About Photography in the 21st Century

Cartier Bresson Behind the Gare St. Lazare

Since I did go through the trouble of calling this thing a Photo Blog, I had an idea last night that it would be good to write something about photography.  As I was falling asleep, I remembered an article (before posts we called ’em articles) about street photography.  And it got me to thinking about one of the early influencers of street photography – Cartier-Bresson.

That’s right.  Old HCB as he is known in street photography legend.

HCB is associated with the idea of the Decisive Moment.  His “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” is usually considered his most iconic image.  I don’t know if he was using a double-stroke Leica at the time (like an M3) or maybe something earlier than that.  But as someone who worked with an old M3 double-stroke for years, I can tell you that there weren’t many moments that you could call decisive.

Also, putting too much emphasis on the “right moment” to press the shutter was (and still is) just the beginning.  HCB saw the scene, and waited.  He didn’t just lift the camera to his eye as the guy jumped from – the ladder – probably back into the puddle.

But where he was standing and how it was framed was equally important.  A moment without context, isn’t much of a moment.

Which lead me to thinking about photographing with a camera that shoots 60 frames per second.  I have one.  And they will only get faster as they move from mechanical shutters to digital shutters (which aren’t really shutters) but can act like one in your camera.

Suppose that HCB was walking by that same station today.  And he has today’s digital state of the art camera.

First off, there’s an excellent chance that unless he pre-focuses, the camera still may backfocus (and miss) the jumping figure.  But let’s say, for the sake of argument, it gets the guy in the same spot, nice and crisply.  (Maybe it was on action mode and caught it at 1/6000th of a second.) In fact, the photographer was on continuous mode, and photographed 100 (let’s keep the number low for now) shots of the guy, 1/100th of a second apart.

It gets to the question, what is a decisive moment?  Is it a unit of time?  If so, there can be many decisive moments.

What I’m getting at, is that the idea of the Decisive Moment is, in a way, a result of the equipment that was used at the time.  There will now be many decisive moments, and up to the photographer to choose which one is the most decisive.  Ugh.

On the other side of the equation, is the slow-moving, hardly portable 8 x 10 view camera with holders, and a changing tent that Adams and Weston carried up a mountain in Yosemite.  The Zone system, was developed because you didn’t get a lot of chances there at the mountain top with film.  And was there a decisive moment of Clearing Storm?  I doubt it very much, and that was one of the few moving things in large format photography (clouds etc.)

No.  Decisive moments are something else.  I don’t believe in them.

The Zone system, like the idea of the Decisive Moment were results of equipment and art.

As an aside, Weston would pay no heed to the Zone System.  In his autobiography, Ansel says he was walking around with his trusty spotmeter, taking readings and Weston was looking at shadows, and the sun, and maybe holding his hand in the air like a crazed shaman.   Weston claimed he was no scientist (like Ansel).  He was an artist.  Actually when you read more about Weston, that always struck me as true.  He didn’t seem like much of a technician (gasp) but all of his kids were incredible printers.

Even today, when I’m walking around, I have the digital camera on single shot.  And I don’t fire off a bunch in a row.  I just don’t.  I still shoot as if there is this one magic moment, when in fact there are now millions of them.


4 thoughts on “About Photography in the 21st Century

  1. Very good ! Today photographers like to spew out “Decisive Moment” like the Coke slogan “Have a Coke and a Smile”, but very few if any actually knows what it means. The Decisive Moment is about you, the photographer, not the subject.

  2. Michael. Exactly what I’ve been preaching, when I do my little one-on-one lessons. You have chosen the lens, the place (mostly), the framing, the shutter speed, and a million other things that have brought you to press the shutter.

    There’s something that you find: interesting, scary, mysterious, ironic, iconic, all the words we use to describe aspects of ourselves. Personally, I have always been interested in the “long moment.” Not the action shot, but the shot where people are standing around doing next to nothing.

    Just walking and going about their business (whatever that is). But yes, the decisive moment is about the reflection we cast when pressing the shutter.

  3. We tend to view time as continuous, but captured on film or digitally, it appears discrete – the moment seems to exist independently of other moments. Who knows which is “true”? One thing is certain though- perception is not instantaneous. By the time a photographer sees and reacts to an event, it has passed. A talented photographer has to anticipate the event, be a kind of seer, even if he or she has a camera that shoots off hundreds of photos per second. That means both preparing to be in the right place at the right time and being constantly vigilant. You also have to understand human behavior and be open to what you don’t understand about people. Dave has that great picture of women in Chinatown caught up in the emotion of some sort of gambling game. You can ask how many shots he took and how long he stood there watching before capturing the “decisive moment” that revealed their contesting emotions. But the real question is why did he stop there? Why did this scene intrigue him? And how did he manage to intrigue us?

  4. Please use paragraphs. You can use the ENTER key to create a new paragraph.

    Unlike FB nothing bad will happen when you create paragraphs.

    The fascist grammar police squad.

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