Henri Cartier-Bresson’s essay on the decisive moment is the source of one of the most influential ideas in photography:
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.
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. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.
In Geoff Dyer’s ‘The Ongoing Moment’, the decisive moment repeats itself over and over again, across time and space, in the work of several famous twentieth century American photographers who have photographed the same things — barber shops, benches, fences, doors, stairs, hats, hands, roads, signs — sometimes in a style that is strangely reminiscent of each other.
Geoff Dyer says that his favorite photographs in the book are the ones that look as if they were taken by another photographer:
Photographers sometimes take pictures of each other; occasionally they take pictures of each other at work; more usually they take photographs – or versions – of each other’s work. Consciously or not they are constantly in dialogue with their contemporaries and predecessors.
I’m sure I’ll read Geoff Dyer’s ‘The Ongoing Moment’ again, and write about it again. I’m sure I’ll think more about the idea that even when it feels that I am seeing something beautiful in an everyday scene for the first time, a long lineage of photographers before me have seen the same scene in the same way and felt the same sense of awe, and that’s exactly as it ought to be.
And, I’m sure I’ll think of Alfred Stieglitz when I‘m photographing a lover’s hands, Robert Frank when I’m photographing an empty road from a car, Andre Kertesz when I’m photographing a bench or a staircase, Walker Evans when I’m photographing an open door, Henry Cartier-Bresson when I’m photographing a cyclist, Edward Hopper when I am photographing an almost empty cafe, Fan Ho when I am photographing a sharp diagonal shadow, Elliott Erwitt when I am photographing a dog, and Saul Leiter when I’m photographing a red umbrella.
Next, I’m reading ‘Photography in India’ by Nathaniel Gaskell and Diva Gujral to develop a similar historical perspective on photographic subjects that are unique to India. I wonder who I’ll come to associate with photographs of cows walking in the middle of a busy street.
Finally, if you are wondering what that 8” by 8” piece of white canvas is doing in the photo, I’m figuring it out myself. I was watching Eileen Rafferty talk — in a workshop on rituals and curiosity — about how she did a series of self-portraits holding a paint brush or a paint can, and it inexplicably made me want to insert this white canvas (that I have been using as a reflector) in my photographs around the house. I don’t yet know why I am doing it, what it means, or what might come out of it, but I’m enjoying it, and I’m sure I’ll write more about it another time.