The Deciding Moment

A newly published scrapbook of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs is changing some notions about how he worked

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What lay behind all this obsessive selecting?

Consider the 1933 picture, taken in Valencia, Spain, of swinging doors at what seems to be a sports arena. If you compare the two images that Cartier-Bresson put in his scrapbook, presumably his favorites, with the five he rejected (included in the new volume but unavailable for magazine publication), you will see that he picked the two hardest to grasp. Both of his favorites show a bodyless head wearing cap and spectacles, half-blinded by light, floating just to the right of a fragment of the number 7. In the background, a tiny, blurry figure appears to be leaving the scene. Though the two figures are next to each other in the frame, they share neither scale nor story.

Now, the outtakes: they are as symmetrical as a dollar bill, and they make both dramatic and spatial sense. Smack in the middle of the frame is the wooden door of the arena, with the number 7 painted on it. As people come and go through the door, the 7 on the door splits, like a camera's shutter. On either side of this door, spectators peer out from rectangular windows. On the right there's the capped bespectacled head, and on the left, a slack-jawed boy following the event—maybe a bullfight.

There is more than a little irony here. In 1946, the year before helping to found Magnum—a photojournalism agency—Cartier-Bresson was rejecting the documentary shot in favor of the confounding image. He preferred the Valencia photographs from which all helpful context had been stripped, leaving only a puzzle about blindness and sight. En route to the title "photographer of the decisive moment," he was actually chasing the very label that Capa would warn him against: "little Surrealist." Ah, well.

Sarah Boxer is the author of In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary.


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