Interviews

Magnum photographers discuss their decisive moment

Main image: IRAN. Mahmoudabad. Caspian Sea. 2011. Imaginary CD cover for Sahar © Newsha Tavakolian. All images © the artist, courtesy Magnum Photos

Some of the most iconic Magnum Photographers, dating from the early years of the photo agency right up to the present day, share their take on, and the image that defines for them, Henri Cartier-Bresson's concept of the defining moment.

It was first published in France in 1952, titled Images à la Sauvette (Images On the Run). In the English edition of Cartier-Bresson’s game-changing photobook, the title was changed to The Decisive Moment.

The book’s preface opens with a quote by Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”

The concept of the decisive moment has influenced generations of photographers ever since. Still today, in any conversation surrounding the practice of photography, that complex pursuit of capturing, in a flash of light, something indicative of our shared lives, the idea of the decisive moment is never far away. Giving rise to the idea – maybe, beyond the camera, there are decisive moments in our existence too.

MARTIN PARR

GB. England. Brighton. Members of the Sea Swimming Club who meet daily to swim in the sea. 2010.

GB. England. Brighton. Members of the Sea Swimming Club who meet daily to swim in the sea. 2010 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

The British photographer says of the image: “This is the swimming club in Brighton, who go and swim in the sea, every day of the year, regardless of the weather (wet suits are discouraged). You can see, here, the waves were so fierce, they were experiencing their own ‘Decisive Moment’ as they pondered if they dare go into the sea or not. They did eventually sneak in, but a long leisurely dip was not on the cards that particular day.”

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GUY LE QUERREC

CHINA. Province of Sichuan. Xindu. Monastery of BAO GUANG (Divine Light). Buddhist temple. On the wall: inscription symbolizing happiness, which the visitors, with their eyes shut, try to touch in the center in order to gain happiness. Friday 27th April 1984.

CHINA. Province of Sichuan. Xindu. Monastery of BAO GUANG (Divine Light). Buddhist temple. On the wall: inscription symbolizing happiness, which the visitors, with their eyes shut, try to touch in the center in order to gain happiness. Friday 27th April 1984 © Guy Le Querrec / Magnum Photos

The French photographer says: “The flying bag, taken on Friday April 27, 1984. From my first photo-reportage in China in 1984.

“I took a flight from Paris to Moscow, then, a train from Moscow to Peking: one week on the Trans-Mongolian train. Two days after our arrival, on the agenda was a visit to the Buddhist monastery Baoguang (literal translation: Heavenly Light) of the city of Xindu, in the Sichuan province.

“On the wall, the symbol of happiness was carved, painted and embossed. According to tradition, Chinese tourists, starting fifteen meters from the wall, walking with eyes closed and arms outstretched, would try to touch the symbol right in the middle of the four embossed points. If they succeeded, it is believed that their life would be full of happiness. I still don’t understand the path of this flying bag, neither where it came from, nor where it would like to go.”

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ANTOINE D’AGATA

Antoine d'Agata _ Magnum Photos

“Taking over the geometry of the world and dissolving all forms of order.” Image © Antoine d’Agata / Magnum Photos

The French photographer says: “The decisive moment and the excellence of composition are the basis of the hegemonic graphic aesthetic of images that, while suggesting an impossible truth, satisfy the existential comfort of viewers. Photographers often attempt to remedy world disorder by enclosing insidious forces of chaos into formatted frameworks and mental architectures.

In my photographs, the logic of the senses takes over aesthetic dogma and tendentious hierarchical arrangements of space and time. The dissolution of forms eradicates arrogant photographic rules, contaminates our understanding of reality and instills fragility and doubt.

All images are gestures that reveal the bodily experience of beings facing the void, of sacrifice to oblivion, through the dissolution of accepted shapes and limits. Because the movement of excess will defeat intelligence, irredeemably taking over the geometry of the world and dissolving all forms of order.”

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ERICH HARTMANN

USA. New York City. 1967. Girl in bus and figures in street during snowstorm.

USA. New York City. 1967. Girl in bus and figures in street during snowstorm © Erich Hartmann / Magnum Photos

Ruth Bains Hartmann, widow of the American photographer Erich Hartmann, says: “A good photograph should not need a description; it shouldspeak for itself, and I cannot possibly know why Erich took this picture nor what he was thinking at the time on that snowy day in Midtown, New York.

“I am, however, able to tell you something about his working habits. He saw pictures everywhere and was never without a camera, indoors or out, in all seasons and all circumstances. No matter what other heavy or cumbersome photographic gear he might have been carrying, he always had easily accessible, a small loaded camera and some extra film.

Perhaps this picture should be described not as a ‘decisive moment’, but as a ‘unique moment’ because of the many components coming together at the same instant. It is unlikely that ever again on a winter’s day in New York would that same young woman be sitting in a bus near enough to where Erich was standing for him to take a picture of her that also included within the frame a well-spaced group of passengers outside struggling against the storm, some entering the bus from the snow-filled street, others leaving to face the wind and the cold.

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LORENZO MELONI

LEBANON. Tripoli. November 2013. Interior of an apartment on Syria Street destroyed by the fights, where the sectarian fights between Sunnis and Shiite are more violent.

LEBANON. Tripoli. November 2013. Interior of an apartment on Syria Street destroyed by the fights, where the sectarian fights between Sunnis and Shiite are more violent © Lorenzo Meloni

The Italian photographer says: “I spent more than a year working in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh district in Lebanon, documenting a politically fuelled sectarian conflict. I visited many homes on the frontline but people rarely wanted to be photographed because they were afraid, so I often returned home without having even turned my camera on.

