John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

The Psychology of the "Decisive Moment"

I dedicate this article to the memory of Richard Zakia, whose support and insights made it possible.
This research was funded by a grant from Rider University.

decisive momentIn 1952 Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founder of modern photojournalism, proposed one of the most fascinating and highly debated concepts in the history of photography: “the decisive moment.” This moment occurs when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation. Some people believe that the unique purpose of photography, as compared to other visual arts, is to capture this fleeting, quintessential, and holistic instant in the flow of life. For this reason, many photographers often mention the decisive moment, or similar ideas about capturing the essence of a transitory moment, when they describe their work.

Now that I’ve proposed this deceptively simple definition of the DM, I’d like to explore the concept in more depth. Although Cartier-Bresson introduced this idea and is often viewed as the master of the DM, other photographers after him have expanded, revised, and challenged his concept, resulting in considerable complexity about what exactly the DM is. As a scholar specializing in the psychological study of photography and images, I find all of their ideas fascinating. Despite the fact that Cartier-Bresson’s thoughts have become the cri de corps among many photographers, especially photojournalists, they express their ideas mostly in philosophical and artistic terms. I see embedded in their discussions important ideas in psychology that have not been fully explored and articulated – some of those ideas being elements of classic psychology, while others coming from cutting-edge psychological theories.

As a reference point for my exploration of this elusive DM, I periodically will refer to quotes from Cartier-Bresson. They are widely cited online, although I have not always been able to verify the original source – which makes the concept even more mysterious and mythical, especially given how hard it is to acquire Cartier-Bresson’s iconic, rare, and expensive 1952 book The Decisive Moment. Regardless of their questionable veracity as true quotes, they all fall within the voice of what Cartier-Bresson might have said. In this article I will also frequently refer to his famous photograph that some have called The Puddle, which was taken in a construction area behind the Gare St. Lazare train station in 1932 Paris. Many photographers consider it the quintessential DM photo.

Before beginning an in depth exploration of the DM, let me first briefly summarize my conclusions about what it entails. For those readers who want a quick thumbnail overview, I offer this list below. You might also want to skip down to the section entitled “Skills in Capturing the Decisive Moment.” For those readers who want to understand my reasoning behind this list, I hope what follows in this rather lengthy article suffices…. And so, here, as I see it, are the ten key features of the “perfect” DM photo:

1. A sophisticated composition in which the visual coalescence of the photographed scene capitalizes on the principles of Gestalt psychology to create a “prägnanz” atmosphere of balance, harmony, simplicity, and unity.

2. A sophisticated background to the subject that interacts both visually and psychologically with the subject in a synergistically meaningful figure/ground relationship.

3. The visual as well as psychological anticipation of completion and closure, which often surfaces as a visual gap, interval, or suspension of some kind.

4. An element of ambiguity, uncertainty, and even contradiction that rouses the viewer’s curiosity about the meaning or outcome of the scene depicted.

5. The capture of a unique, fleeting, and meaningful moment, ideally one involving movement and action.

6. A precisely timed, unrepeatable, one-chance shot.

7. An unobtrusive, candid, photorealistic image of people in real life situations.

8. A dynamic interplay of objective fact with subjective interpretation that arouses meaning and emotion about the human condition.

9. The overarching context of a productive photography session - or “good hour” - that starts with tension, then culminates in a personal and artistic realization that is the DM image.

10. The DM photo as a product of a unique set of technical, cognitive, and emotional skills developed from extensive training and experience in photography, as well as from a psychological knowledge of people.

Cartier-Bresson’s Viewpoint

In 1952 Cartier-Bresson published Images à la Sauvette, which roughly translates as “images on the run” or “stolen images.” The English title of the book, The Decisive Moment, was chosen by publisher Dick Simon of Simon and Schuster. In his preface to the book of 126 photographs from around the world, Cartier-Bresson cites the 17th century Cardinal de Retz who said, "Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif" - "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” He expands on the application of this idea to photography in these often quoted passages. Later in this article, we’ll see embedded in these words a variety of psychological characteristics of the decisive moment:

“I kept walking the streets, high-strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality, but mainly I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image. Photographing, for me, is instant drawing, and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera.

Manufactured or staged photography does not concern me. And if I make judgment it can only be on a psychological or sociological level. There are those who take photographs arranged beforehand and those who go out to discover the image and seize it. For me the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to “give a meaning” to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry—it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression. One must always take photographs with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself.

To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.

To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.

As far as I am concerned, taking photographs is a means of understanding which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression. It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s originality. It is a way of life.”

A person’s philosophy about anything is shaped by his or her life experiences. So in addition to what Cartier-Bresson said about the DM, we also need to consider what he did in his life and work. That’s what he himself implied at the end of this quote. While we need not explore his life and work in-depth, it should be mentioned that he was famous for his portraits of famous as well as common people, and especially for his reportage of major changes occurring in the world, including India and Indonesia at the time of independence, China during the revolution, the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, the United States during the postwar boom, and Europe as its old cultures grappled with the modern age. He lived in a time filled with decisive moments. During World War I, when he joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo Unit, he was captured by the Germans and spent almost three years in a POW camp. Twice he unsuccessfully attempted to escape, was placed in solitary confinement as a punishment, and finally did escape on his third try.

Now that I’ve briefly presented Cartier-Bresson’s personal and historical perspective, let’s use it as a springboard to explore the various characteristics of the DM. Even in these brief quotes and in the summary of his life, we see the ten important facets of the DM that we can now examine in more depth.

decisive moment1. Composition, Visual Coalescence, and Gestalt Psychology

First, let’s take a look at the idea that in the DM all the visual elements of the photo come together in resonance with each other. Essentially, this means that the composition is excellent. But what is excellent composition? As any good photographer knows, volumes have been written about that subject. There is no one right point of view and there are lots of creative exceptions to the traditional rules.

