The Decisive Moment?


The other day I had a moment that was ten minutes long. In fact, I had four of them while doing some long-exposure pinholes. I also had some 4-second moments with a lens camera that had a deep red filter on it and infrared film in it. I don’t know what if any part of those ten-minutes or of those 4-second durations were decisive, but even if I did I wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the resulting images.

The aim of this essay is not to attack Cartier-Bresson‘s very influential notion about “the decisive moment” in photography. I actually like his work very much. I merely want to question what seems to be an unquestioned assumption about photography being only about “the moment” (whether it is decisive or not). The number of times I’ve seen a photo advertisement reading “capture the moment” is beyond counting. Kodak made famous the phrase “Kodak Moment.” This emphasis on the photographic moment has become so naturalized to us that we don’t think twice about the language we use to describe photographic practice. As a result, I think that much recounting of what goes on when taking a photo becomes inaccurate or incomplete. Language and thought become sloppy.

Cartier-Bresson, with his well-timed and arresting shots of people being people, certainly helped propel the idea of “capturing the moment,” but the idea had been launched already as soon as the first photographs were taken. It’s also likely that the present dominance of the quick and easy-to-use fully automatic digital cameras with very fast ASA settings and rapid-firing shutters have only further reinforced the feeling that photography is all about “freezing time” (another photographic cliché) in a split-second moment. That’s all very understandable — but I don’t think it does justice to other important dimensions of photography. In fact, I believe familiar conceptions like the primacy of “the moment” in photography are more properly considered cultural and historical rather than technical or phenomenological attributes of the medium.

To explore why the moment “frozen in time” has become so naturalized — so decisive — to our usual thinking about photographic experience, I’d like to pursue two lines of inquiry. First, we need to think concretely about what we mean by a “moment”; we need some definition of it. Second, we need to set aside (for a moment) our obsession with time and consider a little more about space. Ultimately, my critical intervention here aims to shift our photographic focus away from the temporal and toward the spatial.

So first, what is a moment? How long does it last? We might as well consider what Cartier-Bresson has to say about that given that I invoked his famous phrase. For him, as you might suspect, it involves “a fraction of a second”:

The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.

The conditions of possibility for such a moment to be “captured” on film did not, however, always exist in the history of photography. Given the slow emulsions and slow lenses in the early stages of photography, the “moment” that was captured was often many seconds — it really wasn’t a “moment” as we would commonly understand it. This posed problems for portraiture and photos of any kind of moving objects that you didn’t want blurred and was the impetus for the contest sponsored by the wonderfully named Society of Encouragement of National Industry which encouraged the design of the faster lenses of Charles Chevalier and Josef Petzval (their lenses were judged in 1842 by the French committee who awarded first place to the Frenchman and second to the Hungarian-via-Vienna although as time would prove, Petzval’s was the superior lens. Petzval is a personal hero of mine). These lenses, however, were large and designed mainly for studio portraiture, not for capturing decisive moments on the streets. One might have better luck at that with John Henry Dallmeyer‘s Rapid Rectilinear and Carl August von Steinheil‘s identical but independently designed Aplanat lenses from the mid-1860s, but there were still the problems of needing faster emulsions and more portable camera design.  By the 1880s, however, there had been progress enough on those fronts to the point that you had to start thinking about mechanical shutters for the lenses. You could also start imagining “instantaneous photography” and “snapshots.” The Scientific American Supplement of 1885, in a discussion about instantaneous photography and consequent need for a shutter, defines “instantaneous” in the same language as Cartier-Bresson defines a “moment”:

What is understood by instantaneousness? To our knowledge, no definition thereof has as yet been given. For our part, we propose to style “instantaneous” any photograph that is taken in a fraction of a second [emphasis added] that our senses will not permit us to estimate. The shutter is the apparatus which allows the light to enter the photographic chamber during this very short time.

So a commonsensical definition of an “instant” or “moment” is a “very short time” too quick for our senses to measure. That sounds reasonable. Progressive lens technology and faster emulsions opened the door — or perhaps we should say opened and closed the shutter — for the moment-capturing and time-freezing that we today associate in general with photography.

My first point, then, about the “moment” is that there was photography before a moment as such could be captured; in other words, there was photography that did not conform to our common notions of photography today as a medium that captures moments and freezes time. However, people still thought that was what they were doing then; there was a strong cultural-historical will to think of photography as doing that because that was the goal of the first photographic experimenters — to “fix” an image taken from nature. Photography pioneer of the negative-positive process and paper-film substrate, William Henry Fox Talbot, articulated that goal thus:

How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon paper.

The mainstream technological history of photography since then has been a trajectory toward perfecting the imperfect first results of that original desire. In other words, to produce faster lenses and emulsions and shutters and cameras.

My second point about the “moment” is that even after moment-capturing technology became available, you could still choose not to work within “a fraction of a second,” to do instead long exposures for specific valid reasons, like at small apertures for longer depth of focus or because of dim lighting conditions or to trace a (blurred) motion for artistic or scientific reasons, or for certain other purposeful effects. Under those conditions, are you still dealing with a “moment” as such? I don’t think so because then the definition of “moment” gets stretched to be point of meaninglessness. A fraction-of-a-second snapshot of a waterfall that “freezes” its motion and, for example, a 35-second exposure of the same waterfall with a neutral density filter that renders the falls blurry and smooth cannot both be meaningfully equated as the same experience. BUT, we are still prone to look at both very different images of that waterfall and consider both as moments captured. That’s how powerful the cultural idea of the captured moment — the tyranny of the moment, I would say — has become. Even if told that the second photo took 35 seconds to make, we have difficulty describing it in terms other than “capture” and “freezing” and yet logically those terms are difficult to use to describe what happened. Can you say, “I captured the 35 seconds” or “I froze 35 seconds of time”? In what sense is that duration of time inscribed in the emulsion? With a moving object we might claim that we can see the duration as a motion blur, but we really couldn’t parse out that duration. And what about an extended exposure (at small aperture, in low light, etc.) of a perfectly still scene where no perceptible motion blur is registered? In that case, upon viewing the resultant image we would certainly be prone to say that a moment was captured even if we witnessed the minute or two of the actual exposure that created the image. That is the tyranny of the moment. We succumb to its language or remain mute in trying to describe in any other comfortable terms the production of such an image. It is the weight of culture and history surrounding the will to fix an image from nature that has generated this tyranny and that in turn is a product of humans, not of cameras.

