Sometimes you need to break the rules. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a legendary rule-breaker, and his discordance with photography’s stymied role in culture changed the medium forever. His book The Decisive Moment, recently republished by Steidl, was groundbreaking when it was released in 1952 and still inspires photographers everywhere.
“The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters—small, small differences—but it’s essential,” Cartier-Bresson said in a 1971 interview.
His book was filled with examples of that crucial moment, juxtaposed with delicate geometry and a deep sense of humanity. It was produced, start to finish, in just under six months in New York and France under the title Images à la Sauvette.
Famously quoted for dismissing magazines and newspapers as impermanent throwaways to wrap food scraps in, Cartier-Bresson was most interested in work that was simple and candid.The Decisive Moment firmly established Cartier-Bresson as a visionary thinker who saw photography outside galleries and well beyond the daily papers.
The original edition was limited to some 10,000 copies. This was at a time when books were still largely reserved for literature and classical arts. The Decisive Moment was unconventional on every level—the cover by Henri Matisse, Cartier-Bresson’s personal introduction, and richly textured photogravure prints— and hailed as an achievement not only for Cartier-Bresson, but for photography as an art form.
The book was a treasure for those lucky enough to have purchased one of the original 7,000 copies sold in America in 1952 for $12.50—about $110 today. Its incredible rarity, coupled with Cartier-Bresson’s status as a pioneering photographer, artist and thinker, pushed The Decisive Moment into legend-status perhaps far sooner than most books. But after more than 60 years of feverish searching and relentless fawning by photophiles and image-makers alike, Steidl took on the task of publishing a long awaited second edition, released last fall.
Diligently reproduced to the finest detail, Steidl seems to have resisted the urge to over embellish the new edition with unnecessary addendums. Cartier-Bresson likely would have dismissed an elaborate reconstruction of his book as crass and egregious. The Decisive Moment is about the aesthetics of coincidence, and the faith to follow intuition. Like every brilliant unexpected moment, things can never be truly recreated, but only faithfully retold.