The Fallacy of the Defining Moment

One of the things that pains Maria and me is the number of people who are enamored with a single shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson (“Behind the Gare Saint Lazare“). You know the one, the “Defining Moment” shot. But here’s the thing: it’s a shitty photo. It’s underexposed, details are lost because of the lack of contrast except with the water, and a part of the photo was cut of by the fence he was shooting through. What made it seem magical was 1) “Wow, he caught that guy in mid-air. No one had done that before, right?” 2) It was a perfect instance of catching something unique happening.


Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, “Behind the Gare Saint Lazare,” 1932. Why is the guy in the background watching this “instantaneous” scene?


Well, bollocks to both.

First of all, if you’ve been reading our series, you’ve already heard of Jacques Henri Lartigue. He was also quite enamored with catching people in mid-air, doing things that had heretofore never been seen on camera. Like HCB, he was able to do it because he OWNED A BLOODY FAST CAMERA! The moral of this story is: Don’t confuse technology with artistry.

I can hear the HCB groupies shouting, “No fair! Lartigue took shots of his friends, so they were sort of posed.” Uh, what’s your point? Some were staged (though real) and others were candid. The real differences were that they were masterful photos and he had the insight to expect them. More importantly, all of the photos on this post were possible primarily due to the existence of fast cameras. These shots are no longer difficult to take. In fact, they weren’t then either.

Oh, and just to be clear, all of the Lartigue shots above were taken before HCB picked up his first camera. In fact, the photo of his cousin, Bichonnade, on the stairs, was shot in 1905 when Lartigue was 11.

And, you people are denigrating HCB’s artistry as well. What makes this photo isn’t the silhouetted man’s leap. It’s “RAILOWSKI.” It’s the ladder in the water that mimics the fence and which mirrors the other fence rising in the background on the hill. He saw the setup, with multiple images that mirrored railroad tracks (this was taken behind a railway station) and waited for someone interesting to make it a photograph. That’s about composition, not BLOODY JUMPING. And we are ignoring the obvious here, that the man leapt into a puddle of water because HCB told him to. Yes, I (and others) are suggesting that the whole thing was faked. You know what other famous photo was faked? The shot of the dying soldier taken by Robert Capa, another founding member of Magnum Photos. (Just saying.)

SPAIN. Cerro Muriano, Cordoba front. September 5th, 1936. Republican militiaman (Federico BORRELL GARCIA) at the moment of death. ("The Falling Soldier.")

SPAIN. Cerro Muriano, Cordoba front. September 5th, 1936. Republican militiaman (Federico BORRELL GARCIA) at the moment of death. (“The Falling Soldier.”) He managed to get killed by a high-powered-rifle shell without losing any blood or having any other soldiers anywhere nearby. Miraculous.

So, in the future, PLEASE stop the drooling insistence on posting shots of things doing other things in the air. I avoid these shots almost weekly just to keep Maria from vomiting. Okay, I’m joking (a bit) but there is a serious thread. The Defining Moment is related to COMPOSITION. It is where artistry meets the street. Be really wary of blithely following trends or artists without first doing some real research on precisely what it is you are going to attempt. Following our series is one good place to start.

It makes me wonder if HCB gave up photography because people focused on this one, stupid photo instead of the portrait he took of Gandhi shortly before his assassination. No wonder Bobby McFerrin hates “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Love, Bill and Maria

9 thoughts on “The Fallacy of the Defining Moment

  1. I like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” . . . there is a lot of irony in it, and I think that’s the way it was meant before idio . . . er . . . happy people made it their anthem.

    As for Bresson, I’d never even heard of him (or many of the people in your fine series) before reading about him here.

    Just like I don’t know famous bowlers, famous racquetball players, famous shooters, famous archers, and many famous writers, so it is with photographers. Heck, I don’t even know any famous panini eaters.

    It’s interesting reading about them now, but they won’t have much influence on what I do. Actually, I can’t see them have ANY influence on what I do. Then again, I don’t even listen to current ‘masters’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think it’s fine to know others’ work, and it doesn’t hurt to look for examples of who’s good, but looking for heroes limits one to thinking what’s in the realm of “normal.” These are just normal shots that lasted a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. the dark about the images but I want to kill people when I hear that song.. I used to take photos of my kids jumping off high things in bare feet, loved capturing them in the air (usually more than one at the same time laughing like cats!) – most people loved them too except the PC mothers who thought it was dangerous to get kids to jump off high things in bare feet so their mother could take photos of them for a laugh! I need to look up this fella you are talking about.. Love the woman leaping down the stairs though.. Hope someone was there to catch her.. c

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I know the song. There’s nothing wrong with photos of people doing things like that. There’s just plenty wrong with people thinking that jumping was in the least way the reason a photo is good.

      Art is supposed to be artistic.


  3. Pingback: History of Street Photographers, Track A, Part 12 | Raw, Naked Art

  4. Pingback: Photo of the Day: Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1934 | Raw, Naked Art

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