-Bresson acknowledged the mechanical nature of the camera while emphasising the necessity of the photographer by describing the camera as an extension of his eye, and the act of photographing as “the progressive operation of the head, the eye and the heart.” (Durden, 2013: 68)

The suggestion in the term decisive moment is that the photographer possesses an innate ability to select the ideal moment and that is part of their genius – an idea that is also paradoxical given the philosophy of Cartier-Bresson’s way of working. It could be argued that what makes Cartier-Bresson’s photographs great is the serendipity that is present in the frame, rather than the idea that every shot taken hits the bull’s eye. Durden (2013: 67) argues that Cartier-Bresson’s trust to chance and refusal of standard practices of photojournalism (events recorded in a planned way to tell a story in combination with each other) shows how redundant his “signature images” are in narrative content. This could however be because removing them from the context they were originally intended as extended photo essays and placing them as single images fundamentally alters the way they are read. Warner Marien (2012: 133) argues that the very idea of the decisive moment has become exhausted due to mediocre practice and overuse, it is a useful approach for use on front pages but is resistant to narrative or experimental applications. The idea can also be seen as a paradigm which photographers have consciously pushed against to move the medium forward. For example, Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ can be read as a combination of decisive and indecisive moments: “blurry juxtapositions provided only unfocused impressions not crisply distilled visual marvels.” 

The decisive moment in Peripeteia 

Bate (2016: 68) draws links with the decisive moment and the earlier art history concept of Peripeteia, while the decisive moment focuses on the idea of instantaneity in photography, Peripeteia (from the Greek meaning dramatic moment or sudden change of fortune) is the concept of telling a story in a single picture. The term originates from 18th-century German art critic and dramatist Gotthold Lessing and was used to describe the ideal way of representing a complex event to show the “pregnant moment” of the story in which past, present and future are distilled. Having studied art history, it is likely Cartier-Bresson would be aware of the notion of the pregnant moment as an art historical concept, indeed, the similarity is shown in this quote from his essay ‘The Decisive Moment’: “one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigour and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself.” 


Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Bainbridge, S. (2011) Time and motion studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment. Available online at: [accessed 29th July 2017]

Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts. (2nd Ed.) London: Bloomsbury.

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Durden, M. (2013). Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon

Herschdorfer, N. (2015) The Thames & Hudson dictionary of photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

Szarkowski, J. (1973) Looking at photographs. New York: Museum of modern art, 2009 printing.

Warner Marien, M. (2012) 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

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