Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Decisive Moment

The photograph above has been, as Hank Stram would say, matriculating around the web lately. I post it here not to mock the woman depicted; not to use PhotoShop to insert it into other photographs and create amusing juxtapositions. Those things have been done elsewhere on the internet, to great and hilarious effect. I post it to praise the photographer. And I'm not even being ironic: This is a seriously good photograph.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photojournalist's god, believed that the task of the photographer is to capture the "decisive moment." He believed that decisive moments surround us. One of his photos in particular is often cited as the paradigmatic decisive moment:

A second earlier, and it would have been a boring shot of some guy running. A second later, and we would see a splash, not a terrific, still expanse of water. Either result might have been aesthetically pleasing, perhaps, but neither would convey tension. The decisive moment is about capturing tension at its breaking point -- not a moment sooner or later. Every photographer wants it; few ever get it.

Which takes me back to the first picture. That, my friends, is a decisive moment. The expressions on the faces of the woman and the man directly behind her have been captured in a shared moment that must have dissipated as quickly as it formed. The woman's pose is straining the limits of her body (and her pants). The viewer asks: What the hell is going on here? And what the hell is going to happen next? Seriously. Don't you wonder? Is she about to injure some people seriously? It doesn't appear that she just started on her rampage. An open area has formed around her, and a circle of onlookers has convened. Their jaws are slack, like an unimaginable terror is unfolding before them. This woman has been flipping out for several moments before the decisive one. But what about the people on the left? They seem immune to her horrific power.

This photographer, though using what must have been a cheap on-camera flash (based on the red-eye effect and the poor wide angle coverage), stumbled into photographic greatness. The possibility of stumbling into greatness is in the back of every photographer's mind. When I go out with my camera, half the time I'm snapping away just hoping I'll blunder my way into a great shot. A few weeks ago, I spent half a baseball game trying to get the moment of bat-on-ball. I got some cool shots, but never that decisive, bat-on-ball moment.

This shooter got his moment. He was probably too drunk to realize it though.


Blogger Henry Baum said...

Nice post, SS. I am going through Spiral Stairs withdrawal at A.T. I must be out of the loop cause I haven't seen this picture before. I leave it to my brother's mother-in-law to forward me popular internet things.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Chemical Billy said...

This is the first time I've seen it, too. And the first thing I thought was "what an intriguing photo!"

Okay, really, the first thing I thought was "what th'...!?" but I'm interpreting loosely here.

2:17 AM  

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