In the case of the DM, that excellent composition is captured quickly, in the moment, often literally or figuratively “on the run,” as Cartier-Bresson suggested. Balance, harmony, unity, the use of the rule of thirds and the golden ratio, or any other important feature of good composition are recognized and captured by the photographer on the spot. The ability to spontaneously execute that perfectly composed DM shot only comes with good training, lots of experience, and intuition. It becomes second nature. As Cartier-Bresson said, “In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.”

In the quote from Cartier-Bresson, he refers to the “rigorous organization of visually perceived forms” and “a sense of geometry” that enhances the quality of the DM photo. He stated, “We often hear of camera angles? (that is, those made by a guy who throws himself flat on his stomach to obtain a certain effect or style), but the only legitimate angles that exist are those of the geometry of the composition.”

Here his ideas lend themselves readily to an analysis from the perspective of Gestalt Psychology, one of the earliest theories of perception. This theory introduced the concept of prägnanz, which states that we organize experience according to several basic perceptual laws for the purpose of creating balance, simplicity, unity, or what Cartier-Bresson called “geometry.” When photographers talk about composition, they often refer to these laws of visual coalescence.

For example, our mind tends to group together visual elements that are in proximity to each other and/or possess similarity. In Cartier-Bresson’s The Puddle, the vertical lines of the fence, ladder, and poles on the top of the building, along with their perpendicular horizontal lines, create an impression of cohesiveness at the center of the photo – as do the interaction of the circular shapes provided by the metal pieces in the puddle, the ripples of the water, the pile of stones, and the wheel of the cart. According to the law of common fate, elements with the same directional moment tend to be perceived as a unit, as in the marching vertical lines of the fence, the pointing of the ladder in the puddle, the lean of the spectator in the background, the circular metal that opens towards the right, and, of course, the leaping subject. That organization is reinforced by the law of continuity stating that evenly spaced visual elements are grouped together, sometimes to create the sensation of a moving direction, as in the rails of the fence and the rungs of the ladder. So too the subtle symmetry within The Puddle reinforces the sense of order and balance: open space at the top and bottom of the image; circular shapes above and below the midline; the lines of the fence appearing horizontally on both the left and right side of the photo, as well as vertically above the puddle and below within the reflection in the water.

2. Figure/Ground Relationships and the Gestalt Field

Although these perceptual laws create the impression of balance and unity that feels satisfying to the human mind seeking completeness, the results might lead to an image that is too predictable, static, and perhaps even downright boring. Here other more sophisticated principles of Gestalt Psychology come to the rescue of artistic photography. For example, interesting figure/ground relationships create an interactive perceptual duality where the primary subject of the image (the figure) synergistically interacts and alternates in subtle visual ways with the background (the ground). In The Puddle the leaping man is an intriguing subject, even though and perhaps because he is darkly silhouetted. However, the many subtle details of the background encourage viewers to shift their attention back and forth between the man and his surroundings, looking for meaningful connections between figure and ground – connections that are encouraged by the Gestalt laws discussed previously. In the most fascinating DM shots - as with The Puddle - there is an ongoing reversal of figure and ground in which the subject, for a period of time, becomes the focus of attention, while at another point in the time the background becomes the focus, hence becoming the figure. The fact that the puddle jumping man is darkly silhouetted makes him a perfect candidate to temporarily recede into ground as his surroundings become the figure.

In photography contests and online groups devoted to DM images, the authorities running the show sometimes dictate specific rules about the background that adhere to these ideas about figure/ground relationships. The background should contribute to the overall composition. It should be in focus, or, if not, at least clear enough to offer recognizable forms that contribute to the composition and meaning. Photos taken with a shallow depth of field to emphasize a central subject against an indistinct background might be good portraits, but they aren’t DM shots. However, one could argue that the ambiguous shapes, colors, and textures of an indistinct background might indeed activate interesting figure/ground interactions.

The principles I’ve discussed so far about the Gestalt Laws converge on its primary premise that the whole is greater than, or at least different than, the sum of its parts. Any part of a whole scene is perceived by the mind according to its relationship to other parts of the scene and to the overall Gestalt context of the entire scene. These laws of perception operate automatically for anyone looking at anything, but the mind of experienced photographers who capture the DM possess the ability to subconsciously notice a variety of Gestalt phenomenon emerging and interacting with each other for a brief moment of perfect resonance. Those photographers have developed an acute sensitivity to the Gestalt field in which they are working.

3. Closure, The Gap, Anticipation

In Gestalt Psychology, the principle of closure leads us into yet another fascinating dimension of the DM. This principle states that the mind seeks completion of a visual figure and will anticipate that completion even when it doesn’t exist. For example, in a photo of a bicycle wheel in which part of the wheel lies outside the frame, or part of the wheel is hidden behind a bush, the mind will ignore the gap and perceive the wheel as an intact circular object. The law of closure is yet another example of how the mind expects integration, unity, and wholeness.

Some might say that the DM shot is one in which the photographer captures the precise climactic moment of completion, when the mind feels perceptually satisfied. However, the more interesting viewpoint, in my opinion, is that the DM photo captures the “almost complete” visual scene, or the moment right before the impression of completion. For example, wedding photographers often claim that the best shot is the second before the couple kisses, when their lips are just an inch apart, rather than when their lips have met. In the case of The Puddle, it’s the fact that the jumper’s foot seems like it’s just about to splash into the water that makes the image a DM photo.

