Friday, September 21, 2007

The "Decisive Moment"

Before I became serious about painting, I spent a lot of time toting around cameras - heavy, all-metal, vintage cameras with lots of glass and few, if any, of the modern conveniences of digital or even late-model film cameras. Indeed, most of my vintage cameras don't even have light meters, so I always carried a 1950s-model Weston Master III or IV to hand meter everything. When I initially took up photography with vintage equipment as a serious hobby, the process of metering, selecting aperture and speed, focusing, and composition could be quite time consuming. Getting my children to sit still at such a young age was a challenge. More spontaneous photography was just out of the question. Yet with experience came speed.

What I was ultimately trying to achieve was an ability to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment." "Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "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. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

For me, if operation of the camera - whether a Leica III or a Soviet version of the remarkable Contax II - became intuitive, requiring little thought about the mechanical, then one could devote more attention to realizing the artistic potential of the medium.

Occasionally I felt as if I achieved some success. For example, I was able to capture my kids in some images that are spontaneous and say so much about their personalities. Walking around the city, camera in hand, realizing that kind of spontaneity proved a bit more elusive. But sifting through some of my prints recently, I came across one image that really illustrated that equation of luck, good light, and appropriate subjects that equals an interesting photograph.

I had been walking through Central Park, down the Mall, with the Bethesda Fountain as my destination. Stopping at the parapet which overlooks the fountain, I looked down and saw a bride in white, walking from one of the frequent photo shoots at the fountain, moving from bright sunlight, into the dark shadows cast by the parapet. I grabbed the camera, made an educated guess at the aperture and exposure time based on the conditions, focused, and snapped the picture. I had time for only one shot: a second later the bride had disappeared into the arched recesses under the parapet. When I had the photograph developed, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. So, what story line, if any, can one infer from this photograph? I was especially pleased with the level of contrast between the bright sunlit areas and the shadows. Also, the resolution on her dress is a testimony to the quality of the German lens, given that I was probably 50 to 60 feet away, using a standard 50 mm lens. I can tell you one thing: None of my digital cameras would have yielded this image.


BooCat said...

Dear Brian C, I have hauled 40 pounds of camera equipment around NYC (Canons with a full lot of lenses)taking b&w images, including some of the Trade Towers, Wall Street, Trinity Church and particularly street people down in the Village and Soho when it was not the best place in the world to be. They were printed up on a Bessler 23c II with a Dual Dichro head in my dark/laundry room. I miss that kind of photography, too. You are right, digital can't really duplicate it. Digital is a great deal more convenient, less messy, and it brings us instant gratification that can be emailed to friends and family far and wide almost the second we take the shot. That being said, I still miss seeing my images coming up in the developer and the tonal range of silver on paper.

One Wink at a Time said...

I had some photography classes in art school and I remember the thrill of watching the pictures develop as boocat mentioned here.
As for a story line for the bride, I'll have to think on that. It's been a long day and my senses are way past dulled. Great picture though.
I enjoyed the boys' pictures also. Lots of personality showing through.