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The Decisive Moment (the book)

drd1135

Zen Snapshooter
Jul 13, 2011
124
Lexington, Virginia
This summer, I finally got around to checking The Decisive Moment out of the University library. Our copy appeared completely unmolested:
decisive moment.jpg
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I have never really seen this book before and I had all the time in the world to peruse the photos. What an amazing collection of images. What struck me, however, is the how "low quality" they are by today's standards. Please note I am not saying the images themselves are low quality, as I would proudly hang them on my wall. Rather, the grain, the sharpness, etc. aren't anywhere near the levels of "quality" produced by the camera/lens I just used for the SiJY challenge. Some thoughts:

1. I actually used a DXO Filmpack to give film-like renderings to some of my pics for the challenge. I wonder if this is because I grew up in the film era and learned to like this look, or if there is something intrinsically pleasing about the old film look. I'm not a big fan of the term "clinical" for modern digital output but there is no question that word describes some of the difference between what comes out of the XE3 and what I've seeing in the book.

2. I have to wonder what this book would look like if Cartier Bresson (HCB) has an XPro2 and the 35 1.4. IIRC, HCB didn't develop his own stuff so it was essentially straight OOC.

3. I'm sitting here in my temporary office (mine is being re-tiled) looking at my used 24 MP A7 and Samyang 35 2.8. I used it for the picture above since it's my "office camera". I've developed a real affection for this little camera. Yet, I have been perusing the net looking at used A7R and even A7R ii. Who am I kidding? I never use tripods (I own a nice one, BTW) and MP is never a real limit. I suddenly had this humorous thought about the absurdity taking one of those 36 MP images and passing it through the DXO filmpack.

4. It's clear to me that HCB's technique consisted of 1. Composition, 2. Composition, and 3. Exposure. Focus IF he had time. I seriously wonder how many of these images would be sadly deleted nowadays because they were too flawed.

Anyways, these are my ruminations. Any thoughts? Mostly, this post is about me gloating about having a nice copy of the Decisive Moment to look through at my leisure. :biggrin:
 
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grebeman

Old Codgers Group
I also grew up in the film era and used to make a point of looking in the three or four windows of the newspaper office whenever I was in Plymouth in the late 1950's and 60's. There would be on show beautiful prints of recent pictures used in the papers, pin sharp and with the most gorgeous tonality. I imagine that the smallest format used was 2.25" square and some "old hands" were perhaps still using Graflex or Linhof press cameras up to a format of 5"x4". 35 mm film stock still had some way to go to come near in terms of image quality.

However some of my favourite early UK photographers did use 35mm cameras, the likes of Bert Hardy, Thurston Hopkins, John Chillingworth, Haywood Magee, Grace Robertson, Alex Dellow and Humphrey Spender, all of whom worked at one time for Picture Post, the UK equivalent of Life magazine.

Their images were mainly of the "street" style of photography and some detailed momentous events, although others were of a more domestic nature. The images we see of HC-B were obviously his best in terms of image content, in other words what he is portraying. I think that the image content goes some way to overcoming the technical defects that we might see in the picture compared to what can be obtained with today's kit. I would love to have been able to document my counties rural way of life such as done by James Ravilious some 40 years ago in mid Devon which has resulted in some 80,000 negatives stored at the Beaford Arts Centre taken on a Leica M3 with older uncoated lenses. Sadly I think those photo opportunities are now less available to us, certainly in the more developed world, where characters and individuality are not as evident as they were many years ago.

A photograph of a mundane everyday situation is still a mundane photograph in my opinion, no matter how sharp and detailed it may be.

As many of you know I have a love of monochrome images and my first cameras were a Voigtlander Bessa 1 taking 8 on 120 roll film images followed by a Mamiya Press camera with interchangable lenses and film backs. I'm still struggling to obtain the tonality in my monochrome images with digital kit that I was able to obtain with those now rudimentary cameras. I'm coming close with an X-Pro 2 thanks to processing images with Capture One Express and following on from my recent SiJy participation am now using my cameras more frequently.

Those are some of my thoughts on the topic, an unusual post for me as I don't usually ruminant on what might be called the philosophy of photography.