In these cases a visual gap or interval appears – one that implies action, process, and direction rather than finality. We might call it a special type of negative space, which always plays an important figure/ground role in good visual and musical composition. It’s the empty space between the couple’s lips, between the jumper’s foot and it’s landing, and between the finger of God and Man in Michelangelo's painting of The Creation. That gap generates a tantalizing feeling of anticipation – and perhaps even frustration, as in the myth of Tantalus. Something important might or is just about to happen. The “almost completed” action draws the viewer into an image more powerfully than a finalized deed. The DM photo invites the viewer into the image, tempting the expectation of a Gestalt finale. The almost completed circular formations of the debris in The Puddle reinforce the idea of an approaching fulfillment.

In another famous DM photo, Cartier-Bresson captured, from a high camera angle, a speeding bicyclist on the street right at the brief moment he appears in the space between two stairways. For sure, it was precise timing on Cartier-Bresson’s part, although the picture doesn’t necessarily create an anticipation of an impending completion. Instead, the need for closure, as evident also in the puddle jump, takes the form of our having difficulty leaving that event suspended in space. The biker is captured in a hovering moment - and we cannot leave him there.

decisive moment
4. Ambiguity and Curiosity

To explore in more depth this idea that the DM photo leaves an event suspended in time and space, let’s examine the picture of the couple on the street corner. Some might say that it isn’t truly a DM shot because they are already kissing. The action has been completed: there is no anticipation. However, the kiss is just one component of body language. What is the rest of the man’s body saying? Why isn't he hugging his girlfriend with both arms, as she’s hugging him. He's holding an object in the hanging arm, but we can’t make out clearly what it is. Is there something about that object that makes him reluctant to put his arm around her with it in his hand? While there is no gap between his arm and the woman’s body in the traditional sense, the fact that it’s suspended, that he isn’t using it to fully embrace her, rouses our curiosity, especially since the woman is fully connected, which includes the tiny gap between her heels and the pavement as she tippy-toes up to kiss him – a gap created by her motivated effort that makes his hanging arm even more curious. Will he raise it to complete the embrace, or not? Will he give her what’s in his hand or take it with him?

The man’s body language in the street corner shot creates ambiguity. His anomalous dangling arm that does not complete the embrace raises a variety of interesting questions and hypotheses. The curves of the composition, the caution/slippery sign on the walkway, the multiple traffic signals and signs ("no stopping any time," "right lane must turn right"), all reinforce the uncertainty or "this way or that way" theme. This scene has not yet completed itself. The full meaning is not yet clear. As Cartier-Bresson said, “it questions and decides simultaneously.” If there is anticipation in a DM shot, it involves an "almost" closure shot - in some cases, a kind of closure that is not entirely clear or certain. It's up to the viewer to anticipate and even decide what that closure entails, or even if there is any closure. We are invited to complete the action. It can be whatever we want it to be.

Ambiguity, uncertainty, and even contradiction in a photo might qualify as elements of a DM photo in the sense that our curiosity is stimulated about how or if completion is about to occur. Rather than simply the anticipation of knowing that something in particular is surely going to happen, the DM shot might also involve the anticipatory curiosity that “something” important is going to happen. The DM photo generates a sense of mystery or suspense. We can’t leave the moment dangling in space. In the case of The Puddle, will the jumper splash into the water, or might he somehow clear it? If he doesn’t succeed in his efforts to stay dry, how deep is the puddle and how soaked will he get?

5. Capturing the Unique Fleeting Moment

In many people’s minds, capturing a unique, fleeting moment is the essence of the DM shot. For many photographers that means capturing people, animals, or things in motion, at a precise point that conveys drama, excitment, or anticipation. So you're bound to see lots of people and animals suspended in air, as in The Puddle.

Using a more sophisticated interpretation, the fleeiting moment is a brief, serendipitous moment, a coincidence of circumstance, one that might involve very subtle movement or impending motion. Cartier-Bresson made frequent references to this idea, as evident in the quote at the beginning of this article when he mentions the challenge of converging one’s faculties on “fleeing reality,” the camera being “the master of the instant,” and how “manufactured or staged photography does not concern me.” His overall philosophy was that “life is fluid.” In that 1952 essay about the DM, he also stated:

“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop a print from memory..."
Later, in a 1957 interview with the Washington Post, he stated:

"Photography is not like painting. 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… Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

For Cartier-Bresson, who started out as a painter, the unrivaled ability of the camera to freeze the evanescent moment in the here and now made it the exciting medium of his time. He, as well as other advocates of the DM concept, believed the attempt to capture such moments is the essence of photography. It’s what makes photography unique compared to other visual arts. The DM photo can condense and solidify even the seemingly confusing or chaotic action in a scene, giving us time to explore the essence of that event and organize our ideas and feelings around it. The essential elements of the DM shot are that the event is very brief, unrepeatable, and its capture leaves no doubt about the importance of that particular moment as a representation of the essence of the scene. The icing on the cake is that the photographer catches the event at the precise moment while standing in the right place, at the right time, with the best possible camera settings, in order to create the lighting and composition that resonates perfectly with the meaning of that scene.

For these reasons, we can see why Susan Sontag compared photography to hunting. In the case of the DM shot, the photographer succeeds in tracking down and capturing the very rare “animal.” One does it on the fly, on the run, and in the real world of action. It’s no wonder that photojournalists and street photographers embrace the idea of a DM shot. Cartier-Bresson himself mentions in the preface to The Decisive Moment, “I prowled the streets … ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life.” Perhaps we should not underestimate how Cartier-Bresson’s escape from a POW camp drove home in his mind the value of the fortuitous moment and being furtively on the run.