In effect, when we say that a photo captures a moment I think that what we are doing is retroactively imputing that sense of a sliver of time upon the image. This is where we need to step out of time and into space.

Strictly speaking, our cameras take photographs — “light writings” — of forms in space by the intensities and lengths of rays of light radiating from those forms and acting physio-chemically upon a light-sensitized surface (or photoelectrically in the case of digital sensors); we, in our subjective experience of time and will to control it, impute a temporal dimension on the results after the fact. Our cameras are space machines; we will them to become time machines, and then only after they have transformed three-dimensional volume into a two-dimensional plane. I submit that rather than “freezing time” we are more precisely slicing and flattening space. What is decisive are relative positions in space between the light-writing device and sources of light it receives, and those positions can extend beyond any given moment — they are not dependent on a defined duration of time — and can even change within a moment, however long it may extend.

I fully realize that arguing that photography involves a primary if not exclusive engagement and play with space rather than time flies in the face of common sense. But that’s precisely my point. The sense that photography is about “capturing the moment” has been made common through historical-cultural processes but that does not necessarily correspond to what is actually going on in the process of taking a photograph, not to mention also in the processing of the exposed emulsion in analog photography (which is my prime concern). The photographic image does not yet exist in a way that we can sense it until the film is processed and a lot can happen in that process to alter by plan or by accident the final image. Very few critics of photography bother to address the processing of the exposure. When they do it is usually to bash the “artistic” practice of physical manipulations of the images in the darkroom. Interestingly, a parallel critique of digital manipulations — from the minor tweaking of tones or cropping to the radical application of textures and distortions — in the case of digital photography are scarce. Professional digital photographers routinely shoot RAW images that are routinely adjusted in software beyond mere digital dodging and burning as one might in printing a negative in a darkroom.

But I digress… back to the point: time is not the primary consideration in the production of a photograph. The timing in firing the shutter can very well be decisive in some but not all photography. In that limited sense time has a place. All photography, however, is first and foremost a spatial practice. It is in the active human consumption of a photograph where space takes a backseat to time. The temporalization of the photographic image in its consumption — not conception — is a product of cultural practices quite apart from doing photography as such. Again, I suspect I would catch hell from most every critic of photography past and present for taking such a position. However, most critics — smart ones too — who think they are providing profound insights into photography when they rhapsodize about “the moment” and the fundamentally temporal aspect of photography are usually doing little more than recasting commonplace clichés in smart-sounding language.

Just one example is the usually perspective and astute art critic John Berger, author of the brilliant, very influential, and now-classic Ways of Seeing. In a piece entitled “Understanding a Photograph” from the book The Look of Things (1974), he is pretty sharp when talking about the viewing of a photograph, but quite dull when he mixes up the consumption of a photograph with the production of a photograph and then makes universal (and really really ignorant) declarations about all of photography, as he does here [the bracketed words is me trying to control my reaction]:

The true [huh?] content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time [egads, not him too]. One might argue that photography is as close to music as to painting [one might but why bother?]. I have said that a photograph bears witness to a human choice being exercised [actually, more than one choice]. This choice is not between photographing x and y: but between photographing at x moment or at y moment [that could be one consideration in some cases]. The objects recorded [oh no, he’s one of those who believes that photography merely “records”. I see where this is headed. . . ] in any [any!?] photograph (from the most effective to the most commonplace) carry approximately the same weight, the same conviction [has he ever taken a photograph?]. What varies is the intensity with which we are made aware of the poles of absence and presence. Between these two poles photography finds its proper [proper!?] meaning. (The most popular use of a photograph is as a memento of the absent.)

A photograph, whilst recording what has been seen [the source of his misunderstanding], always [!?] and by its nature [huh?] refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment [aaaaaaaaarrrrgh!] taken from a continuum. The power of a painting depends upon its internal references. Its reference to the natural world beyond the limits of the painted surface is never direct; it deals in equivalents. Or, to put it another way: painting interprets the world, translating it into its own language. But photography has no language of its own [yeah, because it simply records external reality, right?]. One learns to read photographs as one learns to read footprints or cardiograms. The language in which photography deals is the language of events [not always!]. All [!?] its references are external to itself [I knew it!]. Hence the continuum. [Hence your ignorance]

A movie director can manipulate time as a painter can manipulate the confluence of the events he depicts. Not so the still photographer. The only [!?] decision he can take is as regards the moment he chooses to isolate. [wait — “decision,” “moment” . . . .  “the decisive moment”? Is he channeling Cartier-Bresson?]

I think my brackets speak for themselves so I won’t continue picking on Berger. He is, ironically, a good one to pick on given that he began the narration of the first episode of the TV series “Ways of Seeing” with the sentence: “This is the first of four programmes in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting, that tradition which was born about 1400 and died about 1900.”

Well said, Mr. Berger. And so: This is the second of who knows how many essays in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the practice of photography, that practice which was born about 1826 and hasn’t died yet.

Next up: I take on Saints Ansel and Edward and the apostles of the Group f/64 in “f(ascism)/64

(originally published 24 June 2011)




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