Barrie
 
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Luke

Super Moderator
Nov 11, 2011
214
Milwaukee, WI USA
Modern cameras outperform the old ones in many ways. I can only imagine how few of my shots would be sharp using old gear with slower shutter speeds and manual focus....especially when one considers what he is going for....that decisive moment.

I also wonder if the book's print quality could be degrading the image quality a bit.

I had a quick run through the book here.....
and those shots are definitely all about content.... capturing the moment...rather than capturing as much sharpness as one can at the moment, which often seems to be what the measurebators and pixel peepers do these days on camera fora.
 

drd1135

Zen Snapshooter
Jul 13, 2011
124
Lexington, Virginia
I also grew up in the film era and used to make a point of looking in the three or four windows of the newspaper office whenever I was in Plymouth in the late 1950's and 60's. There would be on show beautiful prints of recent pictures used in the papers, pin sharp and with the most gorgeous tonality. I imagine that the smallest format used was 2.25" square and some "old hands" were perhaps still using Graflex or Linhof press cameras up to a format of 5"x4". 35 mm film stock still had some way to go to come near in terms of image quality.

However some of my favourite early UK photographers did use 35mm cameras, the likes of Bert Hardy, Thurston Hopkins, John Chillingworth, Haywood Magee, Grace Robertson, Alex Dellow and Humphrey Spender, all of whom worked at one time for Picture Post, the UK equivalent of Life magazine.

Their images were mainly of the "street" style of photography and some detailed momentous events, although others were of a more domestic nature. The images we see of HC-B were obviously his best in terms of image content, in other words what he is portraying. I think that the image content goes some way to overcoming the technical defects that we might see in the picture compared to what can be obtained with today's kit. I would love to have been able to document my counties rural way of life such as done by James Ravilious some 40 years ago in mid Devon which has resulted in some 80,000 negatives stored at the Beaford Arts Centre taken on a Leica M3 with older uncoated lenses. Sadly I think those photo opportunities are now less available to us, certainly in the more developed world, where characters and individuality are not as evident as they were many years ago.

A photograph of a mundane everyday situation is still a mundane photograph in my opinion, no matter how sharp and detailed it may be.

As many of you know I have a love of monochrome images and my first cameras were a Voigtlander Bessa 1 taking 8 on 120 roll film images followed by a Mamiya Press camera with interchangable lenses and film backs. I'm still struggling to obtain the tonality in my monochrome images with digital kit that I was able to obtain with those now rudimentary cameras. I'm coming close with an X-Pro 2 thanks to processing images with Capture One Express and following on from my recent SiJy participation am now using my cameras more frequently.

Those are some of my thoughts on the topic, an unusual post for me as I don't usually ruminant on what might be called the philosophy of photography.

Barrie
It’s funny that I picked the xpro2 as an example, given that I don’t own it. I wanted a Leica-ish camera with AF.
 

grebeman

Old Codgers Group
It’s funny that I picked the xpro2 as an example, given that I don’t own it. I wanted a Leica-ish camera with AF.
It's not funny that I picked up a used X-Pro2, I have very fond memories of using my secondhand Leica M3 with 35, 50 and 90mm lenses so I saw the X-Pro2 as a "cheap" way to recapture some of that magic without the expense. Whilst a lot of reviews cast some doubts on the use of the OVF in the X-Pro2 I love it. I grew very fond of rangefinder focussing, indeed I struggled with focussing SLR's, perhaps because of fairly severe astigmatism with up to 16 degrees of misalignment at various times in my life. Judging when two images coincided proved to be no problem whatsoever.

Barrie
 
Oct 20, 2012
104
The Netherlands
I spent the money to actually buy that book. It's a lot cheaper than each of the lenses I have :). Good pictures indeed make you forget about technique, they just grab you and the book is full of them. It's comforting to know that we're vastly better equipped than HCB in his time, and confronting at the same time to realize that it doesn't make making great photos any easier.
 
Jan 31, 2011
164
Newcastle, Australia
Modern cameras outperform the old ones in many ways. I can only imagine how few of my shots would be sharp using old gear with slower shutter speeds and manual focus....especially when one considers what he is going for....that decisive moment.

I also wonder if the book's print quality could be degrading the image quality a bit.