Given these ideas about capturing the fleeting moment, we might assume that many self-proclaimed DM photographers would not consider landscape, architectural, and especially studio work as producing DM shots. Cartier-Bresson made himself very clear about being uninterested in “manufactured or staged photography.” He would most likely shudder at the thought of someone attempting to create a DM after the fact via Photoshop manipulations. There’s also the scenario of shooting a static scene, but doing so by trying to hold your body steady in some precarious position, waiting for that exact moment when the shaking camera offers the perfect composition through the viewfinder. Is that a DM? I suspect Cartier-Bresson would say no.

Landscape, architectural, and even studio photographers might disagree that their work doesn’t involve a decisive moment. When dealing with in vivo situations, precise timing in terms of such factors as the movement of clouds, the sun, shadows, and the wind makes a big difference between a good shot and a uniquely decisive moment one. As any landscape photographer knows, the weather is quite unpredictable and unconcerned about your photograph. Similarly, in studio work, while most portrait shots will appear very posed, a skilled photographer - who knows how to interact with subjects effectively and anticipate their behaviors - will be able to catch them off-guard, at much more natural moments when something essential about their personality reveals itself. Although the prepared backdrops for such studio shots probably won’t fulfill the DM criterion of a true-to-life dynamic figure/ground relationship, that problem might be solved in environmental portraits, as Cartier-Bresson often pursued.

Some people claim that Cartier-Bresson’s and his comrades’ vision of a decisive moment were shaped by the works of classical painters who attempted to capture spontaneous gestures and uniquely fleeting perspectives of an important scene. This might also be true for artists working in Photoshop. Have they successfully depicted a decisive moment? Yes, some skeptics might reply, but just don’t call it photography.

6. The One Hit Wonder

I’m not using this expression in the usual sense, as in idea that a photographer attains fame by capturing one fantastic DM photo. It is possible that skilled or unskilled photographers might take one great DM shot in their lifetime (probably without attaining any widespread acclaim). Instead, I’m using this expression to refer to the idea implicit in the DM concept that the photographer has one and only one chance at getting that DM image in any particular situation. The amazing skill of Cartier-Bresson, some claim, is that he not only achieved such one hit wonders, but he did it consistently using wisdom, foresight, patience, devotion, exceptional eye/hand coordination - and without any rapid-fire camera.

Rumor also states that he forbade anyone to crop his photos, which is yet another testament to his skill at perfectly composed one hit wonders. We might also propose that any out-of the-ordinary post-processing disqualifies a shot as a DM, but defining “out-of-the-ordinary” certainly becomes a tricky issue, especially in the age of digital photography, when it’s quite easy to remove a utility pole jutting out of a subject’s head in an otherwise excellent composition.

Some photographers dismiss the DM as an outdated idea precisely because fast burst digital cameras in our contemporary age make it a whole lot easier to capture a DM, both in securing the one precious instant in a particular scene, as well as in the opportunity to take lots of photos during an entire shoot, without worrying about wasting film, while expecting that at least one image will emerge as a DM wonder. After all, Cartier-Bresson himself did once compare even the cameras of his time to a machine gun.

Rather than a precisely timed, unrepeatable, one-chance shot, the DM photo might instead entail a process of selecting one particular image out of many – the shot that clearly stands out as the one in which the visual and psychological elements of a scene briefly came together in perfect resonance to express the essence of the subject matter. The DM photo reveals itself in the collection of photos as the one that “says it all” in an exquisite, symbolic composition – assuming one has the eye to spot it as a DM photo.

Some contemporary photographers question just how successful Cartier-Bresson was at consistently capturing a DM. It seems impossible, they say, that he was either so lucky or skilled to achieve such a high hit rate. Perhaps he took many more photos than history realizes, relying on cherry picking the best ones after the fact – not unlike what many photographers do. This possibility seems to be confirmed by his comparing the camera to a machine gun, as well as such (albeit ambiguous) statements as, “It’s seldom you make a great picture. You have to milk the cow quite a lot to get plenty of milk to make a little cheese.” However, given the many superb DM shots taken by Cartier-Bresson that have easily withstood the test of time, many photographers can’t help but admire his artistic and technical skill.

All experienced photographers are familiar with what I’ll call the “enter the composition” shot. You set up a perfectly composed scene through your viewfinder, with all the right camera settings, then wait for different people to enter into it. If you take enough of them, you just might capture a DM in which a particular person, wearing particular clothes, carrying a particular object, or in a particular posture, resonates in a meaningful symbolic way with your composition of the scene. Surely we would expect Cartier-Bresson to label such photos as the “manufactured or staged” variety - and definitely not a DM. However, he did use this strategy himself, resulting in images that some people consider DM shots.

Disciples of the DM concept would stick to their guns on these issues. Even though Cartier-Bresson used the “enter the composition” technique and referred to the camera as a machine gun, these facts probably do not reflect his deepest beliefs about photography. The disciples would say that the photographer should not use their cameras like a video camera, shooting as much as possible in the hopes of capturing a DM somewhere in the mix. Instead, always shoot with the mindset that you have only one chance. The first photo is the one that counts. As Cartier-Bresson stated, “You shouldn’t overshoot. It’s like over-eating or over-drinking.”

decisive moment7. Candid Shots of People in Real Life

The traditional notion of the DM photo implies that it is a candid shot of people in real life situations. Certainly these are the kinds of images that made Cartier-Bresson the icon of street photography and photojournalism. On the surface, this seems like a relatively straightforward notion. Upon closer inspection, we see that it breaks down into four somewhat different aspects of the DM photo: (1) it is a picture of people, (2) the shot is candid, which means the people are not aware of being photographed, (3) the people are in real life rather than contrived or staged scenarios, and, (4) the photo itself should appear like an unmanipulated, realistic depiction of that real life scenario.

