The Decisive Moment

The Decisive Moment is a term you hear a lot if you study photography, so when my documentary photo professor brought it up, I wasn’t surprised. Nor was I surprised that we had an assignment based on the principle (and not just because I’d already read the syllabus online, though I had). It was challenging, but turned out to be a good experience that I think will serve me well.

But first, what is the Decisive Moment?

Henri Cartier Bresson, the father of photojournalism, coined the phrase. The theory is that the photographer must know when to take a shot because once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.

I studied Bresson and others in a college course I greatly enjoyed, “The History of Photography,” and was already familiar with the Decisive Moment, but my professor expanded the definition for us that night in class. He said that it is not just the moment the photographer presses the shutter; it is seeing the potential in a situation for a great photograph, then patiently waiting for the correct elements to align, and working hard to get it right.

This is a much different approach than just snapping away at a fortuitous moment. I like this definition better because it includes the photographer’s planning and vision rather than just luck and a quick-moving forefinger (though, those are good things to have, as well!).

And then came our assignment: to find a location that had all the right components for a good photo, and wait for that extra detail to pass by that would make it a great photo. Then take the picture.

BUT, to make sure we actually did the assignment in full and truly put the time into it, we were required to turn in 100 photographs. The real assignment: take pictures of everything that passed by our chosen location, highlighting the few successful photos we got out of the exercise at the end of our slideshow.

My first attempts at this were disastrous. It was early March and very cold out, and I thought it would be hilarious to get a picture of someone coming out of an ice cream shop with a towering cone while all bundled up in a hat and scarf with snow coming down on them.

Brilliantly ironic, right? So, I set up shop in front of J.P. Licks in Davis Square. I waited. And I waited. I took photos of everyone who came in and out, mothers with strollers and teenagers with friends and couples – a lot of people for a winter day. My fingers got cold inside my gloves, so I sat on one hand and then the other. And still, no one came out with a cone. Plus, it wasn’t really snowing, just drizzling random flakes every once in a while.

After an hour, I gave up.

Next, I tried something indoors. I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History where they have a huge, impressive skeleton of some aquatic dinosaur that takes up the wall of a whole room. My vision: get interesting people looking at/reacting to the beast.

Failure again. No matter what I did, the reflection off the glass of the case made a clear photograph impossible.

By this time, it was Sunday morning and the assignment was due in class on Wednesday. I was going crazy trying to think of another idea when, walking down Mass Ave. toward Central Square, I saw it. A beautiful church facade.

The lines were strong: a window, a tree, a doorway. If I could capture someone interesting right in the middle of the doorway, the photo would have a nice symmetry.

I settled across the street from the church, leaning against a parking meter, camera in hand. After an hour, I had many shots of people just outside the edge of the doorway, or a bit blurry, or in the doorway but somehow not interesting enough. Then, I got this one:

Interesting, I thought: old church, modern man, he’s looking down, the tree’s soaring up …

But I didn’t have my hundred yet. I took refuge in a nearby cafe to warm up (had a delicious chai tea latte, my favorite hot drink!) then took to the streets again.

Another half hour, and then I took this:

Crazy old beret lady did it for me. Her hat stood out against the dark doorway, her foot pointed upward. It was finally time to go home.

In the end, my photos were well-received by the professor and the class, and I learned a bit about patience and wearing warm clothes when expecting to be outside for long periods of time in March. A success, all around!


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