Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Creating the Decisive Moment

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

"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..."

Even when he wrote those words, as part of his 1952 essay on "The Decisive Moment," photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was ignoring any number of his colleagues.

The now 95-year-old master, who made his reputation decades ago as a photojournalist and documentarian, was referring in his essay to photography's unique ability to freeze time – to capture moments in an instant, be it a fleeting emotion between two lovers or, more often, tragedy, elation or other high drama amid war, chaos or upheaval.

It can be assumed that he was not talking about landscape photographers making pictures of immovable mountains, or still life photographers or architectural photographers. [And just as obviously, given the year of his essay, he was not talking about some poor soul trying to digitally manufacture a great moment after the fact in PhotoShop.]

What he was talking about was only one type of shooting: call it journalism, documentary photography, spot news photography, interpretative or environmental portraiture – even snapshooting.

Cartier-Bresson was talking about photography of the evanescent, of the here and now. The kind of photography that, in many ways, defines the entire craft, the entire art.

Most photography, but especially this kind, has a tenuous reputation for truth-telling largely because of the camera's, if not always the photographer's, ability to record events objectively. In fact photography is unique among the visual arts, not only because a photograph cannot be created from (sometimes clouded or prejudiced) memory, but because the subject of the photograph – and not really the photographer – determines absolutely what that depiction will be.

That is to say, Richard Avedon may trip the shutter when he makes a portrait, but the subject's face and surroundings are what actually burn the image onto the film. Of course, Avedon brings hugely important elements into the equation as well: his talent for composition, for lighting, and of course, his sense of when his subject's expression becomes, for Avedon, "the picture."

Yet another form of The Decisive Moment.

"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression." – From The Decisive Moment

This seemingly miraculous confluence of expression, gesture, lighting and composition is what makes so much of Cartier-Bresson's work exceptional, especially since most of it happened on the fly, in the real world and not in the studio. But he is not unique. How many other riveting images have you, as a photographer, seen that seem to have this perfect blend of elements: that convey something more than a mere grab shot? Hundreds, I'll bet. You know them when you see them – pictures that transcend themselves.

And, I will venture to say, you probably have taken some of them yourself. I have taken some as well. Only not, it's probably fair to say, in such numbers as H C-B or Richard Avedon.

Part of being able to capture the decisive moment is practice. It is no accident that great photographers tend to photograph all the time, developing a kind of intuitive muscle memory and hand-eye coordination that can recognize developing elements of a picture and grab them on film or pixels. I am convinced that, after a while, the effect is unconscious – you develop a kind of peripheral vision that becomes hyper-aware of your surroundings, especially when you have a camera in your hand, ready to use. Is it any accident that when he was an active photographer Cartier-Bresson had a Leica with him at all times, or that the late Garry Winogrand, another superb documentarian, burned so much film during his too-short life that when he died he left behind an unbelievable 2500 rolls of film that he had shot and not developed?

On a more mundane, yet no less real, level consider the times you have tried to create your own decisive moment. The first instance that comes to my mind is trying to make a telling picture of a child blowing out birthday candles. You know what's about to happen; you are in position for the shot. You are waiting for the child to perform. If he or she does, fine – and most often you'll get a passable snap of a kid with billowing cheeks blowing out candles. But with more experience you might think of waiting for the instant just after the candles go out, when the child looks up from the cake, his or her face flush with excitement and achievement amid a wreath of candle smoke.

Like I said: it takes practice.

One of my favorite shots that my wife Judy made during her days as a children's photographer was of two twin toddler boys sitting side by side on a couch in their parents' living room. During the shoot, Judy asked the mother to place her older son's electric guitar – something the babies never were allowed to touch – in their lap. The ecstatic looks on the boys' faces – the decisive moment, to be sure – was the best picture of the session.

At still another time, when I was working on my book Faces of the Eastern Shore, I photographed a blacksmith in his shop. I asked if it would be difficult to create a cascading shower of sparks while hammering molten metal.

Not at all, Rob Hudson answered. And so we choreographed a number of "one, two, three – bang!" moments that I caught using slow shutter speed and flash. All I had to do afterward was choose the most dramatic fireworks display to print. Multiple decisive moments – and all the more exciting because they were real.

"Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened," said writer/photographer David Jenkins in a piece that I quoted here several months ago and which bears repeating now. "It revels in the beauty, the mystery and the strangeness of life. It is the most powerful purely visual medium ever created."

That's why I cringe to hear some people – even some photographers, though none I really admire – dismissing the idea of the decisive moment as outmoded, even irrelevant in the digital age. That somehow, a transcendent picture – a photograph – can be patched together from disparate digital elements.

Sure it can. Just don't call it photography.

And just as important, don't try to pass it off as same.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Capturing the Decisive Moment can be calculated, as well as spontaneous – and each is legitimate. Here, I asked Eastern Shore blacksmith Rob Hudson to create a shower of sparks for me that I could capture using a slow shutter speed and flash. We choreographed each hammer blow with each photograph so that, in the end, all I had to do was choose the best fireworks.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will teach a 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 19th and go through March 25th. and will be open to all students who would like to improve their photographic story-telling and/or darkroom skills. Class hours are 7pm-10:30pm. Students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, and pursue that project during the course of the workshop. Weekly discussions of each student's progress will be held, both in class and privately, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the class. Students wishing to also accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: www.glenechopark.org/brochure.pdf



Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Portrait of an Artist – In Half an Hour

The Overpaid Wedding Photographer – Huh?

An Urban 'Segway' To Easier Shooting

Lost Camera: a Holiday Puzzle You Can Solve

Dentro 'Il Circolo': Inside 'The Circle'

'I've Always Been Crazy' ...For Honky Tonk