The Decisive Moment – Henri Cartier-Bresson:


In October 2014 Henri Cartier Breeson’s famous photographic book “The Decisive Moment”, with cover plates by Henri Matisse, was reprinted for the first time since since 1952.  Henri worked as a photojournalist  for Magnum Photo agency.  He had traveled the globe to many of the hot spots of social and political change. From the battle in France in 1940 to Gandhi’s funeral in India in 1948 and the last stage of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.  His book contains a collection of 126 photographs taken over two decades.  The book is not just a travel log of a photojournalist, but also contains an idea.  The Decisive moment is a philosophy and a way of approaching photography.

In his own words “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,” he said. “Oops! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

Perhaps the idea is embodied in his man stepping over a puddle picture.

FRANCE. Paris. Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

FRANCE. Paris. Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

Henri is regarded as the founder of “Candid photography” or “street photography”.

SPAIN. Andalucia. Seville. 1933.

SPAIN. Andalucia. Seville. 1933.

There is a misconception that Henri could capture the “decisive moment” in a single well timed shot with his Leica camera.  In fact this is not the case.  Contact sheets from Magnum agency show that he, like all his contemporaries, would chose his “moment” from a dozen or more images.


Cartier-Bresson nearly always used a Leica 35 mm rangefinder camera fitted with a 50 mm lens, or occasionally a wide-angle lens for landscapes. The “standard press” camera at the time was a 4×5  medium format twin-lens reflex camera.  Henri preferred the miniature-format camera, giving him the advantage of stealth, what he called “the velvet hand…the hawk’s eye.”  He was known to wrap the shiny metal of the lens in black tape to make it less conspicuous.

Henri Cartier Bresson originally trained as a painter and a Surrealist photographer. Robert Capa however advised Henri to describe himself as a photojournalist, or he would not get another assignment.  Henri went on to produce a very large burden of work, and was highly regarded as one of the founders of Magnum agency..

The Decisive moment has subsequently gone on to become a crucial influence in modern photography, and is regarded as one of the foundation moments in its history.

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