Henri Cartier-Bresson’s contribution to his medium is immeasurable. From his determinedly humanist approach to capturing a scene, to a profound advancement of street photography, the French image-maker transformed photojournalism over the course of his long and prolific life and left behind a body of work incomparable in depth and breadth. Perhaps most influential of all, however, is his belief in the decisive moment – that one split second in which one captures a minute human detail distilling the importance of human experience. “Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing,” he once said, “and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again”.
It’s this moment of human connection which forms the theme of Magnum’s new photo sale – an extraordinary five-day-long opportunity to buy signed and stamped prints by some of the most prolific image-makers of the past 70 years, in celebration of the organisation's upcoming anniversary. Every Magnum photographer has contributed an image, from Martin Parr and Réné Burri through to Newsha Tavakolian and Jonas Bendiksen, providing invaluable opportunities for aficionados to start their modern art collections with an iconic snapshot riffing on founding partner Cartier-Bresson’s original theme. Here, we showcase ten of our favourite images from the sale, alongside personal commentary from the photographers' themselves (or those of their estates).
Jonas Bendiksen (above)
“I took this image at the Black Sea beachfront in the city of Sukhumi in the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia. Tourists and locals were hanging out picnicking and bathing. When people are hurling themselves from old shipwrecks I don’t necessarily think, ‘Oh, here is a decisive moment’. Actually, I often don’t think so much at all when I photograph, it is more of a gut instinct, just lots of reactions. For me, the thinking and categorizing is better done before and after the actual photographing. Anyway, I don’t think too much about the classic concept of the decisive moment, for me, they are just moments. Some are complicated, where lots of elements come together; some are simple low-hanging fruit; some are long, drawn-out sluggish affairs; others are over in a split second. Whatever it is, the shutter had better be open at the right time.”
“For my project Listen I made a series of imaginary CD covers for six women singers. I shot several situations, but this one, taken on the shores of the Caspian Sea, came about by a stroke of luck. My sister (the model) was waiting in the freezing water, waves were breaking all around her, there was wind and there were onlookers. I hurriedly made a series of shots, focusing on her while she was withstanding the elements. I remember driving home wondering if I had gotten the picture I wanted. I shot analogue so had no way of knowing. When I got the contact sheets it became clear that for one image everything that I was looking for had fallen into place: two waves are breaking at exactly the right moment, her position is just as I hoped it to be. Most importantly, her gaze, straight into the lens, for me at least, completes the picture.”
René Burri with Gina Müller Burri (a grandfather, granddaughter exchange)
“Picture this: In the midst of the Cold War, I find myself immersed in the world of the military, the uniformed. Navigating through threatening waters, our submarine heads towards land. As I emerge onto solid ground, the warm sunlight seems to welcome me.’ The eyes of my grandfather, a master of recollection, light up as he continues:
‘My glance falls on a nearby park. Its normalcy floods towards me and I’m intrigued by such contrast in such close proximity. The absurdity of the moment makes me laugh. I grab my camera...’ He reenacts the gesture, seemingly returned to the moment.
‘...and I capture the world of trusting humanity.’
For me, this photograph represents a decisive moment by its permanent rendering of a momentary spontaneous impression that radiates continuity.”
Berlin, Germany. November 9th/10th 1989
“By a series of fortunate events I found myself in Berlin on the night the Wall (unexpectedly) opened. The story of how I came to be there at all is a long one, but fate dealt her cards and I was lucky. The moment was decisive historically, of course, and one of those all-too-rare occasions when a momentous event is joyful rather than tragic. But it was decisive on a personal level too: my de-railed photographic career was put firmly back on track, and the most success I’ve had since can be traced back to that one chilly night.
I witnessed thousands crossing joyfully from East to West, but a few weeks later I was to learn that not everyone shared the elation. At a family reunion in London I met (for the first time) several relatives on my partner’s side, mostly Berliners, mourning the collapse of a political doctrine they’d dedicated much of their lives to, reiterating the truism that there are two sides to every story.”
“Tyra had asked me to do a shoot with her after seeing a contact sheet of photos of another actor during downtime on a set. We were both fatigued during the shoot because we had worked on a night-shoot production the night before. When John [Singleton, film director] showed up to hang out and watch during my private shoot with Tyra, I had the idea to shoot some images of them together but I also did not want to infringe on their privacy. John suggested I do some photos of them together. Tyra is what I think of as a generous, intelligent, and sensitive human being, as well as being a beautiful woman, and John is an impassioned artist filmmaker, who is a brilliant writer, connected with the world he lives in. I wanted to capture an image of the two’s feelings for each other at that particular point. Tyra briefly closed her eyes and the moment was there.”
Eve Arnold, in Marilyn Monroe An Appreciation, 1987
“I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have - unconsciously - judged other subjects.”
“At the 1955 conference in Geneva, the Big Four – the Soviet Union, the US, Britain and France – discussed how to make long-lasting peace. The mood was uplifting and full of hope for the future. As one of maybe thirty photographers, I waited at Geneva airport for American president Dwight D. Eisenhower to arrive. He was welcomed by Max Petitpierre, the Swiss president.
I noticed a beam of light and so I waited for it to illuminate Eisenhower’s smiling face, leaving Petitpierre in the shadow. It seems that I was the only photographer that day who captured that precise moment. In other people’s shots, the light was on Eisenhower’s stomach, or the hat was obscuring his face.”
“This image recalls a moment in my own life; it puts me in the shoes of myself before I moved abroad in my thirties, just starting my career as a photographer, so is this how I saw the US back then? Having returned to make new images after almost a decade away, it begs me to consider how I’ve changed, how my perceptions of this country have changed, and how image-making has changed. This is one of the few early images of mine that has stayed with me over time.”
“Sometimes, you realize that you’re part of a moment that has all the visual elements that are necessary to create a good photo, and therefore communicates the atmosphere you were a part of. For me, that is the decisive moment. I had such a moment with this family in Amarillo, Texas. They had every reason to be unhappy and give up: three of the four family members were sick, they were poor and lived in a very dirty small trailer full of pests. Instead of going home, the parents often picked their children up after school and drove around town. That particular day in the cold winter they went to buy sodas and chips and decided, instead of going to the movies, to drive around the rich neighborhoods to watch the overwhelming Christmas lights covering these big houses.
They never felt any jealousy towards the rich, they were just enjoying the beautiful lights and their time together. I felt the same and was happy that they shared this moment with me. This kind of moment is very rare and only happens to me about once or twice a year.”
“I leave the ‘decisive moment’ to Henri. ‘Decisive’ gives the impression the moment was frozen in time. For fifty years, my photography has been a succession of ‘suspended moments’; the characters in my photos were not frozen in time but they kept on doing what they were doing before I photographed them.
For over thirty years now, the assistant has been smoothing one coat; one model prepares to jump on the railing, while another is about to come down; two beautiful women lounge, odalisque-like, on the slab, the wind blowing into their dresses. For over thirty years, my camera has been in the foreground, eager for action. This was my first fashion shoot with the top models of the time.”
The (More or Less) Decisive Moments runs until June 10, 2016 on the website.