“The decisive moment”

The famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) is perhaps best known for articulating the concept of “the decisive moment” in photography and pursuing it throughout his distinguished career. “Photography is not like painting,” he told the Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

On another occasion he said: “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.” [translated from French]

I’m sure many photographers know intuitively what Cartier-Bresson meant and have experienced their own “decisive moments” even if they’ve never heard of him. I was only vaguely familiar with his name many years ago when I went on a beach walk with my two sisters, my brother-in-law and a dog and took my camera along.  Walking backwards in front of them, looking through the viewfinder, I saw a nice composition enfolding with one sister in closeup focus in the left foreground and the other in the background talking animatedly with her husband and probably a little out of focus due to a fast shutter speed (1/500 sec.?). When Sarah whistled for her dog I quickly snapped the shutter and knew instantly that I’d captured the moment I’d been waiting for. I thought about that moment and liked that photo a lot for many years before getting to know Cartier-Bresson’s work. The “decisive moment” was, of course, Sarah’s whistle, but the out-of-focus talking couple in the background added a second, more intriguing “event.” I can’t really take much credit for all that; the photo came out of the blue, flew fast up to my camera and alighted there.

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“The trouble with metaphors and similes”

As of last Saturday, the world has felt more blurred, poorer, plainer: Peter Mathiessen is dead. Over the years I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and it’s all been a splendid feast of food for fantasy about wild places and being fully present and fully human in them. So many of his sentences are so boldy wrought and clear you can almost hear the sharp “tok!” of a wooden Buddhist gong sounding when they end. Mathiessen’s years of Zen practice and their influence on his writing is the most intriguing thread in this fine piece about him published by the New York Times a few months before he died.  At one point the author, Jeff Himmelman, describes a conversation with him about “Far Tortuga,” by far his most stylistically daring book:

 “The trouble with metaphors and similes is they bring the author into it,” Matthiessen told me, “and I was trying to stay out of it.” The elimination of the ego is a standard part of Zen training, as is the admonition to keep things simple and free of adornment. “A roach out from underneath the cook shack with its antenna up, that was so striking and strange and beautiful that you don’t need ‘like a radio antenna’ or something like that,” he said. “You just don’t. The thing itself is so good.”

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Peter Mathiessen (May 22, 1927 – April 5, 2014), photographed in March, 2014