A postmodern documentary – A decisive moment?

‘Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif’ or ‘There is nothing in this world that doesn’t have a decisive moment.’ Considering all the hype, you may be forgiven for attributing these words to Henri Cartier-Bresson. It has been put into print so many times that he ‘coined this phrase,’ meaning people have forgotten, or have never known the full version: ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment,’ or it’s original author, the 17th-century cleric and memoirist Cardinal de Retz.

I mean, in France Bresson’s book was originally entitled Images à  la Sauvette. Apparently, Tériade, a Greek-born French publisher who Cartier-Bresson admired, gave the book its French title, Images à la Sauvette, which can be translated as ‘images on the run’ or ‘stolen images‘ (Bresson considered the stolen images as stolen moments in time) and it is also reported that Dick Simon, of Simon & Schuster, came up with the English title The Decisive Moment…so it wasn’t even Bresson’s idea!  I have tried to find the definitive source for this information but all I can find are sites that all seem to quote each other… But I still have to ask ‘so how much did he actually coin this phrase?’

Stewing quietly over this point for a good few years, it is quite reassuring to discover during research that it has been mentioned in a few other places. May be it is more fitting to  say he made the phrase synonymous with a certain photographic style and technique?

For me what should be more relevant is what he actually had to say about capturing his images:

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

Galvanized by a Martin Munkacsi photograph, taken in 1930, of three silhouetted boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika, which captured ‘the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive,’ Bresson is claimed to have said ‘I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.’ And the rest was history.


Henri may have captured certain magical moments, where everything came together, but he did not take just one frame – another popular myth – as this blog posting   illustrating his contact sheets reveals. He would observe, capture the action in front of him, and if lucky there would arise that moment when the stars aligned and everything within the frame created a perfectly composed image that froze a significant juncture.There will be many ‘decisive moments’ leading up to the activation of the shutter, but it is the photographer who makes the decision over whether or not the scene itself is aesthetically pleasing enough to be printed and shown to the waiting world.

The next exercise is to read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival, select one of the bodies of work and write a 200 word reflective commentary. So for background information:

Simon Bainbridge is a London-based writer, editor and curator specialising in photography. For the past seven years he has served as editor-in-chief of the monthly British Journal of Photography, the world’s oldest photo magazine, established in 1854, along with its online and iPad editions.

In 2010 he co-curated Paper, Rock, Scissors: The Constructed Image in New British Photography at Toronto’s Flash Forward festival. And in 2011 he curated Time & Motion Studies: New Documentary Photography Beyond the Decisive Moment at Hereford Photography Festival.

The Time & Motions Studies exhibition presented the work of five photographers:Vanessa Winship: Georgia 2009-10, Donald Weber: Interrogations: Big Zone Little Zone, Manuel Vasquez: Traces, Robbie Cooper: Immersion and George Georgiou: The Shadow of the Bear, 2009-10, all featured in the British Journal of Photography.

In this article Bainbridge explains how each photographers’ work is a result of ‘deliberate and sustained observation,’ that they are trying to ‘communicate their ideas about the world and tackling subjects that aren’t always obviously photogenic.’ In the festival he hopes to show the works to a wider public audience than usual and reveal the ‘diversity of contemporary documentary practice’ whilst also revealing a little about the person behind the photographs. In a juxtaposition to Bazin’s ideas of the objectivity of the photograph Bainbridge hopes to ‘demonstrate that a photograph is not so much a result of what’s in front of the camera, rather than the motives, instincts and ideas of the person behind it.’ I wonder if Rosler would like them ;oO He mentions how each photographer embedded themselves into the situations which reminded me of Danny Lyon and Martin Parr.

Bainbridge states that the ‘decisive moment’ is an old fashioned idea, something echoed in an article written by Sean O’Hagan. Not sure I totally agree with that point of view, yes photography may not be so pedantic about shape, form and rules of composition but it still plays its part in many images on display today and Bainbridge does concede there is a sense of ‘the right moment’ that still pervades photography. I feel that contemporary street photographer Matt Stuart exemplifies this.


His visual wit and impeccable timing is reminiscent to that of Elliot Erwitt.

The article finishes on a note that recognizes the end of publishing images as we used to know it, with the onset of modern technologies and different platforms but is optimistic that if such different work can ‘sit side by side’ it is more of ‘a sign that photography is maturing rather than a medium in peril.’ Which is in such a much happier place than all the doom and gloom expressed by Martha Rosler all those decades ago. During my research I discovered that the OCA had in fact had a study day for this very exhibition and I shall at some point allow myself to be diverted long enough to follow fellow students links to their reviews of the day.

John wrote on Winship and Weber

These two photographers allow the viewer to grasp a sense of honesty, all be they framed in critically disparate circumstances, one confident that their past informs their present and their future in equal measure and from generation to generation, the other that the past has informed on them and that there may be no future as a result. Both sets edited to draw, at least from this viewer, an emotive response that I am sure will last long in the memory. The one printed to deliver a haunting beauty, the other with a concealed spectre of a wholly different kind.

It is good to get the perspective of others who have seen the work first hand.

So a quick overview of all the works before I choose one to look at in more depth:

Donald Weber: Interrogations

These are not staged images but real interrogations of suspected criminals in Ukraine. With no idea about the supposed crimes committed they appear brutal and extreme as Weber attempts to capture ‘the vestiges of a still-powerful, hidden system.’ The book is described as ‘the result of his personal quest to uncover the hidden meaning of private, unpleasant encounters with unrestricted Power.’ Weber had to work hard to gain access to these interrogations.

