The Decisive Moment is Dead. Long Live the Constant Moment


We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory.
Henri Cartier-Bresson

We exist on a treadmill of forgetting and anticipating. We labor to preserve what we treasure of our past, even while the present shotguns us with a thousand new options, one of which must become our future. One of which we must choose.

In this maelstrom of time it is hard to be calm; to understand what warrants attention, and what can be ignored. This state of tranquility and presence has been the essence of the modern photographic act, best characterized in the popular mind by Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the “Decisive Moment.”

Cartier-Bresson believed that the photographer is like a hunter, going forth into the wild, armed with quick reflexes and a finely-honed eye, in search of that one moment that most distills the time before him.

In this instant the photographer reacts, snatching truth from the timestream in the snare of his shutter. The Decisive Moment is Gestalt psychology married to reflexive performance art in the blink of a mechanical eye.

It is the creation of art through the curation of time.


In Ancient Rome, officials in charge of overseeing the assets of the Empire were called Curators. This meant, literally, “caretaker.” The fall of the Roman Empire left the Catholic Church to carry on the role of curator, and by the Middle Ages the role had become ecclesiastical, with parish priests caretaking the souls of their flock.

Cardinal de Retz

Cardinal de Retz

In fact, Cartier-Bresson’s choice of the term “decisive moment” itself comes from a quote by a 17th century Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”

The Cardinal’s role as a political agitator lends a Machiavellian patina to the phrase when you read the rest of the quote, which continues, “and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.”

The modern relationship of “curator” to “art” arose in the princely courts of the Renaissance, when aristocrats sought to outshine each other in their support for the arts, and began building wings on their palaces for the showcasing of these collections, along with expensive printed catalogs to extend the reach of the art (and the glory of the owner.)

As we transitioned from aristocratic feudalism to the democratic nation state this form evolved into the modern museum and its attendant curators.

Presently the act of curation, or the title of curator at least, is undergoing an elastic expansion. Companies employ celebrities to curate the lineups of cultural festivals, and stylists to curate capsule collections of fashion they can sell to untapped demographics.

Online, members of the Tumblr generation compliment each other on their “curation.” On Facebook each day we see a continuous scroll of content curated by friends, and companies that pay for the privilege of sneaking in with them.

Curation, curation everywhere. And what of photographers? The curation of moments. Of perspectives. Of angles. This has always been so, although the technical limitations of primitive photographic technology falsely imposed a performance art aspect on the medium, a “dance” if you will.

The notion that a large part of the creativity of the medium was the ability to recognize and capture moments in real-time was the central conceit of the Decisive Moment. But in fact, much of what Cartier-Bresson describes is not about the art, but mainly about the tools that he had access to: the portable rangefinder camera and increasingly fast films, which enabled him to roam and grab action from the air as it unfolded before him, in ways previous eras of artists could not:

Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.
Henri Cartier-Bresson

But he was wrong. Before these tools became widespread, photographers were indeed very much like painters, in both form and function. The camera itself evolved from the camera obscura, literally a “darkened room,” in which one or two people would stand, and record the scene before them, tracing it on wallpaper.

Later, film-based large format cameras required easel-like tripods and stationary perspectives. Insensitive emulsions required exposure times of many minutes. There was very little difference between a photographer in the field and a painter sketching in the field.


As materials improved, and costs reduced, photographers quickly usurped painterly subjects and methods, from formal portraiture to landscapes to still-life, and, having thus freed the painters from the burden of commercial utility, cleared the path for the flowering of the 20th-century modern art movements, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to Performance Art.

So the Decisive Moment itself was merely a form of performance art that the limits of technology forced photographers to engage in. One photographer. One lens. One camera. One angle. One moment. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.

Future generations will lament all the decisive moments we lost to these limitations, just as we lament the absence of photographs from pre-photographic eras. But these limitations (the missed moments) were never central to what makes photography an art (the curation of time), and as the evolution of technology created them, so too is it on the verge of liberating us from them.