1. People

First, let’s examine the idea that the DM shot involves people. Cartier-Bresson emphasized the importance of capturing “the little human moments.” Interested in both common laborers as well as the rich and famous, he searched for these little moments that symbolized the triumphs and strifes of human existence which he witnessed in his worldwide photojournalism of social/political change. Here is where hardcore DM thinkers would exclude landscapes, architectural, still life, nature, and even animal photography. Many people consider Cartier-Bresson’s photography at its best when he captured spontaneous, revealing aspects of people’s body posture and facial expressions. The body, psychologists often say, does not lie. Some photographers even go so far as to say that the decisive moment requires humans in motion, so portraits of sleeping babies don’t qualify. I suspect, however, that Cartier-Bresson would say that human physical activity, including the ever-changing dynamic interaction of stillness and movement, provides the flow of body language from which the DM emerges.

2. Candidness

What does it mean to say that the DM shot is candid, as many traditionalists would proclaim. The word means authenticity and openness, without rehearsal or pretense. This definition indicates that subjects should not be posing - and perhaps not even aware of a photo being taken, which more likely guarantees genuineness in their behavior. The Hawthorne Effect in psychology clearly states that people change their behavior when they know they are being observed. Much to the dismay of many wedding photographers who claim a specialization in capturing decisive moments, their photos might not measure up to a strict interpretation of candidness, unless people at the wedding start to forget about the unobtrusive photographer.

Cartier-Bresson’s classic book was titled The Decisive Moment for English readers. However, his original French title - Images à la Sauvette  - is an expression that suggests the images are taken on the run, slyly, furtively, or even “stolen.” According to these definitions, stealth and surreptitiousness seem to play a key role in capturing the candid human moment – skills made possible by Cartier-Bresson’s use of the new and highly portable Leica, quite unlike the traditionally cumbersome medium format cameras (some claim he would have embraced modern digital cameras). Skills at being furtive no doubt enabled him to escape from a German POW camp years earlier.

Curiously, even though Cartier-Bresson claimed, “one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder,” he had a reputation as a street photographer for being the unobtrusive, unseen observer, like a fly on the wall, who did not interact with his subjects. When taking the shot of the puddle jumper, he was peeking through a fence. He once said, “One has to tiptoe lightly and steal up to one's quarry; you don't swish the water when you are fishing.” In a short article about the DM attributed to Peter Marshall (, Marshall said:

“Years ago a photographer friend described to me how he had worked when she accompanied him as a guide in Ireland; he would position her between him and a likely subject, standing talking until his was ready to take a picture, his camera shielded by her. Rapidly the camera would rise to his eye as he shot over her shoulder. Sometimes she was shoved abruptly and firmly out of the way. His single-minded approach to getting his picture offended some of his collaborators and occasionally those that he photographed - the jovial French farmer stretching out a hand to the photographer's companion in a 1955 picture was apparently shortly afterwards chasing him with a pitchfork!”

Nowadays, the candid aspect of DM photography poses some significant problems. In this digital age of photos being taken everywhere, by almost everyone, in all kinds of public and private situations, with the option of presenting images to the world via the Internet, people have become a bit paranoid. If the goal of the DM shot is to capture a candid, spontaneous shot of ordinary (or famous) people in an extraordinary moment – a moment that reveals some essential meaning about that person or life in general – how will the subject feel about it? Surely, a model release would be needed, or perhaps an attempt to disguise the identity of the subject, as in The Puddle. Some photographers feel stymied by the legal issues involved in DM photography. There are a lot of pitchforks out there. They believe such photos are unmarketable, or that the DM concept is now outdated.

3. Real Life

Cartier-Bresson was clear about the intent of his work with such quotes as: “Photography is nothing - it's life that interests me” … and… “The photograph itself doesn't interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.”

This focus included not just the decisive moments of the major social and political events of his time that he captured in his photojournalism, but also the “little human moments” in the everyday lives of ordinary people – moments that represented the archetypal themes of human existence. Artificially contrived photos, he believed, contradicted this truth revealed in the spontaneous, natural acts of everyday living. “It seems dangerous to be a portrait artist who does commissions for clients,” he stated, “because everyone wants to be flattered, so they pose in such a way that there’s nothing left of truth.”

Of course, Cartier-Bresson did do planned portrait work, with many of these photos nevertheless being considered decisive moments in the sense that he succeeded in capturing his subjects during spontaneously natural actions. He also often took these photos within the real settings in which the subjects lived or worked, which allowed for the type of sophisticated figure/ground composition that enhanced the meaning of the image.

Such portraits don’t necessarily entail the “on the run” or “action freezing” quality of street photography. Cartier-Bresson might argue that the real life DM photo doesn’t necessarily possess these characteristics. After all, humans aren’t constantly in motion all day long. The ever-changing flux of life that fascinated him embodies the endless rhythm between stillness and motion. You can’t have one without the other. Decisive moment photography manifests this reality.

Some people say that although Cartier-Bresson referred to himself as a photojournalist, he often did not set out to record a particular historical event. Instead, he focused on scenes along the sidelines that he found interesting. Supposedly, his friend Robert Capa, a photojournalist in Paris in the 1930’s, advised Cartier-Bresson to avoid being labeled as “the little surrealistic photographer” by calling himself a photojournalist. I find this anecdote fascinating, for it suggests that the DM depiction of reality is, on some level, surreal. It reaches beyond “reality” to archetypal ideas about human living that transcend the particular scene being captured.

4. Photorealism

If the DM shot depicts a real life situation, then the implication is that the image itself must look real. This stipulation would seem to rule out fancy editing that results in things being added to or removed from the original shot, as well as unnatural colors, contrasts, sharpness, blur, shapes, textures, etc. Artistic Photoshop experiments conducted on the original image disqualify it as a DM photo. Let’s remember that Cartier-Bresson wouldn’t even tolerate anyone cropping his pictures.

