Magnum Photos, probably the most famous and legendary photo agency in the world, is turning 70 next year. Members were asked to pick a photo from their body of work that illustrated the “decisive moment,” the term introduced to the photography world by the agency’s most famous member, Henri Cartier-Bresson:
“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.” — 1957 interview with The Washington Post
Here are the photos, accompanied by each photographer’s words.
“This photo has become well known, which is, in a way, quite understandable, but for the people of Burma or Myanmar, especially Buddhists, the way I composed this without a holy pagoda on the top of the rock is disturbing. I went to the rock three times, and I visited the wonderful land and people, so opposite of America, well over 50 times between 1975 and ’78. It has a lot to do with my coverage on the fall of Saigon for a popular American weekly magazine for six weeks in 1975. I was desperate to keep a distance from America for a while; luckily, I found Burma and its gentle and compassionate people. In the spring of 1978, on the top of the hill where I took this photo, I had two Leica bodies: the one with Tri-X and the other with Kodachrome 64. Soon after, I realized that the color one looked very colorful and was more powerful. That was my decisive moment, to become a color photographer.” — Hiroji Kubota
“I took this image at the Black Sea beachfront in the city of Sukhumi in the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia. Tourists and locals were hanging out picnicking and bathing. When people are hurling themselves from old shipwrecks I don’t necessarily think, ‘Oh, here is a decisive moment’. Actually, I often don’t think so much at all when I photograph, it is more gut instinct working, just lots of reactions. For me, the thinking and categorizing is better done before and after the actual photographing. Anyway, I don’t think too much about the classic concept of the decisive moment; for me, they are just moments. Some are complicated, where lots of elements come together; some are simple low-hanging fruit; some are long, drawn-out sluggish affairs; others are over in a split second. Whatever it is, the shutter had better be open at the right time.” — Jonas Bendiksen
“I shot this image in 1988 when I was doing my second book on Delhi. While driving past, I saw the main door of a wresting complex [Akhara] garishly painted with two guys in a dramatic wresting posture. I stopped, and as I pushed the door open, this is what was going on inside. I stayed on the spot and shot a few frames where the inside and outside human body shapes came into certain relationships, thanked them, shut the door and came back. There are certain situations that are physically very dramatic and potent; what you need to do is to wait for the moment when respective elements — in this case, human forms and physical action — come into a certain kind of rhythm and relationship to make the experience whole and enhance the strength and structure of the frame, bringing a certain kind of dynamism into it. Of course, the colors were dramatic and the forms did the rest of it, and this is how the decisive moment appears to disappear again.” — Raghu Rai
“Sometimes, you realize that you’re part of a moment that has all the visual elements that are necessary to create a good photo and therefore communicates the atmosphere you were a part of. For me, that is the decisive moment. I had such a moment with this family in Amarillo, Texas. They had every reason to be unhappy and give up: Three of the four family members were sick; they were poor and lived in a very dirty, small trailer full of pests. Instead of going home, the parents often picked their children up after school and drove around town. That particular day in the cold winter, they went to buy sodas and chips and decided, instead of going to the movies, to drive around the rich neighborhoods to watch the overwhelming Christmas lights covering these big houses.
“They never felt any jealousy toward the rich; they were just enjoying the beautiful lights and their time together. I felt the same and was happy that they shared this moment with me. This kind of moment is very rare and only happens to me about once or twice a year.” — Bieke Depoorter
“To me, the act of observing is what makes a moment decisive. It’s not a moment until it is seen and recorded. What is interesting to me is what happens internally that leads to that instant of clarity. A decisive image stops movement, but it also preserves thought.” — Matt Black
“I took this photograph in 1994 in a small desert Mennonite colony in the center of Mexico. I’d met members of the Old Colony sect five years earlier as they’d arrived in Canada, hungry, dirt-poor migrant workers. I often accompanied them back home to Mexico. The community of 850 souls had welcomed me as a friend from the north over the course of several years.