The Decisive Moment is Dead. Long Live the Constant Moment

Imagine an always-recording 360 degree HD wearable networked video camera. Google Glass is merely an ungainly first step towards this. With a constant feed of all that she might see, the photographer is freed from instant reaction to the Decisive Moment, and then only faced with the Decisive Area to be in, and perhaps the Decisive Angle with which to view it.

Already we’ve arrived at the Continuous Moment, but only an early, primitive version.


Evolve this further into a networked grid of such cameras, and the photographer is freed from these constraints as well, and is then truly a curator of reality after the fact.

“Live” input, if any at all, would consist of a “flag” button the photographer presses when she thinks a moment stands out, much like is already used in recording ultra-high-speed footage.

A sketch of the four-lens ARGUS-IS digital camer

A sketch of the four-lens ARGUS-IS digital camer

DARPA has already developed a camera drone that can stay aloft recording at 1.8 gigapixel resolution for weeks at a time, covering a field as large as 5 miles wide, down to as small as six inches across, and it can archive 70 hours of footage for review.

This feat wasn’t achieved with any new expensive sensor breakthroughs, but rather by networking hundreds of cheap off-the-shelf sensors, just like the one you’ve got in your smartphone.

With the iPhone 5 camera module currently estimated to cost about $10/unit, and dropping like a rock with the inexorability of Moore’s Law, we can see how even an individual photographer might deploy hundreds of these micro-networked cameras for less than it costs to buy one current professional DSLR.

What might a photographer do with a grid of networked cameras like this, with their phone as the “viewfinder?” A street photographer could deploy them all over a neighborhood of interest, catching weeks worth of decisive moments to choose from at leisure.

A photojournalist could embed them all across a war zone, on both sides of the battle, to achieve a level of reality and objectivity never seen before. A sports photographer could blanket the stadium and capture every angle, for the entire game, even from each player’s perspective.

Activists could choose to link their networked cameras and capture a live feed from every protestor in a march of hundreds of thousands, each one flaggable, perhaps to highlight any police abuses as they occur, from every perspective nearby, editable live from anywhere else on Earth.

A remote-controlled Skype portrait session

A remote-controlled Skype portrait session

All of this is closer to the now than to the future. We’ve already seen tagged photos streaming forth from a billion networked smartphones, broadcasting the Arab Spring to Twitter and police brutality at Occupy to YouTube.

What I’ve previously described is only new by a small question of degree, and therefore inevitable. Google Glass linked to Street View and Google+, scaled. None of this is science fiction. Artists are already commandeering Google Street View to hijack its eyes for their own expression. 3D scanners have been used for fashion work for over a decade.

he 2001 documentary “War Photographer” employed a fascinating cinematic technique: video recording James Nachtwey’s shutter finger as he photographed conflicts around the world. The New Aesthetic already explores the surface artifacts of this techno-artistic explosion.

I’ve used Skype to conduct remote portrait shoots, and photographed fashion shows via live web streams. For instance, this Rodarte livestream:


Things really start to get interesting when we realize that the tools photographers will soon employ need not even be traditionally photographic, but rather more like a 3D LIDAR array. We’ll no longer need cameras or lenses, only a small network of emitters, able to render and record our subject from all angles at once.

A primitive test of this has already been used artistically in Radiohead’s 2008 video for “House of Cards,” and it’s not hard to imagine how revolutionary this might be when resolution and color accuracy improves to the point of photographic realism, at a low enough price point for ubiquitous deployment.

Product and car photographers are already being replaced by advanced rendering software like Keyshot, what if it rendered LIDAR data instead of CAD files?

What if every phone in every pocket had this technology, and you could consent to have your presence “photographed” from anywhere on Earth at any time, by sharing your own connection with another artist, and vice versa? Imagine Errol Morris’ “Interrotron” in hyper-realistic 3D, from all angles, at all times.

goldengateWhat if a future decentralized social networking platform allowed everyone to connect their capture node, for the use of any other artist, or just a chosen circle of friends? We already use Google Street View for location scouting. What if it enabled us to change to any angle and scrub back and forth in time as well, and from any “open” node near it, side to side, and from drones above, not just from a single Google car that passed by once?

This is the Constant Moment. This is as close to a time machine as we’re likely to get.