Here we run into some problems. What appears to be a realistic, life-like photo is a highly subjective, debatable, and culturally relative issue. Most of us don’t see reality in black and white, which means, technically speaking, we’d have to throw out all b/w photos as DM shots, including all of Cartier-Bresson’s work. The only reason we won’t and don’t do that is because our culture accepts b/w photography as accurate depictions of reality. Due to the limitations of the technology at the time, photography started off as strictly b/w, so tradition encourages us to believe such images show us the world as it actually is.

The times have changed. Photography is now much more sophisticated and versatile. In our modern culture, we accept a wider range of images as natural depictions of reality. The oddly faded, color-shifted scenes in old film prints look as real to our contemporary minds as the super crisp colors and sharpness of a fresh digital image.

Where do we draw the line between a realistic versus overly manipulated image to define it as a DM photo, or not? If we are willing to accept a broader range of image types as DM photos, do we also allow other types of editing, like removing a utility pole sticking out of a person’s head in an otherwise perfect composition? Is some cropping OK, despite Cartier-Bressons’s restrictions about his own photos? How strictly do we adhere to the orthodox idea that the DM photo should stand as it is, as it was originally captured, with as minimal processing as possible? Even Cartier-Bresson wondered, "Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot, simplify. The question is, do we always cut out what we should?"

I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions. When defining a DM photo, some people will take that strict, orthodox position. Others allow more flexibility in the capture and editing of the image.

8. Meaning and Emotion

The most challenging aspect of defining the DM lies in the following kinds of statements by Cartier-Bresson: “In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder.” On the other hand, he also said, ““In photojournalistic reporting, inevitably, you’re an outsider.” Other expressions such as capturing “the quintessence of the phenomenon” and “the fact itself” – as well as "I was there and this is how life appeared to me at that moment" – indicate that the DM photo pinpoints the factual reality of the scene, but, paradoxically, through the subjective viewpoint of the photographer. The fact or meaning of the scene is shaped by the image created by the photographer.

Artistic photography, whether it appears in the form of photojournalism or not, is all about the intersection of reality as perceived by the photographer and the viewers of the image. If a clear consensus arises in that intersection, then we might say that the factual meaning of the scene has been depicted, with a DM photo emerging when many or all of the previously outlined criteria in the article have been satisfied. In the case of photojournalistic pictures of important socio-political events, or in portraits of famous people, historical perspective helps us reach that agreement about the factual reality being portrayed. As a young journalist, Cartier-Bresson felt compelled to record the problematic facts of his era. Explaining his transition from painting to photography, he told an interviewer: "The adventurer in me felt obliged to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush to the scars of the world." On the other hand, tipping his hat to the more subjective side of image meaning, he later said in an interview with American Photo, “I'm not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience.”

In the case of DM photos of ordinary people in everyday life, the meaning or fact of the image becomes more ambiguous than photojournalism because it extends into the wide territory of subtle, symbolic interpretations of some universal or archetypal aspect of the human condition. Hinting at this concept of archetypes, Cartier-Bresson said, “I don’t know what it means to be dramatically new. There are no new ideas in the world, there’s only new arrangements of things. Everything is new, every minute is new. It means reexamining.”

In this reexamining of a basic idea about real life – especially in photos of ordinary people doing everyday things and perhaps even in iconic photojournalist images that capture similar archetypal meanings, but with much more drama - individual differences in the attribution of meaning to the DM photo will vary greatly, with some people finding no special meaning or fact, which perhaps disqualifies it as a DM image, at least for them.

One person, when looking at The Puddle, simply told me, “It’s a guy jumping over a puddle. It looks dark and depressing.” With some effort, we might inquire deeper into this comment to find a hidden archetypal meaning… or maybe not. A person with a much more elaborate reaction might say:

“A man is trying to jump over a puddle. I can’t make out who he is. Maybe he symbolizes all men, all people. It’s hard to tell if he will clear the puddle or not. It looks like he won’t, like he will splash into it. I wonder how deep it is. Maybe it’s a leap of faith, a leap into the uncertainty or the unknown. It could stand for a kind of rebirth or purification, or an attempt to escape from his tenuous stance on the ladder and his own life circumstances…. maybe an escape from the somewhat dismal appearance of this scene and of his life. It does look like there might be some kind of construction taking place here. Maybe he represents a leap forward, progress. The dancer on the poster echoes his leap, so there might be some joy and art in his attempt. And the hands of the clock also echo his limbs, suggesting the passage of time, maybe the limits of time, the inevitability of fate. Even though he’s jumping, he’s framed and trapped within the fence and the reflection of the fence. It’s a leap to freedom, an escape. The man in the background is a witness to this event. He echoes our own presence. We watch passively, but the man in the hat is the one who goes out on a limp, takes a chance, and makes the leap. Is he our role model, or something we want to avoid? His fate is uncertain. The half circular metal pieces in the water tell us his destiny is yet to be realized. The image itself seems to float in the empty space at the top and bottom. There are reflections of the scene in the water, but the whole image itself could be a reflection, suspended in time and space, just as the jumper is suspended in time and space. The meaning of this photo is simple, yet profound. It’s both an ordinary, everyday event, and it’s also something with cosmic meaning.”

Perhaps Cartier-Bresson might be delighted with such a reaction. Or maybe he saw the photo a bit differently. That’s the point. There will always be individual differences in the attribution of life meanings to a photo. The question is not about a specific meaning or fact being depicted in the DM photo, but rather about the types and variety of possible archetypal ideas concerning human existence that it embodies.

