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.