Great technological leaps will be required to fulfill the furthest reaches of the Constant Moment. Massive gains in the quality of search and organization, not to mention cost of storage, and resolution. Perhaps even some form of a neural interface.

But it’s clear to me this is a “when,” not an “if,” and artists need to begin anticipating this future, to inspire and guide the technologists, and to keep up with the military dreamers (it’s been said that in childhood development the destructive urge precedes the creative one by months, as blocks get knocked down long before they get stacked.)

leicaTo the photographer that still thinks photography mostly means being physically present, crouched behind their Leica, finger poised to capture the classic vision of the Decisive Moment, this coming Constant Moment might be terrifyingly sacrilegious, or perhaps just terrifying, like an insect eye dispassionately staring.

Just as we still (!) have partisans that argue film capture is more “genuine” than digital capture, we will certainly have those who will argue that a photographer must be in a place and time in order to genuinely photograph that place and time. There will be counter-movements, inevitable copyright battles, privacy concerns, and a reevaluation of authenticity and authorship.

Which is why I began this essay emphasizing the centrality of curation, not action, to the photographic act. Just like Cartier-Bresson, I began my artistic life as a painter. Like Cartier-Bresson I enjoyed the vitality of the 20th Century photographic hunt, the way it forced me into the world to seek out that which illuminated hidden places in my mind. And like Cartier-Bresson I’ve enjoyed the synaptic electrical pulse of discovery, as the forms in front of me seemed to arrange themselves out of chaos into an order that meant something about the way life felt there and then.

The Constant Moment doesn’t end any of that. All it does is capture the billion missed Decisive Moments that previously slipped through our fingers, by expanding the available window of temporal curation from “here and now” to “anywhere and anytime.”

The Constant Moment eliminates dumb luck from photography. It minimizes, as much as anything ever can, the Hawthorne Effect caused by a lifeless camera between our interactions. It continues the photographic tradition of artistic democratization by flattening limits of time, of geography, of access.

Every photographer recognizes their role as curator. It’s that gnawing pit in our stomach that says to us “Shoot this! Before it passes! Now!” Our every heartbeat a reminder of the time passing through our veins, and our need to arrest it, if just for those coming after us, our small hope of immortality.

As the Decisive Moment aspired to a form of immortality, so the Constant Moment will attain it through a form of omniscience. A path I think Cartier-Bresson would be just fine with. As I gave him the first word, so I’ll leave him the last:

Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening considerably our field of action. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique. Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see… The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.
Henri Cartier-Bresson

About the author: Clayton Cubitt is a professional photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. Visit his website here. This essay originally appeared here.

Image credits: Decisive moment header photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson, L1035794.jpg MoMA and I by Susan NYC

  • Photog


  • Roman

    There is so many different types of photography and only common thing between them is the equipment. Photojournalism can be and often is very artistic form of reporting certain situation and very subjective as well. Video is definitively more objective. Technology opens new doors and gives us new opportunities but photography as an art form will always exist. The question is if it will be profitable enough to do it full time…

  • Dan Howard

    anyone wanna give me the quick version of this?

  • Meheh

    Advances in technology (and forthcoming) have transferred the concept of art and photography. Anyone can make “art” at any time with anything at any price and point. Also touches on the argument of “old school” vs “new school”, ie: Film vs Digital.

  • kkc K.

    I can give a try… In the future, we don’t need to psychically stand there to take a photo. The technology will ‘record’ the entire space & time of the event, and we can virtually re-watch it from any angle we want and take photographs of it.

    Or also, we can create any photo we want by using CGI and it will look as real as a photograph.

  • Ellis Vener

    I don’t believe the hype. Think about any important event you’ve experienced in your lifetime: do you immediately it as a snapshot or even a series of snapshots – frozen instants abstracted from the flow of time – or does the whole event unreel in your mind like a film?