The day I took this photo, I climbed the stairs to the top floor of a building, which was riddled with bullet holes. When I was leaving one apartment, I turned and saw the children there on the chairs in front of the shattered wall; they seemed to perfectly sum up how families were living in the middle of the conflict. With one foot already outside the door, I raised my camera and snapped.

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ELI REED

Model and actress Tyra Banks embraces film director John Singleton, 1994.

Model and actress Tyra Banks embraces film director John Singleton, 1994 © Eli Reed / Magnum Photos

The American photographer says: “Tyra had asked me to do a shoot with her after seeing a contact sheet of photos of another actor during downtime on a set. We were both fatigued during the shoot because we had worked on a night-shoot production the night before. When John showed up to hang out and watch during my private shoot with Tyra, I had the idea to shoot some images of them together but I also did not want to infringe on their privacy. John suggested I do some photos of them together. Tyra is what I think of as a generous, intelligent, and sensitive human being, as well as being a beautiful woman, and John is an impassioned artist filmmaker, who is a brilliant writer, connected with the world he lives in. I wanted to capture an image of the two’s feelings for each other at that particular point. Tyra briefly closed her eyes and the moment was there.”

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DAVID SEYMOUR

ISRAEL. 1951. First child (Miriam TRITO) born in the settlement of Alma. Eliezer TRITO is in charge of the pipeline construction work which is going to bring water from a source 3 miles away. He is seen here with the daughter he had with his wife Miriam.

ISRAEL. 1951. First child (Miriam TRITO) born in the settlement of Alma. Eliezer TRITO is in charge of the pipeline construction work which is going to bring water from a source 3 miles away. He is seen here with the daughter he had with his wife Miriam © David Seymour / Magnum Photos

A friend of  David Seymour, who was known to his friends as Chim, says: “Chim captured this instantly recognizable, proud and decisive moment as a smiling father shows off his baby daughter. The joyous feelings for this first newborn in the settlement of Alma (established by a group of Italian converts to Judaism) in 1951 must have been especially strong in young Israel. Israel was itself a newborn nation, still recovering from the trauma of World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust.

“The white dress for daughter Miriam echoes the whitewashed new buildings behind her and the billowing clouds above her. Ironically, this sort of white gown is typically worn by baby boys for their circumcision but it was put to good use for this celebration. Viewers of this photo can easily assume that Chim was equally proud of the youthful spirit of Israel, which reverberates from this photo. Chim wrote to his sister: ‘You can imagine how everything here is emotionally charged and moving.’”

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IAN BERRY

SOUTH AFRICA. Natal. Lamontville. Supporters climb to every vantage point whilst awaiting the arrival of Nelson MANDELA. 1994

SOUTH AFRICA. Natal. Lamontville. Supporters climb to every vantage point whilst awaiting the arrival of Nelson MANDELA. 1994 © Ian Berry / Magnum Photos

The British photographer says: “I went to South Africa three weeks before the election that everybody anticipated would bring the ANC and Mandela to power. Even this long before, my press accreditation was numbered over 300. Mandela was the obvious candidate to follow. Unfortunately, most of his appearances were in soccer stadiums surrounded by barbed-wire fences to contain the crowds. As Mandela moved around inside the stadium, so did a couple of hundred photographers and cameramen. Result: Mandela surrounded by other photographers.

“On one occasion preceding Mandela to a university, where he was scheduled to speak, I came across this rather rocky tattered poster with supporters hanging on somewhat precariously. Although, thousands of images later, I managed to get to him exclusively, this picture, perhaps not for me an HCB moment, best summed up the enthusiasm and support that Mandela invoked.”

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DONOVAN WYLIE

GB. Northern Ireland. Belfast. Gypsy bridesmaid on her sisters wedding day. 1986.

GB. Northern Ireland. Belfast. Gypsy bridesmaid on her sisters wedding day, 1986 © Donovan Wylie / Magnum Photos

The Northern Irish photographer says: “When I was a kid my brother’s friend gave me his father’s camera. It was a Yashica Mat and I loved it, but it had one serious fault (which I came to love): sometimes when you pressed the shutter release nothing happened. I remember framing this image through the finder and feeling it was just magic, and praying the shutter release would work. I was inside the picture and gently pressed the shutter release; I heard the click—it worked, but there were many moments when it didn’t work, and I remember them fondly.”

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NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN

IRAN. Mahmoudabad. Caspian Sea. 2011. Imaginary CD cover for Sahar.

IRAN. Mahmoudabad. Caspian Sea. 2011. Imaginary CD cover for Sahar © Newsha Tavakolian, courtesy Magnum

The Iranian photographer says: “For my project Listen I made a series of imaginary CD covers for six women singers. I shot several situations, but this one, taken on the shores of the Caspian Sea, came about by a stroke of luck. My sister (the model) was waiting in the freezing water,

waves were breaking all around her, there was wind and there were onlookers. I
hurriedly made a series of shots, focusing on her while she was withstanding the
elements.

“I remember driving home wondering if I had gotten the picture I wanted. I
shot analogue so had no way of knowing. When I got the contact sheets it became
clear that for one image everything that I was looking for had fallen into place: two
waves are breaking at exactly the right moment, her position is just as I hoped it to
be. Most importantly, her gaze, straight into the lens, for me at least, completes the
picture.”

The Magnum Square Print Sale runs June 6 to 10, 2016. Each print is signed and estate stamped to museum quality. A 6×6” prints costs from $100.

See here for details and how to buy the prints. Sale ends 10th June, 6pm EST