Is The True Decisive Moment When You Press the Button?

Forgive me in advance for staying this but it seems to be necessary before I continue. Three words have as much implied meaning to photography and photographers than ‘The Decisive Moment’ attributed to three other words Henri Cartier Bresson. We all hear it regularly used, often lazily, occasionally fervently but in my opinion incorrectly. The common understanding of those there words is “capturing an event that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.” Street photography and street photographers appear to placed great store by Bresson’s three words.

Cartier-Bresson’s1952 book that began this misunderstanding, was in French titled Images à la Sauvette or in direct translation ‘Images on the Run’. It’s title when directly translated is I think informative. He did use the term ‘decisive moment’ in his writing, with specific meaning, but the term was then appropriated as the title of the book in the English translation and the myth was established that has led to generations of photographers adopting the phrase that I believe misses the point entirely.

Bresson said this, “If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality… In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.”

It maybe my lack of understanding as I am not a Bresson scholar but I cannot see any mention of street photography or rules aligned only to making photographs in urban environments or outside or non-commissioned or not in a studio in these words. What I do see are some sensible guidelines that outline the importance of composition to photography.

He does comment on his own photographic practice making images on the street, “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life — to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.” But are we to believe that his sense of importance in a photograph was then dismissed when he created a portrait, or an image of a celebrity or someone of note? Something he did often. I think not.

Bresson’s guidelines or thought process can be aligned with any and all aspects of photographic practice. They are not owned by street photography and they do not only relate to that area’s understanding of what is and what is not acceptable to those engaged with it. I have worked with still-life, fashion, portrait and interiors photographers all of whom are on the run within a space looking for the composition that works for them, searching to bring order to chaos. Their decisive moment is defined by when they press the shutter just as any street photographer’s is.

This may be described as photographic blasphemy by some, I may be decried as being ignorant by others, it has happened before and I am sure that it will happen again when I choose to question photographic holy relics. But to those people I put another question. Why do you feel that it is so important to build fences based on labels to describe work? Are you suggesting that there is an order of importance or relevance to different areas of photographic practice?

If that is the case then I suggest that you reconsider your approach to photography and your fellow photographers. Open your mind as well as your eyes and embrace all forms of the medium as being convergent with each other. As Bresson said, “In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe — even if the subject is still-life. A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye — these we should all have.”

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023


  1. The Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson makes the following comment regarding the original French title:

    “The French title has been thoroughly thought with his brother‑in‑law and cinema historian Georges Sadoul and evokes the snatchers or street peddlers. Cartier‑Bresson attested that the meaning of this idiomatic expression, the street vendors ready to run at the first request for a license, is very akin to his way of capturing images.”

    I have also seen “furtive images” used as an alternative (non-literal) translation of “images a la sauvette”.

    For me, the French title is much more descriptive of the essence of “street” photography than the “The Decisive Moment” (a phrase not coined by C-B himself, but one that he quoted from a 17th century French cardinal). The latter seems much more of an encapsulation of his approach to photography as a whole, particularly the complex relationship between composition and the timing of an unfolding event. Whilst it often gets associated with pictures capturing spontaneous action (most frequently, the man jumping over the puddle), I see it as equally applicable to his quieter work such as the picnic on the Seine.

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