Camera Position 17 : The Instant and the Machine

The idea of photography that depends on the exact moment of exposure for success didn’t originate with Cartier-Bresson, but he certainly made the most of that perfect instant. Bresson’s idea of “the decisive moment” is examined this week, along with the idea of how photographers always have to grapple with the intersection between idea and their machinery.

Cartier-Bresson - Heyeres, 1932

15 thoughts on “Camera Position 17 : The Instant and the Machine”

  1. Thanks for another great podcast. I was curious about your workflow before the picture is shot. It would appear to me that Bresson scouts out his shots and waits for the confluence of subjects for his “decisive moment”. Do you scout out shooting locations without your camera looking for possible subjects and lighting or do you keep your camera with you at when you see a shot set up and take it. How does your style, with a large format, differ from Bresson’s who used a 35mm?

    Thanks and keep podcasting.

  2. Don… thanks again for your kind comments. Take a look at Camera Position #18 for an answer to your question, and thanks for giving me a topic for the Podcast!

  3. Bresson’s “the decisive moment”

    Do we know if this really was an oppontunist moment or did Bresson have his assistant cycle up and down the street until he captured the correct moment? Just a thought.


  4. That’s a great point, Nige… we don’t ever know what any photographer saw before or after the moment of exposure. It could be that this image is the result of careful planning, or it could be a serendipitous moment.

  5. Dear Jeff Curto,

    I listened to your podcast on the Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment” to learn a little more about Henri. I am doing an essay on Bresson and comparing/ contrasting him with Rober Frank. I will definitely put this and the podcast in my works cited page. Thanks so much for your help and I shall return again to browse your site.

    Take Care,
    Patty Lin

  6. Thanks, Patty;

    I just finished reading/grading History of Photography class term papers for my photo history class, so your use of the podcast as a resource does my heart proud.

    Glad it was helpful!


  7. Just started with digital in February, ’07. This episode got me to re-read the camera user guides, BOTH the Basic & Advanced. I know the first time I kept thinking throughout, “I’ll come back to that”, but didn’t, or only quickly to get a certain shot. I use a PowerShot A710 IS with many features I don’t ever need/want, but there’s a many I want to be able to use easily when needed. Seems it helps to know which features I’ll never use, just so I know how to ignore them instead of being afraid of them.

  8. Tom;

    Now that our camera user manuals are more complicated than our *car* user manuals, it really pays to read them! Frustrating, because we think we should be able to figure it out, but useful because a lot of the controls are pretty inscrutable.

    My 4×5 has no “mode” button…



  9. Jeff – I found this post after being on Mark Seymour’s site. He mentioned Bresson – after a Google search I found this post.

    After checking out your site I noticed you teach at COD. I grew up in Wheaton and now live in Naperville. Small world.

    I should probably take some of your classes. Taking a view camera to Italy is first on our list as well!

    – Rob

  10. Jeff,
    I have just discovered your podcast and it has made my day. How refreshing to discuss the creative aspect of photography rather than the technical. After all it is all about the light, taking the time to see and capturing the moment.

    This brings me to a comment in your Bresson show where you mention that he was always moving and composing even when he was having a conversation with someone. I’ve been taking pictures for quite awhile…since before my sons were born but there was a period where I chose to stop making photographs. When I found myself composing photographs rather than participating in my sons birthday party I decided to stop for awhile. I felt that I was outside of the event, detached, observing rather than participating. Oh sure I still made “exposures” for snapshots but I stopped stalking the perfect light, exposure and composition. Kind of fun to shoot more instinctively but a different experience.

    Do you feel that sense of detachment working in large format? It seems that your process would need to be slower and more deliberate.

    The boys are off to school and I’m at it again. I find that shooting with a 35mm and now even more so with a digital seems to encourage quantity over quality. I admit I sometimes just let loose and get some nice spontaneous images but I’m trying to be more deliberate and thoughtful and take my time with shots. I’ve started experimenting with HDR which helps slow me down. Your Bresson discussion was interesting because it suggests that he did both; he probably shot multiple versions but did his composition and waited for the perfect moment.

    I’m working my way up from your older shows and maybe you have covered this but it seems to me there are two interesting topics here: a quality over quantity discussion and perhaps the whole idea of being detached from the action when shooting.

    I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

    Thanks for a great series I’m looking forward to working my way up to your latest material.


  11. Hi, Don;

    Thanks for your comment and thanks for listening to the podcasts… I really appreciate your interest!

    I think the “awareness/detachment” issue is a big one for photographers. We need to be “in the moment” but we also need to be aware of how a photograph of a moment differs from that moment.

    For me, the isolation of the dark cloth for the large-format camera is a huge boon. I can be participating in the scene one moment and then the next moment, I can remove myself from the situation and concentrate on what that situation looks and “feels” like. I’m very much a person who has a hard time concentrating on more than one thing at a time, so that’s really, really helpful to me.

    Keep shooting!


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