The decisive moment


Dear Artist,

In 2004, at home in the south of France, Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the world’s best-known photographers, died. He was 95.


“Andalucia, Seville, Spain” 1933
photograph by
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

“One eye looks within, the other eye looks without,” said Cartier-Bresson. Starting with the simplest of box cameras, most of his life he worked in black and white with a quiet Leica, without a flash. He didn’t believe in cropping, staging, tricky developing or dodgy printing. His business was trapping the momentary visual delights of life in motion. “For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to give meaning to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what he frames. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression. To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a physical and intellectual joy.”


“Pierre Bonnard at home” 1944
by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” is as valid for painters as it is for photographers. In photography it means the point in a shooting cycle where the very height of an action is recorded. Paintings also benefit from those times when a cloud forms to echo a foreground motif, where chance body-language signifies meaning, where pictorial elements line up or become separate from one another, where a sitter’s look suddenly gives away an inner being. Even “still-life” can profit from the idea of decisive moment. If you don’t believe me, try looking at a set-up of apples and oranges on a lazy Susan by turning it slowly. You’ll find an ideal, perhaps a perfect angle, and very often it will not be what you originally conceived. It’s all about waiting, seeing, feeling and capturing.

Starting out as a painter, it was to painting and drawing that Cartier-Bresson returned in later life. To him the two arts were complementary, mutually reinforcing — one slow, one speedy — both were a matter of “putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.”


“The Berlin wall, West Germany” 1962
photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Best regards,


PS: “Photography is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s own originality. It’s a way of life.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004)

Esoterica: Cartier-Bresson was early aware of the divide between art-making and art-showing. In Paris in 1947 he co-founded Magnum Photos, an international image bank that aimed at getting quality photography in front of people. Working the synergy between magazines, art books, public and commercial galleries, he raised the awareness and value of his and others’ work. Many of his photographs are among the popular images of our time and have influenced many living photographers and painters.

This letter was originally published as “The decisive moment” on August 10, 2004.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson)



    • Aiden Mahoney on

      The Decisive Moment is a lot easier to achieve now by using the Burst mode on our digital cameras.

  1. Composition, in photography or painting, involves that special moment that defines for the artist what his/her art is “about”. As Robert mentions, in that significant quote from Cartier-Bresson, it is “putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.”
    How difficult that is to do in this day and age, and point up the need for artists in our society: to help us re-focus, sift out wheat from chaff, give thanks for what is good. May we as artists think hard as we compose, see rightly, and love the world that we have been given, that we may share that appreciation with others.

  2. In this age of digital photography with its instant results it is strange to think that there was a time when the photographer didn’t know what (if anything) he/she had got until the darkroom stage hours or days later. Unless you were Cartier-Bresson of course. He knew.

  3. Bryan Dunleavy on

    Some years ago I was on a Mediterranean cruise and one of the trips from the port was a day in Florence. On the coach back to the ship I overheard a man boasting that he had taken 768 pictures with his digital camera. You do the math, but I thought at the time that he scarcely had a moment to actually look at anything. I imagine that his snaps were worthless, even as a record, since he gave himself no time to appreciate what he was looking at.
    Photography seems seductively easy;no laborious hours spent learning how to draw,, or even understand that the monocular vision of the camera is not the binocular vision of our eyes. No matter, Cartier Bresson understood that photography was all about the moment. The hard work was preparing and waiting. In a slightly different way, Ansl Adams, lugging his plate camera around rough terrain in Yosemite held the same understanding. Photography is about patience and waiting.
    Drawing and painting is, I think, more about process. Rarely do we complete a painting in a session, whatever the initial vision. Mistakes are made; there are changes of mind.
    However, I take his point that the decisive moment can be applied to all visual art, and that is perhaps knowing when to stop teasing and perfecting the work in progress.

  4. Studying photograghic images of the people and places I visited, one moment stood out from all of them, I remember stopping the driver and running back to capture the two colorfully-dressed, young Andean children sitting on a carved ancient megalithic block in a courtyard. It looked as if it had been tossed and strewn randomly with other bits of debris and the children were in deep conversation. What cataclysm happened here eons ago that even the indigenous people have no clue about ? Who had been the “ancient ones” who could have carved that huge block only to be toppled and left for this artist so many years later to find these children, oblivious to the history of the place and to me, on top of a rose-colored granite megalithic rock with their handmade beautiful garments? It shook my senses. It was such a striking dichotomy. (Cold, ancient, faded, huge, but delicate, bright, youth-filled warm, with so much intricate detail!) I am doing a fairly large painting 30″x40″ from those photos. I have already completed my initial small one, an 11″x14″ to make sure I like my composition, placement etc. Photos were taken at the site with my Iphone, and as soon as I looked at what I had captured, I knew it would become a studio painting. Photography has always been a perfect tool for me, and being able to paint an image just as I remember it brings it to “becoming” manifest through me. It is a thrill to honor through painting those beautiful people who live in the Sacred Valley of Peru. What an amazing place.

  5. I have followed along with Robert’s letters since 2005 and they never ceased to amaze me! It has always felt like he was speaking directly to me.
    I say this tonight as I await the train taking me to the south of France. We are leaving Dresden, after spending time in Berlin and visiting areas around the Berlin Wall.
    Thank you Sara for posting this letter from your Dad…it didn’t surprise me!

  6. As an on location painter one sees the optimum moment and then it is a matter of chasing memory. Most of the moment is still there but the decisive light and physical alignment are past. I am familiar with holding my breath as I try to bring all of my abilities into the fore to capture the moment.
    Patience. The shutter trigger of the photographer and the mental trigger of the painter strive for the same moment.

  7. On Du c?té des femmes, deuxième tête de série Maria Sharapova fera face à la septième tête d’Eugénie Bouchard du Canada, tandis que la troisième tête de Simona Halep de la Roumanie sera en collision avec 10 graines Ekaterina Makarova de Russia.

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