“I’d just visited Jacob and Sarah Dyck in their adobe house that looked like a chicken coop, yet it was clean and orderly inside and smelled of laundry soap. A newborn baby yawned in a homemade cradle; the neighbor girl looked down as I exited, shy — children seldom saw outsiders. The shadow of a windmill squeaked and then slowly struggled to lift water to the surface during another year of unmitigated drought. I took a picture. She sprang and ran home. I still wonder if my modern and worldly obsession had frightened her.” — Larry Towell
“Tyra [Banks] had asked me to do a shoot with her after seeing a contact sheet of photos of another actor during downtime on a set. We were both fatigued during the shoot because we had worked on a night-shoot production the night before. When John [Singleton] showed up to hang out and watch during my private shoot with Tyra, I had the idea to shoot some images of them together, but I also did not want to infringe on their privacy. John suggested I do some photos of them together. Tyra is what I think of as a generous, intelligent and sensitive human being, as well as being a beautiful woman, and John is an impassioned artist filmmaker who is a brilliant writer, connected with the world he lives in. I wanted to capture an image of the two’s feelings for each other at that particular point. Tyra briefly closed her eyes, and the moment was there.” — Eli Reed
“Chim [David Seymour, 1911-1956] captured this instantly recognizable, proud and decisive moment as a smiling father shows off his baby daughter. The joyous feelings for this first newborn in the settlement of Alma [established by a group of Italian converts to Judaism] in 1951 must have been especially strong in young Israel. Israel was itself a newborn nation, still recovering from the trauma of World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust. The white dress for daughter Miriam echoes the whitewashed new buildings behind her and the billowing clouds above her. Ironically, this sort of white gown is typically worn by baby boys for their circumcision, but it was put to good use for this celebration. Viewers of this photo can easily assume that Chim was equally proud of the youthful spirit of Israel, which reverberates from this photo. Chim wrote to his sister: ‘You can imagine how everything here is emotionally charged and moving.’ ” — David (Chim) Seymour
“Probably no photographer has influenced me for as long as Henri Cartier-Bresson. For some 50 years, I’ve been drawn to his early, prewar work with its surreal ambiguity. However, ever since I first saw my father’s copy of ‘The Decisive Moment’ in the late 1960s, I’ve been uneasy with the title. The notion of a ‘decisive moment’ seems just too pat, too unpoetic for such a complicated vision. Years later, it was gratifying to discover that the original French title was ‘Images à la Sauvette’ — ‘Images on the Sly’ — a humbler notion more in the spirit of his early street photographs, work that embraces the mystery and uncertainty of collaborating with the world. ‘It is the photo that takes you,’ as he once said.
“There are many photographs of mine that have ‘taken’ me. I chose Havana, 1993, because Cuba, then, seemed suspended in time, echoing the feel of the Spanish streets in the 1930s that Cartier-Bresson photographed so memorably. I suspect that the Cartier-Bresson I knew would have been skeptical of the color of this homage to him — but I’d like to think his younger, surrealistic self would have at least appreciated the two boys in the background with that soccer ball hovering overhead, out of reach forever.” — Alex Webb
“The decisive moment and the excellence of composition are the basis of the hegemonic graphic aesthetic of images that, while suggesting an impossible truth, satisfy the existential comfort of viewers. Photographers often attempt to remedy world disorder by enclosing insidious forces of chaos into formatted frameworks and mental architectures. In my photographs, the logic of the senses takes over aesthetic dogma and tendentious hierarchical arrangements of space and time. The dissolution of forms eradicates arrogant photographic rules, contaminates our understanding of reality and instills fragility and doubt. All images are gestures that reveal the bodily experience of beings facing the void, of sacrifice to oblivion, through the dissolution of accepted shapes and limits. Because the movement of excess will defeat intelligence, irredeemably taking over the geometry of the world and dissolving all forms of order.” — Antoine D’Agata
“Rowing with paddles attached to their legs so as to leave their hands free, fishermen on Northern Inle Lake, Myanmar, are today largely a tourist attraction. They play to the appeal of a land untouched by modernity. A decisive moment might have been when a fisherman was caught in the act of catching a fish, but now there are hardly any fish left. These fishermen are performers using Inle Lake as a backdrop, and thus the decisive moment is a moment of grace, when the light is right, the circles are in harmony, the legs upraised just so. Click.” — Chien-Chi Chang
“On the surface, this is a static landscape. I was on a road trip with Karl Ove Knausgaard for a piece for the New York Times Magazine. We had been driving through generic scenes of low forests and small towns for most of the day when we rounded a bend and caught our first glimpse of Lake Huron. As the sun began to set, we pulled off on a random road. We walked down to the frozen lake. I took a few frames and waited, stamping my feet to ward off the bitter cold. I found a patch of frozen ice, some reeds and a few icicles, and felt I had found my composition. There was no conscious reason; it was a scene like many others, but something told me to stop. That mysterious guidance by the subconscious is what I love about photography. I waited, and as the winter light changed rapidly and the clouds shifted formation, the falling light swept over the scene with a particular beauty. I shot a few frames, and it began to shift again. In the stillness of the scene, I’d found my decisive moment.” — Peter van Agtmael
As part of Magnum’s 70th-year celebration, all of these photos, and more, are for sale in the Magnum Square Print Sale. The works included in the Square Print sale are intended to spark debate about the meaning of the decisive moment. What goes through a photographer’s mind when capturing a shot? What are the moral or ethical implications in the quest to find the decisive moment? What part does the unconscious play? Is the realization of a decisive moment always in the present, or can that come later? Is there even such a thing as the decisive moment? The Magnum Square Print Sale will take place at the Magnum Photos Online Shop: shop.magnumphotos.com. It will be open from 9 a.m. Eastern time Monday through 6 p.m. Friday.