The Meaningless Moment

As some readers may know, I am working on my next book manuscript, which is part of the reason I’ve been quieter than usual. The following is an essay from the current manuscript. It is adapted from an article I originally wrote for LensWork Magazine under the title, “The Insignificant Moment.”


The world we live in is a succession of fleeting moments, any one of which might say something significant.

~Alfred Eisenstaedt

Henri Cartier-Bresson described his approach to photography as, “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” For Cartier-Bresson, the photograph serves as testimony to some “decisive moment”—a fleeting event recognized by the photographer as significant (by whatever criteria), and then plucked out of the stream of time to assume a fixed, timeless, existence. Susan Sontag expressed a similar sentiment, writing, “The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces,” which, among other things, led her to conclude that, “To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged.”

In reading such accounts, it stood out to me that the characterization of photography solely as a means of commemorating and preserving visual snippets of ephemeral events is remarkably shortsighted and prejudiced. Such a view of photography ignores (or is ignorant of) the fact that non-representational photography has been common and widely accepted for prolonged periods (e.g., the decades in which Pictorialism thrived). Such a view also fails to recognize that photographs, other than just being taken from reality, can also be created such that they enlarge or transcend reality. Put simply, a photograph may be a record of some fact in reality (I’ll sidestep, for the sake of this discussion, the philosophical challenges involved in defining the term); it can also be something nonexistent in present reality until created, at which point the photograph itself becomes a fact in reality.

Photographers, even those adhering to some idea of purity of process, don’t need to limit their expressive powers to views already in existence; they also have the power to bring new views into existence. And, they can even do so by means accepted as being purely photographic.

The characterization of photography as a means of fixing literal appearances at a point in time also implies that photographers can only be reactive, rather than proactive, in their work. But, of course, we know that the photographic medium offers a wide range of means to (paraphrasing Ansel Adams) depart from reality. I propose that even if just one such non-representational photograph exists, it is sufficient to declare that photographs should never be assumed to be representations of reality, unless explicitly presented as such. And I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that millions, if not billions, such photographs already exist, and that every one of us living in the industrial world likely sees at least one, and likely more, of these, every day.

Ansel Adams’s epiphany about visualizing photographs before making an exposure speaks directly to photography’s ability to depart from realistic representation. Implied in the definition of visualization—which is: seeing in the mind’s eye a finished image before making an exposure—is the fact that a visualized image has to be different from a view as-seen (otherwise, why would we need to visualize anything in the mind’s eye?). Visualization is not about seeing what is; it’s about imagining what can be—not just how things might look like to a random observer, but how things can be composed and processed to accomplish an expressive goal of the photographer’s conception.

In limiting photography to decisive moments, photographers become not only dependent on, but slaves to, circumstances: they are expected to wander the world, prepared to reach for the camera in the event that some fleeting significance outside themselves, which by random chance is also pre-expressed in some pre-arranged composition, presents itself. I don’t think even Cartier-Bresson could have characterized his earlier approach as such. The qualification of “earlier” is important, since he later changed his mind—in his later years, he became a painter, and in his words, “photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”

If nothing else, things that can be recognized as significant in a fraction of a second must be simple enough to make such instant recognition possible. The more complex the significance, the longer it takes to recognize it and to consider compositions and processing decisions aimed at expressing it.

Perhaps lost in the discussion so far is the fact that significance is not a fixed quantity, and can be assigned consciously to anything. Why should a creative photographer not be free, as any creative artist is, to assign significance to any moment, for any reason? And who’s to say that significance only comes in moments? Should a photographer just give up on any significance that is not instantaneously recognized, or that persists independent of any decisive moment?

I am a contemplative photographer, in the sense that I consider consciously whatever significance I wish to express in a photograph until I am able to articulate this significance, if only to myself. Other than the initial recognition that a significant photograph may be possible, and some aspects of the mechanics of the photographic medium, nothing in my process happens in a fraction of a second. Once I recognize the opportunity to make a photograph, all the steps that follow are considered consciously, however long it takes. Perhaps this approach makes me miss some opportunities, but so what? I’m in it not just for the photograph, but also—more so—for the experience. Just as important, it also stands to reason that those who only photograph in response to fleeting events, never taking the time to explore a subject intently beyond first impressions, likely miss much more than I do.

When I capture a photograph, it’s not because some serendipitous decisive event presented itself. Rather, it is the random moment when I feel prepared, having spent what time I needed to contemplate whatever called out—sometimes just whispered—to me. The camera doesn’t come into play until I’ve considered what I wish to express; until I’ve studied the scene to my satisfaction and determined the most effective composition, perhaps even returned to the scene several times to examine it at different times of the day (or the year) and under different light and weather conditions. I’m not prepared to capture anything until after I allow myself the time I need to form a clear visualized outcome in my mind (which I may later change), and after I’ve taken whatever time needed to tinker with my camera’s controls. There is nothing special, let alone decisive or significant, about the moment I trip the shutter.

Less obvious, but to me more important than whether a moment is decisive, significant, or just the random time when my preparations are complete, is the difference in attitude between recognizing something “in a fraction of a second,” versus taking whatever time I need to construct a photograph, first in the mind, then in the camera, and later in processing. The former implies the attitude of a hunter-gatherer, always on the lookout, ready to pounce. The latter is a meditative approach—an approach more conducive to mindfulness and flow—a progression of experience that amplifies and builds over time like a musical crescendo. To me, this approach culminates not only in “good” photographs, but also in richer and more memorable experiences that are considerably more rewarding to me than just making a “good” photograph.

In The Womb


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17 thoughts on “The Meaningless Moment

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  1. Guy,

    This is a thought provoking piece and Im looking forward to your book.

    It seems to me that you must have read HCB in the original. Wouldnt you think it is an oversimplification of his work to say he limits photography to decisive moments ( decisive mkment not being his term at all). He was a contemplatuvd photographer as well: ” To take photographs means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” My understanding us that Bresson too had a clear visual outcome in his mind, and like Adams, waited for long periods before pressing the shutter. Also, you and I have the luxury of the digital image post process in addition to our camera. HCB had film and others made the prints. It seems to md unfair to the era and context, and limiting to hold him just to a decisive moment philosophy for images a la sauvette. Bresson was acutely aware of the limits of photographg on film, and his mind was that of a painter, so to limit his statements about reality is to, it seems to me, ignore his background influences from family members who were painters “All I care about these days is painting – photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”

    1. Thank you very much, Jim. Seems I wasn’t careful enough to clarify that I do not in any way mean to criticize Cartier-Bresson. He was a great photographer and a great human being. And certainly there is much more to his philosophy than what I mention here. I used his words as a way of contrasting my own approach, not to criticize his.

      I don’t speak French (not well, anyway), so I have not read his exact words, but I have read the English translation.

  2. Hi Guy. Thanks for this essay. You have articulated thoughts I have been considering for some time. The decisive moment is key to so many genres of photography, sports, portrait, wildlife, street, etc., but has little or no relevance to many others. My own photography is probably more immediate, certainly less considered than yours but still has nothing to do with the moment. Instead my wish is to reveal to a viewer the relationships and juxtapositions between, often unconnected, elements that, in my mind, form new and interesting shapes, meanings or narratives. The timing rarely has any significance but the composition is everything.
    I call myself a “found still life” photographer in that I do not create situations but recognise the potential of existing arrangements. My hope is that the juxtapositions of elements I have perceived will interest, amuse or in some other way engage with the viewer.
    Of course I admire photographers with the ability to capture decisive moments but for me photography is about preserving and revealing my perceptions and emotional responses to a situation not just to a moment.
    Thanks again for helping me think this through.

    1. Thank you, Neil! Certainly “decisive moment” kind of photography has its importance and appeal, and in some cases is the only mode of work that may yield certain type of photographs. For me, it never worked. I tend to get lost in thought, or to become focused on all sorts of little things around me. The approach of constantly being on the lookout for a photograph is detrimental to my experience. In my world, photography can be as much a distraction as an expressive medium. This is because often what I wish to express is not clear to me until after I’ve had some time to consolidate my senses and feelings and thoughts and memories, etc.

  3. You speak, and sometimes, at length, about the centrality of experience. I agree. And what I know about myself is that I experience life in a great variety of ways. Thus, there is significant variety in my photographs. When I am photographing my granddaughters dancing, or playing soccer or basketball, I seek decisive moments. This means that I often on those occasions, do burst shooting at 10 frames/second. If I am lucky, there will be decisive moments.
    However, most of my photography is much more contemplative. In the past few years, almost all of photography has been in conjunction with walking (or, as John Muir, would say, sauntering) in nearby forests and along the rivers. Since the magnificent Central Oregon Coast is only an hour away, I often spend time there. I am a nature mystic. My photographs arise out of the mystical connection that I feel with the natural world. Integral to this new stage of life I am now in is going back to the same places again and again and again, in all seasons and all sorts of conditions. But there is more. As often as not, in taking photographs, I am led to deeper experiences. There is no way that I can compartmentalize. It really is a gestalt.
    The most dramatic evolution of my photographic journey has been in the digital darkroom. It is integral to my creative journey. Photography today is amazing.
    It all begins with experience; which sometimes leads to snapping the shutter. Then everything in the field is taken into the digital darkroom, where all sorts of exploration and experimentation take place. And finally a very few images (percentage wise) become printed (by me) or are shared digitally. I receive great joy in sharing my work with other people. And their responses contribute to my ongoing journey.

    1. I agree, Jack. Photography today offers greater expressive powers than ever before. What little I know of psychology helps me understand why for some, when the cage door is opened, they still prefer the safety of remaining in the cage. What I don’t understand is those who consider the opening of the cage door, and those who escape to freedom, as bad things.

      Your first paragraph reminded me of this, by Edward Weston: “My true program is summed up in one word: life. I expect to photograph anything suggested by that word which appeals to me.”

  4. The way a photographer approaches making a photograph means everything to the photographer and the photographer should learn the best approach for them to make meaningful photographs.

    As a viewer and appreciator of photographs what is of great importance to me is the photograph itself; how I appreciate it, what it does to me. What the photographer went through to make the image is secondary.

    1. Even if what the photographer went through is crucial and directly related to the reasons the photograph appears as it does, or why it was made to begin with?

      1. That’s hard to answer theoretically. I would like to think that the photograph would express what the photographer went through.

        If not, then in order to fully appreciate the image would you need a statement from the photographer?

        As an artist I appreciate reading about the lives of other artists and how they approached creating. However I believe that I can appreciate, Weston, Salgado, Cramer, Frank, and yourself to name a few with knowing very little their process.

      2. Yes, in some cases you would need a statement from the photographer (that’s what artist statements are for, at least in theory), or a context provided by something or someone else (e.g., a themed exhibit, a book, a biography, etc.).

        If you knew nothing at all about Picasso or world affairs at the time, would you have any idea what Guernica was about?

        Or, in photography, if you saw a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz among the plethora of pictorialist images of the day, would you see a New York street scene, or consider it subversive and expressive of a novel philosophy of photography?

        The idea that everything you need to appreciate a work of art should be contained in the work is called “formalism” (i.e., the only important thing is form, not meaning or context). It’s certainly a valid approach, but speaking for my own taste, form alone may be visually interesting, but little more. My experience of a work is much richer when I know something about how the work relates to what the artist wishes to express.

      3. It’s funny that you mention Guernica because as a teenager I had a student pass to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Guernica takes up a large wall in one of the museum’s galleries. I would sit and look at that painting a lot and thoroughly appreciated it long before I knew anything about the Spanish Civil War. I feel that the fact that the painting transcends the circumstances of its creation is part of it’s greatness. It’s a lot more than just form. The emotion in it is very powerful.

        As a teenager, I was also appreciating Steiglitz, his new york images and his equivelents, without knowing much about him.

        Art that is just form isn’t that interesting to me. I love Marc Rothko’s work, but I find his paintings very emotional and not just form.

        The same goes for my abstract work. I’m always looking for some emotion. Just color and form is not enough. It has to express something.

        I’m not against having text to accompany a work of art. I don’t have your articulateness. I rarely think of anything that I could contribute verbally to any of my photographs.

      4. Guy,

        I don’t have an argument about having words accompany photographs, it’s just that I feel that you have an opinion that it’s somehow superior and all I want to say is “that depends”.

        Charlie Cramer is probably my favorite landscape photographer and I’d like to believe that his work has had an impact on mine. I know a bit about his life and his techniques, but I don’t know how he approaches making his images in any detail.

        I also love Galen Rowell and William Neil and I know a lot about their approaches, but my favorite is still Charlie Cramer. I don’t believe you can call Cramer’s work “formalism?.

      5. Dan, I think you’re taking offense to something I didn’t intend. I wanted to express a personal preference and explain my reasons for it. I’m sorry if it came across as anything else.
        I also didn’t mean to say that images should be accompanied with text, just that having knowledge of the artist and a context for the work make my experience richer.
        I have had the pleasure of meeting Cramer and hearing him speak (his work is inspiring to me, too). He explained his process and expressive intent and the role of music in his life, all of which I found useful and I’m reminded of it each time I see his work.

  5. Certain types of photography that involve sequences of actions, such as street photography, agricultural photography or even some nature photography, call for capturing the decisive moment, or most important action in the sequence. Contemplative landscape photography often requires extended observation over time. In my opinion, your essay applies to landscape photography, whereas, Cartier-Bresson’s method applies to street photography and related genres. In landscape photography, you are melting your mind into the land, in street photography you are observing and anticipating how a scene will develop, or watching to see what will be the most pivotal moment.

  6. I discovered your web site not that long ago and I found the exchange in response to this essay particularly thought provoking. I am not a professional photographer. I do not pretend to be familiar with the full breadth of Cartier- Bresson’s work, which I admire, but my impression is that many of the “decisive” moments he captured were almost certainly the result of at least some degree of planning and forethought. Could one say contemplation and visualization? To be so often at the right place at the right moment with the correct focus and exposure factors dialed in does not seem totally spontaneous to me. But then I am more of a wet-belly nature photographer and have never done street work. Actually, reading these replies to your essay brought to mind one of my favorite Ansel Adams images, Winter Sunrise, which he captured in 1943. To me the lone horse grazing in a shaft of light is the key to the image’s emotional power. And what acts as a force multiplier is the back story. Imagine Adams, after multiple scouting trips to this site and visualizing the desired result, watching the light quality deteriorate while the horse stood with its rump toward him, “resembling a distant stump” as Adams put it. I can imagine Adams exhorting the hose,”Turn! Turn! Turn!” And then, with only moments of good light left, it did. Seems like a decisive moment to me. The fact that I have experienced in my own work emotions akin what Adams felt deepens the impact of the image for me but that is a context unavailable to most. Is the impact diminished for someone who has not “been there”? That context is unavailable to me. As a young art student I also stood before Quernica and felt to my bones its overwhelming, knee-buckling power. Had I lived through the bombing, how differently would I have felt about the painting? Don’t know. What all this blather leads up to is simply this: I believe that great photography is informed by elements of both contemplation and subconscious reflexive capture of “the decisive moment” (whether in capture or working an adjustment layer) in varying proportion depending upon the image and that the border between the two can be quite porous.

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