  • l0k

    So imagine there is was this technology – how often would anyone actually want to watch the footage and enjoy it in an artistic sense? I think it’s important to distinguish between photography and the capture of data.
    Over the years, camera technology has allowed us to take holiday snaps, party snaps, etc that will be great for us to relive moments, but not particularly interesting to people outside our social circles. Google street view is useful for finding information, but no-one would sit for a while and admire the composition of a street view panorama.
    In terms of making a single frame (as we have been doing since before the camera) I believe the decisive moment is still alive. You could take panoramic videos constantly, and choose the moment and framing later, but you still have to make the decision about what will make a good photo.

  • I’m done.

    PetaPixel sucks now. Seems like it tried to expand too quickly and ended up bringing in bad writers and editors.

  • Aaron Bornfleth

    the automatic music making computers in 1984 sucked. so will whatever this tech becomes. art cannot be made by a million monkeys typing on typewriters

  • Duke Shin

    But where’s the fun in that?

  • Concerned Citizen

    Just because some dingus in New York writes an article doesn’t spell the end of decisive moment photography. It simply opens up photography to all sorts of failures and near misses as laypersons pick up wearable cameras and call themselves professional. If The Digital Revolution didn’t change that, this wont either.

  • Astrofrigo

    That would truly suck.

  • Photog

    All of this can be done already to some extent in a variety of different ways by any person except for the part of not being there, it’s just not as straightforward as “just pushing a button”.

  • Nik.C

    You’ll never replace the need and desire to physically be there at the decisive moment,mother thrill of capturing a moment in time, at the right time, that sums up a thousand frames in one great shot.

  • Kwantum

    Wasn’t Bresson sayin’ not hunting but waiting for that moment? I don’t think he was a hunter for pictures…

  • D. Moment

    Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

  • Student

    Wow, you totally missed the point of the decisive moment. You can have millions of photos, but there is only ONE that truly captures what you are trying to represent — If you are lucky and your camera just happened to snap at the right moment. HCB was exercising the economy of planning and anticipating that moment. The ART is in having a concept, seeing how it will unfold, and then snapping the photo at the right instant. 40 million idiots with continuously recording cameras can’t even come close to that genius.

  • YC

    There was an ‘photographer’ who ‘took’ photos by using Google street view and even had exhibitions. And some of the ‘photos’ or..’screen captures’ did look very nice and artistic.

  • YC

    Yes,you can film the whole period of time and make the decisions about what will make a good photo out of a frame. But for me, I feel when it lost its instantaneousness, it just changed the whole idea.

    I’d say evolution and welcome the New Photography.

  • thingwarbler

    Very interesting and thought-provoking. As I understand Cubitt, however, this brave new world would simply shift the creative process from the photographer’s current challenge of getting himself and his gear in the right place at the right time to the editor’s challenge of sifting through the obscene amount of available footage (every angle at every moment) to pick out “the good stuff.”

    At the end of the day, then, the Decisive Moment would be one and the same: that instant which conveys a feeling or tells a story pleasing to both the author and the audience.

    I may just not be able to visualize the wonders of the overload of data described, but it doesn’t sound to me as if the craft of “creating” an image (whether with a camera and the photorgapher’s skills or with a set of filters and an editor’s eye) will get any easier or “better,” nor will the artists and professionals currently know as “photographers” need to worry about jobs & artistic opportunities.

  • MarylandBill

    Achieving all of this means the death of privacy. The modern street photographer — which might be the most generally intrusive sort of photographer — is only granted a very limited view into the lives of his subject. The one or two shots (or with modern digital cameras, maybe a few dozen shots) span just a few seconds of the life of the subject. Granted it might be at the moment of their greatest joy or greatest sorrow, but still just a moment. What we are suggesting here is a more permanent intrusion on that privacy.

  • Rabi Abonour

    The problem with this post is that it is equating fundamentally different concepts. The author talks about the idea of putting cameras everywhere, capturing everything. This is conceptually interesting. The rise of the GoPro has allowed photographers to get images from places where they cannot physically be.

