The Decisive Moment

8 Seconds Is A Long Time by Paul Amyes on
They say that Bronco riding is like holding on to the exterior door handle of a car doing 50 Km per hr. No wonder that 8 seconds seems such a long time.


Recently I put the above image up on my Instagram feed from a project I did back in 2004-8 called Broncos and Bulls. It elicited the following response:


“the rodeo is ALWAYS going to give you the opportunity of dramatic photos. …”


Initially I was going to put a short witty reply up, but then I started to think about it. “Will the rodeo always give the opportunity of dramatic photos?”.

In 1952 a French photographer by the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson is credited with coming up with the notion of the decisive moment. In fact it was the English title of his book of photographs. The original French title was “Images à la Sauvette” which is quite an awkward phrase to translate into English. It has been variously translated as “images on the run”, “stolen images” and “images on the fly”. In the end it was Bresson’s American publisher who settled on the phrase the “decisive moment“. The book is hugely influential and Bresson has become one of the Titans of Twentieth Century photography and the phrase has come to define a whole genre of photography. Unfortunately it is misunderstood because it doesn’t just mean capturing the apex of action but rather it is “the instant when a prescient photographer anticipates a significant moment in the continuous flux of life and captures it in a fraction of a second”. (p 104 Badger, G. 2007 “The Genius of Photography – how photography has changed our lives” Quadrille Publishing Ltd, London). Or to put it another way when all the individual elements of a photograph come together to create meaning. Reams and reams of literature have been published by far cleverer people than I debating the whole notion and Bresson himself was only too aware that the whole concept could be corrupted.

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Considered by many to be one of the most influential photos of the Twentieth Century because it became the epitome of Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment”.

Jean Clair (Director of the Musée Picasso in Paris) in his essay that is included in the major retrospective book about Bresson ( pp47-55 Galassi, P; Delpire, R. et al, 2003, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson – the man, the image, and the world’ Thames Hudson, London) likened the decisive moment to the ancient Greek word kairos  which was used to describe how an archer using intuition would let an arrow fly to hit the right spot.  This I feel is a flawed analogy because it reinforces the notion of the photographer as hunter stalking his prey with the one singular intention, but photography is not that simple. The American photographer Sam Abel in his 2008 book ‘The Life of a Photograph’ (National Geographic Society, Washington) states that are a whole series of acts which culminate in a photograph.  Firstly the photographer has to pre-visualise the photo, then they have to seek out the opportunity and put themselves into the position when all the elements of lighting and composition come together, and then after the picture has been taken select the picture that most captures the intention. So rather than a singular point of time the photographer is looking at a series of decisive moments which have to evolve. After the photograph has been taken and published/viewed then the photograph takes on a whole new life and is imbued with new meaning by its viewers. 



Ride Hard by Paul Amyes on
Barrel racing at Boddington Rodeo.

So getting back to the original statement “the rodeo is ALWAYS going to give you the opportunity of dramatic photos. …” the answer is yes and no. The event gives an opportunity it is up to the photographer to seize that opportunity through preparation, creative vision, and technical capability. Just turning up at a rodeo with a camera doesn’t mean that you’ll come away with a good photo. Just like going to MacDonalds won’t make you a hamburger.

 by Paul Amyes on
Waiting for the start.

I’ve included the rest of the photos from the project Broncos and Bulls because the whole series was shot using the principle of the decisive moment to form a visual story. As I said previously this was done in 2004-8 and since then I have moved away from the subject and the style, but my current photographic interests are still based upon Bresson’s ideas.


The Next Generation by Paul Amyes on
The Next Generation. Rodeos are are big event in Western Australian country towns and attract an audience of all ages.


Nice Hat by Paul Amyes on
Nice Hat! Spectators dress for the occaision at the Boddington Rodeo.


Matt's Free Fall by Paul Amyes on
Matt’s Free Fall. Matt, El Caballo’s Extreme Rodeo compere tries his hand at bronco riding with catastrophic results.


Chilled Out by Paul Amyes on
Damon Metcalf relaxes behind the chutes before the pro bull riding event.


Sorting The Kit Out by Paul Amyes on
Preparation is the name of the game and the competitors at El Caballo Rodeo meticulously sort through their kit before competing.


Rodeo Clowns Clowning by Paul Amyes on
The rodeo clowns had a ball.


Gotcha!!! by Paul Amyes on
Gotcha!!! Steer roping competition. Boddington Rodeo, Western Australia.


Smoko by Paul Amyes on
Having a quick smoko while getting ready. El Caballo.


No Falls No Balls. by Paul Amyes on
No Falls No Balls. Attitude is everything at the rodeo. El Caballo, Western Australia.


The Liquorice Allsorts by Paul Amyes on
These two called themselves liquorice all sorts. El Caballo, Western Australia.


Apprehensive by Paul Amyes on
Waiting in the chutes. El Caballo, Western Australia, 2007


No Hands Free On A Horse by Paul Amyes on

No Hands Free On A Horse. “Can you call back later – I’m kinda busy.”