The Exhilaration of Possibility
(an iPhone image)
The Vanishing Instant
The moment I chose to place my pointer finger on the letter “T” and begin transcribing the ensuing series of letters to form words, I could liberally deem this act as a decisive moment in the life of this essay. In the very same sentence, I could also say that this moment of genesis has equally vanished the second I have touched the letter “T”.
Taking Henri Cartier-Bresson’s oft-quoted ‘decisive moment’ in the world of photography and placing it next to Berenice Abbott’s ‘vanishing instant’, one can take an arguable stance of interpretation—measuring their verbal descriptions to be one in the same. This shifting semantics of perspective could be equated to the perpetual debate of whether the glass is half full or half empty.
With reference to her project, “Changing New York”, Abbott may be speaking of erasure and disappearance in a broader context, suggesting that the old buildings being replaced by the new modern ones can also be seen as a metaphor encapsulating the instant a photograph is taken to that moment afterwards which is now gone. To capture change before it disappeared was Abbott’s concern; “The tempo of the metropolis is not of eternity or even time, but of the vanishing instant.” Miller, 53.
Cartier-Bresson’s also says in his writings that “for photographers what has gone, has gone forever.” Ultimately, both photographers are speaking the same language about the disappearing significance of the instantaneous Now.
The difference in verbal structure used by the two photographers lends itself to describing “the vanishing instant’ as an ethereal measurement of time while “the decisive moment” is a punctuating one. To apply Abbott’s “vanishing instant” to the exactitude of the “photo finish” (that of a 100 metres dash), it would imply a continuity of movement before and after the shot capturing the finish line, leaving also a sense of an ensuing empty “post-frame” shot as the athletes continue forward literally out of the viewfinder. It is this tension of the invisible that McCausland identifies in Abbott’s work. Cartier Bresson’s terminology would imply a clear decisive arrest of the bodies breaking through the taut ribbon across the finish line without the lingering idea of a before or after.
However different they were in their photographic styles, both photographers were concerned with artistic documentation imbedded in capturing reality. In both cases, precision becomes an intense detail of overall aesthetic form combined with content. While Cartier-Bresson lay in waiting for the right image to walk into the ready frame, Abbott would wait for the exact moment of light to fall on a building.
Both “the decisive moment” and the “vanishing instant” are undeniably underpinned by subjectivity. They are temporal meetings of the transitory states of present and past, only to be quickly replaced by a new present and new past as the shutter continues to click. It becomes a sort of Sisyphean act – each moment disappearing into the next, forming a time trail of shots. It is the existence of the contact sheet that really holds the final decisive act of subjectivity. What it possesses is a collection of time frozen moments framed in space, row by row. This choice is the second tier of a deliberated act, whether it be the ‘lost’ second or the ‘discovered’ second – it is the necessary course of action in this moment of choosing an image or negating several, to finally arrive at a selection.
To use the example of Robert Doisneau’s photograph, “The Accordionist”, one can argue that Doisneau’s decisively ‘chosen’ frame may differ from someone else’s photographic choice. Maybe a more telling caption could have the onlookers all looking away, isolating the woman in a more transparent sadness – alone in a busy place. On a contact sheet with several shots lined up in a row, each and every photographer may select a completely different frame as representation of their photographic expression. Nonetheless, the final act of choosing is decisive and an integral part of the image making process. Then, once done, the photographer invariably moves on.
Eventually, Abbott refines her vision of the “vanishing instant” to embody a greater intertextual dynamic bringing all the elements of a photograph into harmonious composition, calling it “dynamic equilibrium”. Cartier-Bresson’s entire collection of writings in his book “The Decisive Moment” also in itself allows for a more in depth development and exploration of his meanings surrounding the shooting and capturing of that telling moment in a photograph.
It is unfortunate that Berenice Abbott did not put pen to paper and fleetingly leave her mark on eternity by writing a self-prescribed photographic book titled the ‘Vanishing Instant’, or better yet, “The Dynamic Equilibrium”.
Henri Cartier Bresson, “The Decisive Moment”, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1952).
Sarah M. Miller, “Dynamic Equilibrium – Berenice Abbott’s History of the Now”, in Berenice Abbott: Photographs, 57-64. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2012).