The Decisive Moment is Bullshit

"Photograph *me*"

The title of the blog post comes from an interview with Paul Graham featured in the Summer issue of Aperture magazine, concerning the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit I’ve been dying to see at the MoMA in NYC. The full quote was “Someone I know, who is working on the … Henri … [exhibit] … and has seen his contact sheets, said to me: ‘The “decisive moment” is bullshit.’ There are ten pictures before and ten pictures after every one of them;” Anyone who has studied photography for any length of time has been told that they will, with time, develop an eye for when something’s about to happen and then take the photo exactly the right moment. It’s an anachronistic bit of advice stemming from the days when each frame was expensive and you didn’t want people to shoot ten shots to get one. But, in the digital age, there’s no reason to be so stingy with your photographs. And, apparently, it’s a lie. Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the masters – he’s featured in every photographic compilation I own. And he took dozens of photos just to get the one that touches people. That’s really the big secret that most people don’t know. For every photograph that you see out there by a professional, there are tens or even dozens of photographs he didn’t put out there. Even I (and I’m nowhere near the league of such people) upload only a fraction of the photographs I take. Every photo can’t be a gem. Sometimes it just doesn’t look as good as you thought it would. Sometimes you just missed that moment of pure emotion on the face.

A shot like the opening shot to this blog post reveals the true story of amazing photography – it’s half a learned skill and half luck. I was trying to take a photograph of Elizabeth on the swing and Alex just popped up in front of the lens. I focused and shot. When I later reviewed it, I saw that I had something good there. I think, the real takeaway, is to become so familiar with your equipment that it is an extension of your body and then you’ll be ready for when that moment arrives. You may even anticipate it. But, when the rubber meets the road, sometimes you just have to put your camera into burst mode and somewhere in those ten shots will be the magical one with the right stuff. Plus, how can you know that the NEXT moment won’t be even more amazing than the last?