The Decisive Moment – My Position

There is a debate on ‘The Decisive Moment’ regarding its position, or validity, in contemporary art photography. Does it capture the essence of life in a given instant, or is it merely a churned outpouring of mundane indecisiveness in an urban landscape?

To explain my position, I shall show you two photographs that I took, both with the ‘decisive moment’ in mind as I took them.

Image #1


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Here, I was struck by the almost comedic nature of the planks of wood, protruding from the sunroof of the car at the front of the queue. The positioning of the cars, and the street furniture created a balance in the scene that I found appealing. The grey nature of the sky, and the dismal mood it created… all of these things combined, to make me think “this… this will make a great photo!”

My camera was already out, so I aimed, and I shot.

The result?  It’s a pleasing image, and one that I’m including in a personal series that I will probably entitle ‘The horror of the mundane’, or some other pretentious nonsense.

What it isn’t… is a decisive moment. There’s nothing decisive about this image. It’s the exact opposite of decisive. Everything has ground to a halt. Nothing is happening, and nothing can happen until the lights change.

So while I certainly had a decisive moment in mind as I took the shot…. everything just gelled as a good image, from my perspective… from the perspective of a viewer, this is not a photograph of a decisive moment, and to classify it as such would be a mistake.


Image #2


View 1500 x 1000

This image, for me, is a much better example of a decisive moment. The shot, as I’ve described in previous posts (I’m very fond of this image so have referred to it more than once already) was entirely opportunistic. I saw the scene, I pointed my camera (without looking through the viewfinder) and I shot.

There is life, and gesturing, and thought, and action. Things are happening. Things are being said. Decisions are being made. This is a unique moment… you’ll never see this exact scene anywhere else, or even one similar to it.

You know what you’re looking at, and more importantly, what you’re supposed to be looking at. I showed my wife the previous image, last night, and the first thing she said was “So what am I supposed to be looking at?”  You’d never get that with this photo.



So, having shown two examples of my own work, where do I stand in the debate?

I think ‘The Decisive Moment’ can still be a valid form in contemporary photography… whether as a tool for storytelling or documentary, I wouldn’t like to say, and in truth… I don’t care. I just think it’s a tool capable of producing striking images, capable of producing an emotional response.  Isn’t that the goal, in the end? Make people feel something. Happiness, sadness, warmth, horror…. something.

The decisive moment can do that, and maybe in a way that no other type of photograph can.

However… great care must be taken in the selecting of such images. As I’ve shown, it’s very easy to take a photograph where, to the photographer, there is a real moment of “this!”… but to the viewer, there is nothing but a “so what am I looking at?” experience.

It’s very easy to get it wrong, and I do wonder if such a lack of self discipline on the part of photographers, when selecting their shots for inclusion, is the cause of the backlash against the decisive moment as a form.