Robbie Cooper: Immersion

The Immersion project is a collection of videos and stills revealing either ‘the grotesque [or] dull expressions appearing on people’s faces as they play video games and watch YouTube.’ The audience does not see what the players/viewers are watching although we are  told what it is that is entertaining them. A fuller review of this work can be found here on my blog. Cooper worked in collaboration with psychologists to fund and complete this work and embraced new technologies to enable him to capture his images.

Manuel Vasquez: Traces

I didn’t think I had heard of this photographer until I looked at his work and realised I had seen this image, I am sure, within the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize several years ago.

In Traces he:

developed a deep interest in chiaroscuro, (This is an Italian term which literally means ‘light-dark’. In paintings the description refers to clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modelling of the subjects depicted.) and the compositions that can be created through its manipulation. In Traces in particular he plays fast and loose with patterned pools of light, illuminating passers-by with theatrical effect. The results are otherworldly in atmosphere; the staring faces of strangers peering out of the darkness as though trapped underground for years, taking their first fleeting glances into the world above.

Vasquez uses technology, the surveillance culture and montages to piece his work together.

George Georgiou: The Shadow of The Bear, 2009-10

This project is a document looking at the aftermath of the peaceful ‘colour’ revolution that took place in Ukraine against the backdrop of Russia’s resurgence as a major international power and it’s continuous interfering in their sovereign and domestic affairs. It looks at signs in the domestic and public spheres, that when taken together build up a representation of how the people of Georgia and the Ukraine negotiate the space that they find themselves in, the individual aspects of the two very different countries, and aspects common to them through their shared history in the Soviet Union

Georgiou, like Vasquez, uses ‘sequential imagery.’ Focusing on the daily lives of everyday people, ‘capturing them in sequences shot from the same vantage point.’ His work reminded me in some ways of Paul Graham who shot sequentially people mowing lawns or smoking cigarettes.

Vanessa Winship: Georgia

Vanessa Winship is Georgiou’s partner and travelling companion so it is intriguing to see how differently they approach the same subjects; he tries to remain hidden and captured candid shots in wide open spaces, whilst she captured totally aware subjects with a direct gaze, taken in almost sterile surroundings, devoid of any outside information.

Having had a quick peek at the bodies of work mentioned within the article I chose to discuss the work of Manuel Vasquez. I admired the dogged determination and perseverance of Weber, the inventiveness of Cooper and the differing techniques of Winship and Georgiou but it was Traces that really drew me in. So much to say and only 200 words…

‘The intent of this project is to place the observer as a witness of “spectacle” where the mechanization of movement and transport are the protagonist of places where loneliness and similarity are accentuated.’ – Manuel Vazquez

Traces – Manuel Vazquez

A quote from Walter Benjamin used when describing this work is: ‘to dwell means to leave traces.’ Traces closely examines invisibility, anonymity and exposure by looking at the visual traces left behind in public places.

Vasquez composed montages where the ‘deep black canvas is an allegory to the city’ with people under a spotlight; the technique of chiaroscuro separating them from reality and the rest of the world. His subjects appear frozen with resulting images creating a tense and anxious atmosphere. Vasquez uses his camera like CCTV; fixing his lens and capturing subjects as they pass.

Everyday occurrences are filmed constantly by CCTV in ‘non-places…such as airports…and tube stations’ – this body of work was begun in the Atocha train station, Madrid, which ‘has a unique lighting situation…beams of light that people cross all the time…[it was] like an installation…some beams of light and cameras and a final image is created with the people that enter the space.’

I particularly like the way Vasquez embraces an old painting technique, combining it with computing technology and using the influence of even more modern technology, in the form of CCTV surveillance, to achieve his vision, opening up new avenues of exploration within the genre of Documentary. Whilst not using Bresson’s ideas of capturing background detail, or love of geometry he certainly uses shape and form and the decisive moment as people walked into the light.



Fynn, S. (2013) The decisive moment: Understanding Convergence. Available at: http://www.studiofynn.com/journal/decisive-moment-understanding-convergence (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Gallery, T.N. (no date) National gallery, London. Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/chiaroscuro (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Georgia (no date) Available at: http://www.vanessawinship.com/gallery.php?ProjectID=175 (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Halliday, A. (2006) Artist Robbie Cooper’s video project immersion stares back at Gamers and YouTubers. Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2013/03/artist_robbie_coopers_video_project_iimmersioni_stares_back_at_gamers_and_youtubers.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
IN THE SHADOW OF THE BEAR, UKRAINE (2009) Available at: http://www.prospektphoto.net/stories/george-georgiou-in-the-shadow-of-the-bear-ukraine/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Jose (2011) OCA students visit the Hereford photography festival. Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/oca-students-visit-hereford-photography-festival/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Kim, E. (no date) Start here. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/05/23/debunking-the-myth-of-the-decisive-moment/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Liberation®, P. (2014) Manuel Vazquez traps his subjects in patterned pockets of light. Available at: http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/manuel-vazquez (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his decisive moment has passed. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Pictet, P. (2016) Resources. Available at: http://jp.prixpictet.com/nominators/bainbridge-simon/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Project, T.E. (2007) Manuel Vazquez’s <em>Traces</em>. Available at: http://theexposureproject.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/manuel-vazquezs-traces.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Times, T.N.Y. (2015) The week ahead: Jan. 14 – 20. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/arts/14weekahead.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016). Robin Pogrebin (January 14, 2007). “Art”. New York Times.
Vazquez, M. (2010) Traces of a lonely crowd, by Manuel Vazquez. Available at: http://www.co-mag.net/2010/manuel-vazquez/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Weber, D. and LensCulture (no date) Interrogations – photographs by Donald Weber. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/donald-weber-interrogations (Accessed: 18 November 2016).

Ribas, Xavier (2009) Catalogue Rastros. Exhibition Photocolectania. Barcelona. 2009. P, 130