I had a quick run through the book here.....
and those shots are definitely all about content.... capturing the moment...rather than capturing as much sharpness as one can at the moment, which often seems to be what the measurebators and pixel peepers do these days on camera fora.
Thanks for linking that, Luke. I watched it all the way through and now I want to own that volume. Helped, of course, by Clair de Lune playing (Mother's favourite piece). Looking for somewhere to buy it. I need more time to see each photo.
 

drd1135

Zen Snapshooter
Jul 13, 2011
124
Lexington, Virginia
This lovely disclaimer at the end of the introductory text:
"These photographs taken at random by a wandering camera do not in any way attempt to give a general picture of any of the countries in which that camera has been at large."
 

grebeman

Old Codgers Group
This lovely disclaimer at the end of the introductory text:
"These photographs taken at random by a wandering camera do not in any way attempt to give a general picture of any of the countries in which that camera has been at large."
To me that sounds like modern day political correctness. Surely H C-B's images from places like India and China show just the opposite, a very specific picture of a country at a very specific period in time. I believe that the image in Luke's post with the book open at a certain page shows unrest in China associated with food shortages during the communist takeover of that country. Therein lies some of the strength of his images, they document momentous events. Others do indeed show more domestic images, but again they are unusual, such as the image of a young lad walking down the street clutching two champagne bottles, surprisingly not in the book.

Barrie
 

drd1135

Zen Snapshooter
Jul 13, 2011
124
Lexington, Virginia
Certainly looking through the book, he clearly did not shy away from intense images but rather sought them out. "Taken at random" is a bit of a stretch for a book called "The Decisive Moment". Still, it was the term "general picture" that caught me after a first pass through the book. You can see that amidst turbulent events life goes on and people go about the business of living there lives. He does well to mix the two in the book. Most of MY comments do come with a bit of sarcasm, however, and I agree with your observation. The term political correctness is new but not the phenomena. What amused me was that his wording was more literary and less legalistic than we see today.
 

grebeman

Old Codgers Group
I assume from your reply that the words you quote were written by H C-B himself, that comes as a bit of a surprise to me but perhaps they are somewhat self effacing and in line with his character given that he disliked recognition and was a shy retiring individual. I think he perhaps sold himself a bit short in that case.

Barrie
 

Luke

Super Moderator
Nov 11, 2011
214
Milwaukee, WI USA
if those are his words, I assume he might be telling us that these decisive moments are, in fact, decisive. What is happening in one frame was captured where it was and when it was, and no more than that.

Maybe he's telling the viewer "to NOT read between the lines"....just see what is in the frame. The photograph is an entire story unto itself.

And to use the example that Barrie did.....the photo is of a struggle related to the food shortage. But the photo tells us nothing beyond what we see in the frame. Sure, we can use hindsight and history to tell a larger story than what is in the frame. But that photograph is an entire story. It has a beginning, middle and an end.....and they all take place within 1/8 of a second (or however long the exposure is).

And maybe I'm reading too much into the statement. Just my interpretation.
 

drd1135

Zen Snapshooter
Jul 13, 2011
124
Lexington, Virginia
His captions often describe the essence of the scene in the image. He often mentions the trials of the folks in his images. He also used the phrase “picture story” to describe the ideal of what he seeks. I’m still working my way through his relatively short intro text because my thoughts keep drifting off to consider what he says.
 
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grebeman

Old Codgers Group
Perhaps a reflection of the mystery behind any photograph, or indeed image, we see different interpretations of it. You might note from some of my "documentary" style images that I like to add some explanatory text with the image, but that's just me attempting to further explain the image which I feel helps the viewer, perhaps for some it doesn't add anything.
 

grebeman

Old Codgers Group
Whilst many of his "domestic" images, the boy with the champagne bottles for example, don't require explanation, I feel that for historical purposes the likes of the image of the people struggling to get a meagre ration of food or the images taken at Ghandi's funeral do need an explanation to set them in context, otherwise they loose some of their significance. As a photograph they are still powerful, given the added explanation they are an historical record of that particular situation. Likewise the text in W Eugene Smith's photo essay's adds to the images, powerful though the images are on there own.

