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.
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.
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.
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.