The Decisive Moment : Understanding Convergence

Notes on images
Title image is by Marc Riboud taken outside the Pentagon, March 1967, anti Vietnam War demonstration.
Second image, Henri Cartier-Bresson's photo of Alberto Giacometti in his studio and the Matisse designed cover for his 1952 book ‘The Decisive Moment’.

“There is nothing in this world that does not have
a decisive moment”
Cardinal de Retz (b.1613 – d.1679)

The above quote is attributed to the 17th century French Cardinal and used by Henri Cartier-Bresson as the title of his 1952 seminal work ‘The decisive moment’ which is a collection of 126 images in exploration and support of the statement. There is apparently a more complete version of the quote "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". This more complete version gives greater context and implies a broader political perspective. However, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s artistic license to abbreviate forms the foundation for understanding the process of observation in relation to context, time and subject and how the manifestation of these elements in the singular image creates the power and meaning.

Cartier-Bresson eloquently expresses the decisive moment in his 1952 publication as "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”. His work in the arena of street photography went on to inspire a generation of 20th century photojournalists and beyond in a period sometimes referred to as the Golden Era in reference to the photographers bold geographical explorations and documentations of the human condition from culture to conflict.

"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”
Henri Cartier-Bresson

Marc Riboud, whose image (title feature here) from the 1967 anti Vietnam war demonstration in Washington DC is one of the most iconic examples of the ‘decisive moment’ and one of the most recognized images in the history of photojournalism. There are few photographs that can attest to such clarity in the expression of an era or epoch and the communication of the human elements of conflict. Riboud later commented on his image as follows, “She was just talking, trying to catch the eye of the soldiers, maybe trying to have a dialogue with them. I had the feeling the soldiers were more afraid of her than she was of the bayonets”

There is some truth in being in the right place at the right time but images such as the Riboud anti war demonstration photo require much more than this. One needs first the commitment to attend, show up and believe that subjects are worthy of disemmination, secondly there is the immersion and engagement with subject where the actual presence of camera is not well perceived by the subject or the end viewer of the image. The photographer must also see the elements of composition in the process of alignment before ‘the decisive moment’ occurs as they will only align in the brief instance and then the moment passes, usually forever.

Going back to Cardinal de Retz alleged full quote "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" we can take the debate of the decisive moment beyond just the photographic image. The ability to observe is a vital component of creativity across many domains and is in fact a common element between many disciplines from art, photography to design. The method by which the observations are reflected is what differs but the process of observation is common to all and the works and principles employed by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud are lessons that go beyond the world of photojournalism. Indeed, one could say that a prerequisite for the ‘topic du jour’ commonly referred to as ‘innovation’ would require the ingredients of perception defined by Cardinal de Retz centuries ago.

The theory of the decisive moment illustrates how important the concept of convergence is to all domains, from business to the arts. Everthing around us is in a state of constant change or evolution, new ideas or opportunities can only really manifest when the right elements converge to open the window for something to happen. The evolution of culture and markets, political change, technological development, media and communication, manufacturing advancement, cost reduction, new infrastructures etc. are just some of the foundational elements to be woven into a new fabric and once their convergence is properly understood, the path to new opportunity is formed.