“Meaning” means more than meaning in an intellectual sense. More importantly, it entails emotion. The power of the DM photo rests in its ability to express and activate particular feelings, including subtle facets of those feelings, which often occurs via sophisticated composition and figure/ground dynamics. In an ideal DM photo, the image possesses what Roland Barthes called “punctum” – a powerful emotion that pierces the viewer. Usually, some particular, obvious aspect of the image generates that conscious emotional reaction, which could be true of almost any photo. In the case of the DM shot, however, the more subtle, unconscious cues in its composition deepen and expand the nuances of that emotion. The emotional reaction might even be powerful but hard to articulate, because its origin is unconscious. Perhaps the most effect DM photo is the one that stirs up these unconscious associations.

9. The Shoot leading to DM shots

The DM photo doesn’t occur as an isolated shot. There are no photographers, even the great ones, who go out with their cameras, take one spectacular DM shot, and then return home. The DM image emerges in the context of an entire shoot of some kind. Some photography sessions lead to a great DM shot, and some don’t. Is there a difference between the two?

Here I’d like to draw on some ideas about the “Good Hour” in psychoanalytic therapy – a term originally proposed by the famous analyst Ernst Kris in his classic 1956 article “On some vicissitudes of insight in psychoanalysis” published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. The Good Hour starts off with a negative tinge. The person feels frustrated, angry, or disappointed. However, these feelings are then neutralized and transformed into a more productive energy that pushes one’s mind towards personally meaningful insights. Dreams or memories begin to break through defenses into conscious awareness. New elements of one’s experience begin to fit into the context of previous experiences as if they had always been familiar. Associations suddenly converge. There is the feeling that what one is thinking, feeling, and perceiving comes from an unconscious realm where they have already been prepared, formulated, and integrated – a kind of subconscious incubation. It’s a reaction to and a synthesis of previous psychotherapeutic work. What was at first flat and intellectual becomes real and concrete. The Good Hour, in which people feel autonomous and independent in their search for meaning, differs from the “Pseudo-Good Hour” in which they may seem to be perceiving life in a new, more fruitful way, when actually their perception is motivated by a conscious or unconscious goal to please someone, gain praise, or defy an authority.

These ideas echo what Cartier-Bresson said about the spontaneous resonance of the visual and psychological elements of the DM shot, as well as suddenly realizing and capturing the underlying meaning and emotion of human life. He in fact compared photography to the psychoanalytic couch, while Kris believed the psychological processes occurring during the Good Hour resemble those in artistic endeavors. Integrating the factual elements of the situation being photographed with one’s subjective reaction to and interpretation of that scenario, the DM shot is the therapeutic “Aha!” moment of realizing oneself within the human condition. It is the moment of clarity and insight, of making concrete and real the meaning that was previously intellectual and flat. It’s not about getting that great shot to please authority figures or to prove one is better than those authorities. It’s about oneself in the world of human experience. Some subconsciously formed insight is lying in wait, anticipating the opportunity to express itself. The DM shot catalyzes its emergence.

Some photographers consider their work to be personally therapeutic, involving insights into emotion and meanings that resemble the insights of psychotherapy. They call it “therapeutic photography.” Any particular shoot can become a psychoanalytic therapy session leading to the experiential release of some insight that was previously unconscious. Clearly, Cartier-Bresson saw it the same way when he said that photography “is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s originality. It is a way of life.” Like psychotherapy, photography expresses life itself in the merging of the subjective and objective worlds. As Cartier-Bresson said, “I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us.” The Puddle is not simply a photo of a man leaping over water, nor a capture of larger symbolic representations of the human condition, but also a realization of Cartier-Bresson’s own life – at some level, no doubt, a realization of what it must have meant to him to escape from a Nazi POW camp.

Despite these striking parallels between the Good Hour and the shoot leading to the DM photo, we might object to the idea that the shoot starts off with a negative tinge, including feelings of tension and aggression. However, Cartier-Bresson himself hinted at this idea when he made such statements as: ““I kept walking the streets, high-strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality” … and … “The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.” As I mentioned earlier in this article, Susan Sontag similarly described how photography entails the aggressive aspects of the hunt. Kris’s insights simply clarify how this form of psychological tension and aggression is controlled, neutralized, and redirected – in the case of photography, redirected into the DM shot. As any artist knows: doubt, frustration, anger, grief, or any other emotion of a negative tinge provides more fuel for creative endeavors than “feeling kinda good.”

10. Skills in Capturing the Decisive Moment

Now that we’ve explored the various dimensions of the DM photo, let’s consider the skills a photographer needs to consistently capture such images. Outlining that skill set follows logically from the ideas discussed so far:

1. Camera handling proficiency

Everyone interested in DM photography agrees that you have to know your camera inside and out. Without even having to think about it, you quickly and efficiently adjust the settings to capture that brief moment. All the technical knowledge is second nature. It’s all muscle memory. The camera becomes an extension of oneself.

2. Compositional intuition

Similar to camera handling proficiency, the photographer has enough training, experience, and natural talent to instantly recognize the visual coalescence, figure/ground relationships, and overall Gestalt field that constitutes the DM image. Some might claim that the DM shot comes from serendipity and luck. Indeed there is an element of truth to this idea, but as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

3. Physical adeptness

Certainly the DM shot doesn’t require the ability to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, but it does entail a variety of more subtle physical skills. Besides efficient camera handling and eye/hand coordination, you have to be in the right place at the right time – in some cases, being agile and fast on your feet. The uniqueness of the DM image in part comes from the unique body location of the photographer when taking the shot. The photographer’s body posture fits physically, visually and perhaps even conceptually with the DM, as in Cartier-Bresson peering through the fence to capture The Puddle. In his doing so, I wonder if he had to stand on his tippy-toes, or balance himself precariously on a rock, similar to his subject.