    But this has nothing to do with the Decisive Moment. Even if you are capturing a 360 degree view continuously, the mere act of picking a still from that involves selecting a Decisive Moment. The idea that we will move to a “Continuous Moment” implies the death of still photography. As long as there are still images, there will be Decisive Moments.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Exactly. The Decisive Moment has nothing to do with a photographer being behind a lens and taking one single shot. A sports photographer who blasts a sequence at 11 FPS finds the Decisive Moment in the edit. An editor who picks one image out of a remote timelapse is finding the Decisive Moment. A hypothetical editor sorting through images from a hundred cameras placed all over a warzone is finding the Decisive Moment.

  • Mick Orlosky

    Presumably the Cartier-Bresson estate approved this post? :-)

  • YC

    Make sense. How about.. the concept of the ‘instantaneous’ moment that decides the event? Because we can simply forward & backward or create the moment any time we want. It kind of loses the meaning.. It feels like that’s the future we are heading.

  • Stefan Beusch

    gewagte These. Ich glaube immer noch daran, frei nach Henri Cartier
    Bresson, was zählt ist der entscheidende Moment (The Decisive Moment).
    Ob dies in Form von Cartiers Fotos oder in journalistischer Art, wie bei
    James Nachtwey geschieht ist irrelevant. Auch spielen Dinge wie
    Perspektive, Licht und Blende eine wichtige Rolle der Bildgestaltung.
    Ein Beispiel zeigt wie EIN Foto eine ganze Nation in eine Krise stürzte.
    Das Foto des von Napalm verbrannten Mädchens Kim Phúc. Der Fotograf
    Nick Út machte dieses Foto, es ging um die Welt und trug zum Ende des
    Vietnam Krieges entscheident bei (Ich muss dieses Foto nicht zeigen und
    trotzdem weiss jeder welches ich meine). Ein CGI erzeugtes Bild wird nie
    den entscheidenden Moment so einfangen wie ein real aufgenommenes. Und
    genau das ist der Punkt. Nur das “Echte” Foto vermittelt auch die wahre
    Emotion des Momentes. Wenn Bildinhalte austauschbar werden und man sich
    des gesehenen nicht mehr Sicher sein kann dann verliert es seine

  • Duncan

    The decisive moment isn’t a moment that captures the essence of something. It is the split second the elements of an image come together to form a graphical representation of the scene being photographed. It could be argued that, Cartier-Bresson, was as much a photographer as a graphic designer.

  • 9inchnail

    This is so not the same. As a street photographer, you feel like hunting for the perfect shot and the perfect moment and if you get that shot, it’s just so satisfying. Just looking at a stream of data and picking out screenshots is not the same. The final result actually might be but no one would really like to do that? Would you like to watch a 24h surveillance tape and wait for an interesting scene to push the screen shot button? People want to be there when they take a photo. Look at tourists, the photograph a landmark that has been photographed a million times and posted on the internet over and over. But THEY haven’t photographed it, yet. I can take a photo of the Eiffel Tower that looks EXACTLY like the thousands of photos you’ll find on Flickr. But this one is going to be MY photo, I shot it, I was there. That makes it special TO ME. This technology here is only interesting for gathering intelligence and keeping an eye on people. There is no artistic application to this. Some might play with it but in the end, no one will want to do this kind of photography because it’s impersonal.

  • Juan Alvarez

    radiohead wuhu !!!

  • Richard H. Weiner

    Hmmmm…So there’s no Decisive Moment? Not too sure about that. Even as we watch a Movie Film or Digital the flowing image we see on the screen, TV, or monitor is a series of stills. One of those stills may be the pivoting point, the apex, the ‘Decisive Moment’. Going backwards or forwards is only approaching or leaving that DM. AND there’s a chance that you *won’t* capture that DM either. Perhaps IT is that point in time between the openings of the shutter? You capture just before and just after but as you aren’t aware of this happening you’ve missed it.

  • Pablo

    No more photographers, everyone is an editor and art is photoshop !!!

  • Dan Howard

    ooooooh…. “Quantum Leep”…. i get it now.

  • Hubert

    If only this kind of intellect could be put towards resource sustainability instead.
    Ain’t no moments when the resources run out.

  • Paul Bogan

    TL;DR: Screw the decisive moment; just spray and pray, and the more cameras with which you can do that, the better (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Surveillance State).

    As if enough people didn’t already approach photography carelessly…