Henri's decisive moment...what did he mean?

In his book The photographer's eye by J. Szarkowski, he talks about Henri Cartier-Bresson's theory of the decisive moment, "decisive not because of an exterior event (the bat meeting the ball) but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order- because the image became for an instant a picture. We see here in his photograph 'Madrid' that the windows in the building are integral to the composition, where he creates complex layering using passers by and the busy group of kids in the foreground, one of whom has caught our eye.

Madrid- Henri Cartier-Bresson 1933

Madrid- Henri Cartier-Bresson 1933

It fascinates me that this theory is still relevant today, many years after Bresson made his discoveries with his camera whist the medium of 35mm cameras was still fresh. As well as being a classic rule of thumb for street photographers like Bresson, we can also translate this way of seeing to many other genres today...wedding photography, family in home photo journalistic sessions and even the photographs we take on family holidays. Here I will talk about a few decisive moments I caught, or nearly caught in some cases, although what constitutes such a moment is still fairly subjective according to the viewer so I am always interested to hear your thoughts too.


I used to call some types of moment I like to photograph 'in between moments'. Further scrutiny makes me realize that these type of images were all taken at moments that were not particularly significant in any way other than the picture had come together. They are often moments directly before or after what everyone else present at the scene thinks of as the defining moment... as photographers we must be ready to click the shutter when everything comes together for us to say what we are trying to say. Perhaps our subjects are caught for a moment unguarded; it might be a moment of contemplation, humor, chaos, pensive thought or sheer joy that you want to capture. The fundamental aspect that is integral to a decisive moment is that all the elements have come together within the camera frame, presenting the photographer with an opportunity to make a picture that works as a two dimensional image. It is partly down to luck, and partly down to keen observation- a one chance only gift from the universe offered up to the photographer who seeks to find it. In the first of three parts, I will talk about some of my own decisive moment images.

Photo journalism at home with families

Here, my family were engrossed in the crossword puzzle-their concentration makes the mood seem rather somber, although in reality we were surrounded by friends sipping wine and noisy toddlers running about as we all enjoyed a warm summer evening in the garden . The subjects eyes are all focusing on the same point, and the semi circular way in which they are arranged draws our eye round in a circular motion.

When we scheduled this family session we didn't realize that a turn of events would mean the youngest member of the family would be being tube fed. The parents were thinking of postponing, but in the end we decided that there's never a good time to have photographs taken, and to seize the opportunity to embrace their family at whatever phase it happened to be in. It was a decision none of us regretted, and they loved their images in the end. Here, the family groups together on the bed whilst Mum, who is also a nurse, prepares the tube for feeding the freshly woken baby. If her hand had moved just a hair, we wouldn't see the eldest daughters face, but as it is we can see everyone clearly.  The layering of all the subjects adds depth to the image and the baby holds our attention at the center of the composition.

This image was taken after a long hike in the rural countryside near my sisters house. It had started to rain and so we had all run back through the narrow lanes for the last part of the walk. Whilst I had taken my camera along thinking I would take pictures on the walk, it is this moment by the back door before we dried off the dogs, where I managed to get an image with good layering and with everyone looking as though they are suspended in time. As with Bressons image, one child smiles back at the lens, acknowledging my presence, and my sister peeps round the door, attempting to avoid the camera and call the kids in.

In a portrait it is not always necessary to have your subject facing the camera. I wanted to get a seagull in the frame, so I took this low down viewpoint in the hope that one would fly past. Without the seagull, the surroundings wouldn't be recognized as the seaside, and there would be a lot of empty space on the right, which would say something totally different.

When Mum booked me for this photo journalistic day in the life session she asked for at least one photo of all three boys in the frame. I don't think she expected this, but they're all there, without being posed and being allowed to just be themselves. I guess its a 'no no' to have a tree coming out of a subjects head, but the powerful gaze of the boy in the front keeps our eye in the foreground space, so it doesn't matter as much to me.

Oscar, the family dog who was already there years before both kids, walks past the bed, taking the arrival of the new baby in his stride. I love that this family, who are actually old friends making my job easy, welcomed me into their home first thing in the morning, and are far too preoccupied in the important job of looking after a toddler and newborn to worry about mess on the side table or clothes on the chair.

When I saw this scruffy back door entrance, full of character because this side of the house is built into rock,I knew I wanted to look out for a good image there. As with street photography, in-home family journalism is also about finding a good frame and waiting for the action to happen within that frame.

Not many photographers would ever pose their subjects like this-me included! Normally it would look so awkward, but because the girls are twins, the way in which they are momentarily mirroring each other works. The space surrounding them is fairly clear, and their center stage position and the strong repeated triangles of their elbows keep our gaze in the center of the frame. They appear happy to be squashed together, reminding us of the bond they had in the womb.