The Decisive Moment: An Henri Cartier-Bresson Documentary

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.

The Decisive Moment was re-printed in 2014, with new copies still available for sale.

In addition to an cover drawn by another famous French Henri, Matisse (yes, that one), Cartier-Bresson himself wrote the 4,500 word essay for the preface, including this quote that perhaps best distill’s his thoughts on the concept:

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.Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Decisive Moment Documentary

In 1973, Scholastic Magazines, Inc. and the International Center of Photography produced an 18-minute documentary film about Cartier-Bresson called, who’da thunk, “The Decisive Moment.” It’s basically a slideshow of his photos combined with voice over from Cartier-Bresson. Although simple in form, it’s nonetheless effective, eschewing any distractions to put the master and his work front and center.

What I discovered while watching is that in addition to capturing images, HCB is adept in speaking about them. His commentary is eloquent, passion infused, packed-to-the-brim with insight—even poetic. With an economical edit, it’s almost too dense; I’ve watched it twice since first coming across it on YouTube last week. The second time around, I started typing out the quotes that particularly stood out. C’est magnifique!

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