4. Unobtrusiveness

In order to obtain candid photos of people, the photography must possess skills at being the invisible observer. This ability is another aspect of physical adeptness, but it’s also entails the psychological, visual, and spatial understanding of how and when the subject might notice you. How close can you get before they spot your intention to shoot? What movements of yours might draw their attention? How do you follow interesting subjects without their knowing? This perhaps doesn’t sound like a laudatory comment, but successful DM photographers, under some circumstances, must master the habits of a stealthful spy. In other situations, they might simply need to be an unassuming, benign presence whom people notice, but then forget about.

5. People Knowledge

If we assume that DM photos always involve people, then the photographer needs to be knowledgeable about human behavior, including the physical aspects, such as body language, gesturing, movement, and vocal patterns – as well as the understanding the underlying emotional reasons why people do what they do. One can’t simply be a detached observer looking for a nicely composed shot. In addition to seeing the purely visual aspects of the scene, you need to immerse yourself into an understanding of what is happening psychologically within a person and between people. You need to listen to and comprehend conversations in order to understand where the situation is going. Some photographers claim that training in theater performance helps a lot in developing these skills.

6. Anticipation

Because the DM passes by in a flash, you have to see it coming in order to capture it. That ability to anticipate the DM culminates from the intuitive knowledge about human behavior and the Gestalt visual field in which it occurs. Instinctively, you know what’s about to happen, or that SOMETHING is about to happen, as well as where and how you need to capture it. You could be in the right place at the right time, but not even know it.
decisive moment humor

7. Mindfulness

The skill in anticipation comes from a wider state of awareness that some people call “mindfulness” – a topic that is the focus of another article here in Photographic Psychology and that currently is spreading rapidly through all areas of psychology. Of all the abilities needed to capture the DM, this one is probably the most crucial.

Mindfulness is the ability to see things clearly, freely, as they truly are in and of themselves. It involves the full awareness of oneself – one’s own sensations and emotions as encompassed in Gestalt perceptions, as well as the insights of the Good Hour; but it also entails the ability to transcend those things in order to experience the moment for what it is, rather than for just how one’s mind shapes it. One’s “self” might get in the way. As a process of noticing and discovery through a transcending fusion of objectivity and subjectivity, mindfulness is being selflessly present in the world and in the moment, openly receptive to both the seemingly insignificant as well as the overtly surprising events surrounding and within you.

Photographers who talk about the decisive moment often describe their experiences in ways that strongly resemble these ideas about mindfulness. They mention being totally aware of their surroundings, at one with it, losing themselves in it, not thinking, planning, desiring, or expecting anything, but simply experiencing what is happening around them. They talk about developing a peripheral vision or panoramic sensitivity to the environment. Even forget that you are carrying a camera, Cartier-Bresson suggested. It is this state of mind leads to the DM shot – not unlike the fully aware, spontaneous, unpremeditated, and undesired letting lose of the arrow that Eugene Herrigel described in his classic account of Zen in the Art of Archery. A variety of quotes from Cartier-Bresson point to this selfless, meditative state of mind that culminates in the DM:

“It is a way of shooting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one's own originality. It is a way of life.”

“I'm not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience. It's drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to coincidence. You can't go looking for it; you can't want it, or you want get it. First you must lose your self. Then it happens.”

“Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing. Success depends on the extent of one's general culture, one's set of values, one's clarity of mind, one's vivacity.”

“People think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing."

“Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation."

The Myth and Reality of the DM Photo

Now that we’ve explored the ten features of a “perfect” DM photo, we have to ask ourselves if any image meets all the criteria. Perhaps not, perhaps not even any of Cartier-Bresson’s work or the work of any other great photographer. Some of the criteria are rather elusive. For example, it’s not easy to verify “a dynamic interplay of objective fact with subjective interpretation that arouses meaning and emotion about the human condition.”

Although I have attempted in this article to identify the specific psychological elements of the decisive moment, it is very much an artistic, philosophical, and poetic concept that’s not easy to pin down in any specific way. If you examine online photo-sharing groups devoted to DM photography, each group defines it differently. Some have very strict, meticulous criteria (different than what I propose). Some offer a simple definition, such as “Have you been blessed by space and time, to have pressed the shutter release button at exactly the precise moment to get the perfect shot?” Others simply refuse to explain it at all. Like Justice Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography, these groups imply “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it. The fact stands that if you visit online groups where people are posting DM photos, you'll see almost every kind of image you can image - including people supsended preposterously in midair, beautifully sunsets, animals performing strange acts, balloons popping, and all other sorts of photos.

Online I’ve seen photographers rail about anyone who claims to be an arbiter of the DM ideal, as if they are riding high upon their own inflated hubris. I’ve seen photographers claim that the DM is more of a cliché than a reality (even for Cartier-Bresson); that it is based mostly on anecdotal stories of interesting incidents that one might be tempted to narrate; or that it has attained the status of a powerful myth bearing an undeniable, unconscious impact on photography. Take all the opinions you might hear with a grain of salt and a sense of humor, as I do in offering my edited version of The Puddle, which contains six changes to the original photo - changes that wreck some of its exquisite DM features, like the eliminating the gap, closing open loops, providing a safe landing for the daring man, and adding totally irrelevant items to the image that blatantly violate the compositional principle that in a excellent shot, "Nothing can be added and nothing taken away."

I believe the ten criteria I’ve proposed can be helpful in defining DM photos, but I do not offer them as facts chiseled into stone. I intend them as guidelines, or, even better, as ideas to consider. The more criteria met by a particular photo, the more likely people will perceive it as a DM. In my conversations with Dick Zakia in the weeks before his death, I think he summed it up beautifully: “More and more I am beginning to think that the photos that have taken on a life of their own must have the qualities of the decisive moment.”

Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?

If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

b The Good Capture
b Mindfulness in Photography
b Body Language in Photography

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche