Assignment 3 Notes
Create a set of between six and ten finished images on the theme of the decisive moment. You may choose to create imagery that supports the tradition of the ‘decisive moment’ or you may choose to question or invert the concept by presenting a series of ‘indecisive’ moments. Your aim isn’t to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series, there should be a linking theme, whether it’s a location, event or particular period of time.
Include a written introduction to your work of between 500 and 1000 words outlining your initial ideas and subsequent development. You’ll need to contextualise your response with photographers that you’ve looked at, and don’t forget to reference the reading that you’ve done.
This collection of images, about remembrance and the lengths we go to maintain connections to keep memories alive (and how they fade with time), is also a reflection on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of decisive moments. The photographs were not made true to Cartier-Bresson’s recipe but dying is pretty decisive, and once gone, people take with them a lifetime of decisive (and indecisive) moments lived. Some of these will live on in the memory of the living as we all leave our mark – no matter how big or small- and in some cases will often inspire people to honor those memories.
There are many rituals for doing this but one of the most ubiquitous is the grave and gravestone, decorated with the paraphernalia of remembrance-memorabilia-things that give us hints about the person below, employed to convey the message-gone but not forgotten.
My starting point was Rauscha’s famous book ‘Twenty Six Gasoline Stations’ -the first of a series of books that he published during the 1960s and 70s. The book contained photographs of gas stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma. My initial thoughts were to take photographs of 26 cemeteries- a kind of antithesis of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment in both subject matter and presentation. But I soon became immersed in the graves and the variety and amount of keepsakes people leave on them, the care and attention to detail they go to maintain connections.
With the passing of time, graves inevitably become neglected (unless you’re famous and even then…), forgotten, and vanish as generations and grave carers die and nature inevitably takes over. This slide into obscurity is like a second death.
Decisive and indecisive moments all.
I drew inspiration from a few photographers including, Nick Walpington, Kaupo Kikkas, Guido Guidi, and as mentioned above Ed Rauscha -not only their work but mindset and approach. (I also did research on the Decisive Moment-‘What matters is to look’ and my notes can be found here)
In Waplington’s book ‘The Indecisive Memento’ he challenges the Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment. As he explains in an interview with Mark Sanders in June 1998, ” …yet his idea of the decisive moment, in which you have one chance to capture an image and you either get it or you miss it, seems dated. We live in a post-modern age where non-moments have become as relevant as moments. Everything has validity and yet this idea of the decisive moment is still given credence within photographic circles. What I’m trying to do is address this preconception and say that every and any moment works. You can take a picture of anything and it still holds resonance. If you like, it’s a Beuysian understanding of the world where the indecisive or chance encounters of life have become the decisive act.”
Italian photographer, Guido Guidi, in an interview with the Guardian, suggests that “All moments are decisive – and none…after all, a photograph is a frame, and if you put a frame in the picture, you are suggesting that this is not the whole world, that there is something outside…“. I found the strategy of the ‘Decisive Moment’ creatively constraining and too dependent on the notion that pictures are the ‘precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression’. I played with the concept literally and the setting for the photographs are graveyards and cemeteries, graves and gravestone, decorated with the paraphernalia of remembrance -mementoes- things that give us clues about the person, hint at a narrative, and help maintain a connection and convey the message-gone but not forgotten.
Development of ideas
The graveyards offered up a world of mementoes presented in a series of tableau laid out with loving care and attention to detail. Each grave was a drama played out through the keepsakes lovingly placed and attended to, they drew me in, sometimes making me feel like a stranger at a family gathering. I decided to do further research on the workings of cemeteries and discovered they are governed by churchyard regulations (what, how big, and how long you can leave stuff on graves- one document I saw had 54 regulations). I came across an article about the removal of mementoes from a graveyard in Birmingham- I felt for the people who tended the graves and was reminded and inspired by a line from Susan Sonntag “To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture”, and so the series took shape around the acts of remembrance, and how it inevitably fades.
The graves are traces of both the mourners as well as the deceased, but with the passing of time, and as relatives or grave carers die, the graves become neglected until they ultimately fade and disappear, sometimes with a hand from nature.
My early photos of the graves were quite uniform, I was shooting them from top to bottom head on, so I began to vary the angle and in some cases got closer and tighter-this helped give the series variance and added interest. It also helped me see the graves and mementoes differently-in some cases they were so personal I felt I was intruding and so moved on, sometimes not bothering to take a photo.
In summary, the series attempts to show the cycle of memory, from well-tended graves through to neglect and finally ruin or reclamation by nature.
This assignment helped me understand better the essence of the course-‘expressing your vision’ and the different strategies that underpin photographic practice. Cartier-Bresson is a titan among the reference of photographic practice, and it almost felt blasphemous to not try and honour the tradition of the decisive moment. As I dug deeper into it, I found his approach so ubiquitous and imitated (not necessarily a bad thing), that I wanted to avoid cliche and did feel looking for moments pregnant with meaning and ‘precise organisation of forms’ somewhat restrictive. However, I did want to play with, interpret, and experiment with the concept, and the journey from my first thoughts to what I ended up with, taught me that the creative process is something you have to be open to -something Cartier-Bresson talks about in the video Lamour de court.
I feel I have demonstrated decent technical and visual skills, from processing to black and white and general composition, layout, and curation. I used and analysed my contact sheets extensively for this assignment and it helped me decide whether to present the photos in colour or black and white. I found this a difficult decision as I felt some photos worked quite well in colour, others in monochrome. In the end, I went for black and white to achieve more consistency. Curation helped me consider shooting the graves from different angles and compositions and I went back to reshoot some of my shots. I believe all photos have to find their own way in the world and these are no different, but I did enjoy attempting to put a different spin on the concept of the decisive moment, it helped me appreciate Cartier-Bressons approach and bring me to a conclusion (rightly or wrongly) regarding its creative limitations in the wider application of photographic practice.
Extending the Assignment-a photobook
Having thought about how to present the images, I decided to present them (and extend the series) in book form. Thanks to Ed Rauscha, 26 is a magic number in photography, and so 26 photos in total it is. I have used more material to show the transition from new and maintained graves, through to the inevitable decline and reclamation by nature. Despite our best efforts memory begins to fade the moment a person dies. We extend traces of that memory for a while and some of the graves I photographed were testament to that, but inevitably they become dishevelled, forgotten and vanish as generations die-this was very evident in all graveyards I visited-the newer graves had lots of mementoes, while the older ones faded from view as nature reclaimed them.
I had the idea for a photo book from early on in the project and soon learned the true value of curation, contact sheets, and reflection. I noticed that many of my photographs were taken in the same style and composition and so began to mix the angle of view to give the series more variance and how it might flow visually from page to page.
Chandler,A, 2014,’The Indecisive Moment’ backstory, http://www.arthurchandler.com/indecisive-moment-backstory
Article:Fury as personal mementoes removed from graves without permission, Daily Express,https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/787120/Fury-personal-mementos-removed-graves-permission-St-Germain
Galassi, Peter, 2010, Henri Cartier-Bresson The Modern Century,Thomas & Hudsen
Higgens, C, 2018, Interview Guido Guidi, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/nov/05/guido-guidi-interview-photographs-suburban-italy
The Indecisive Moment,2014, https://www.photopedagogy.com/the-indecisive-moment.html
Szarkowski J,1975, A Differnet Kind of Art, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1975/04/13/archives/a-different-kind-of-art-to-its-new-public-photography-seems-to.html?searchResultPosition=2
Szarkowski J,2007,The Photographer’s Eye, Museum of Modern Art.New York
The Indecisiveness of the Decisive moment, Ghazzal,Z 2004, http://zouhairghazzal.com/photos/aleppo/cartier-bresson.htm
Brouws J, Burton W, et al, 2013,Various Small Books,MIT Press
Vellam N, Series of Indecisive Moments, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/t-magazine/mark-steinmetz-a-la-croisee-des-chemins.html?searchResultPosition=1
Waplinton, N, 1998, The Indecisive Momento, Booth-Clibborn Editions