Barrie
 

wee-pics

Regular
Sep 13, 2016
104
Germany
This summer, I finally got around to checking The Decisive Moment out of the University library. Our copy appeared completely unmolested:
View attachment 203343

I have never really seen this book before and I had all the time in the world to peruse the photos. What an amazing collection of images. What struck me, however, is the how "low quality" they are by today's standards. Please note I am not saying the images themselves are low quality, as I would proudly hang them on my wall. Rather, the grain, the sharpness, etc. aren't anywhere near the levels of "quality" produced by the camera/lens I just used for the SiJY challenge. Some thoughts:

1. I actually used a DXO Filmpack to give film-like renderings to some of my pics for the challenge. I wonder if this is because I grew up in the film era and learned to like this look, or if there is something intrinsically pleasing about the old film look. I'm not a big fan of the term "clinical" for modern digital output but there is no question that word describes some of the difference between what comes out of the XE3 and what I've seeing in the book.

2. I have to wonder what this book would look like if Cartier Bresson (HCB) has an XPro2 and the 35 1.4. IIRC, HCB didn't develop his own stuff so it was essentially straight OOC.

3. I'm sitting here in my temporary office (mine is being re-tiled) looking at my used 24 MP A7 and Samyang 35 2.8. I used it for the picture above since it's my "office camera". I've developed a real affection for this little camera. Yet, I have been perusing the net looking at used A7R and even A7R ii. Who am I kidding? I never use tripods (I own a nice one, BTW) and MP is never a real limit. I suddenly had this humorous thought about the absurdity taking one of those 36 MP images and passing it through the DXO filmpack.

4. It's clear to me that HCB's technique consisted of 1. Composition, 2. Composition, and 3. Exposure. Focus IF he had time. I seriously wonder how many of these images would be sadly deleted nowadays because they were too flawed.

Anyways, these are my ruminations. Any thoughts? Mostly, this post is about me gloating about having a nice copy of the Decisive Moment to look through at my leisure. :biggrin:
HCB is just one of the many whose photos show that it's basically the eye of the photographer and not the equipment that does it (though these Leicas were great tools, and though those modern digital cameras open many possibilities that the pre-digital ones did not allow).
I'm having some time out from time to time sitting in my armchair with a couple of quite heavy volumes that usually just "look at me" from my bookshelf: Feininger, Mante, Hedgecoe and several more, just to realize again how much there is still to be learned from these old masters. Looking at their photos makes you realize where you are: far from bein perfect. And one's often far too blown-up ego becomes a liitle more modest and unpretentious again. And the next time you're behind the lens you make sure that your brain cells are active before you press the shutter.

As to the quote "It's clear to me that HCB's technique consisted of 1. Composition, 2. Composition, and 3. Exposure" there's nothing to add or to change. This still holds true today (although many photos show a complete lack of these).


Feininger: Principles of composition in photography : Feininger, Andreas, 1906- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
More ebooks by Feininger: Internet Archive Search: Andreas Feininger
Mante: Internet Archive Search: "Harald Mante"
my favourite "classic" by Mante: The Photograph: Composition andColour Design
Hedgecoe: https://ia801804.us.archive.org/6/items/The_Art_of_Digital_Photogrphy_by_John_Hedgecoe/The_Art_of_Digital_Photogrphy_by_John_Hedgecoe.pdf
More ebooks by Hedgecoe:
Internet Archive Search: John Hedgecoe
 
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porchard

Veteran
Feb 3, 2013
43
Devon, UK
I actually used a DXO Filmpack to give film-like renderings to some of my pics for the challenge. I wonder if this is because I grew up in the film era and learned to like this look, or if there is something intrinsically pleasing about the old film look. I'm not a big fan of the term "clinical" for modern digital output but there is no question that word describes some of the difference between what comes out of the XE3 and what I've seeing in the book.
I agree - although I certainly would use the term "clinical" for modern digital output. It is this which has driven me back to film (for the most part). I'm horrified when I recall the countless hours - over a period of 10+ years - spent trying to get a truly satisfactory emulation of the film aesthetic, via post-processing. Having tried just about every trick in the book to emulate film, I came to the conclusion that if you really want the 'film look', the best (and easiest:)) way is to shoot film.

In case digital enthusiasts are readying their flame-throwers:wink:, it's worth saying that this isn't an anti-digital rant. It's simply an acknowledgement that these two different types of media produce different results - and that I happen to prefer (generally) the aesthetic of images made on film. I still own and use digital cameras - but I've now returned to using film, when I want THAT look.
 
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