As handed down by street photography forefather Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment is the precise time and place street shooters hope to uncover and capture. The street is a public stage, with passersby as the actors stepping into its sun-lit spotlight. However, for most who walk through it, both as participants and unconscious witnesses, the curtain is still closed.
As street photographers, it is our role to pull back this veil, inviting an audience to see the drama unfolding—not by scripting and performing it, but by framing and freezing it.
Last week, I found the 1973 Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary, “The Decisive Moment.” It features not only many of his most famous photos, but also his commentary as voice over. As a canonized Master of street photography and co-founder of Magnum, of course he could shoot. But, wow, can he talk a good game too! Upon watching the film on YouTube, I couldn’t help but pause to type out some of his impassioned viewpoints.
In 1952, the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson—street photography pioneer and perhaps its most influential master—published his book Images à la sauvette. Loosely translated, it means “images on the run.”
The book’s English edition title was alternatively chosen as The Decisive Moment, thereby giving street photography its most definitive and well-known catch phrase. That phrase, co-opted by Cartier-Bresson, was originally inspired by the 17th century Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal de Retz, who wrote, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” The book stands alongside Robert Frank’s The Americans as arguably the two most essential and important works in street photography, if not photography in general.