Thursday, 2 January 2014

7: A decisive moment?

This exercise requires that I look in more detail at one of the bodies of work exhibited at the Hereford Photo Festival (2011). The programme has a text by the curator Simon Bainbridge which reflects briefly on the current unfashionable status of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment concept. I have to say I’d not noticed this – it still attracts regular chatter on photo forums, although I have long thought that the philosophical argument for a “decisive moment” is specious.

Consider the famous man jumping off a plank image – . If Cartier-Bresson had been two meters left or right it would have been a different image – so position is as important as “moment”. We should also take into account that it is only “decisive” because it fits a particular aesthetic sensibility – it no more demonstrates order in the chaos than a shot milliseconds before or after, simply a time when the alignment of chaos fits with a received view of balance. I remain to be convinced that an alignment of random features from a given location at a given moment tells us anything about the underlying order of things. Which is not to say that I do not admire Cartier-Bresson’s genius for finding those aesthetically pleasing moments in all walks of life.

Anyway, enough rambling. The photographer I’ve chosen to reflect on is Manuel Vazquez who presented this body of work – Traces – at the festival. According to Vazquez Traces is about the surveillance society in which we live. As we move through public spaces we try to retain our anonymity by not interacting with strangers, and while doing so we are recorded on surveillance equipment leaving traces of our presence.  Vazquez captures a metaphor of these traces by photographing individuals as they pass through patches of light in what I assume to be railway stations, and then assembles them in to larger collages or montages, capturing the idea of moving humanity as spectacle – all different yet somehow all the same.

I’m not sure I buy the surveillance angle to this series but there is a very strong element of spectacle and isolation. They remind me in some ways of DiCorcia’s flash lit street photos – throwing individuals into sharp focus among the more anonymous surroundings. Are they documentary? Certainly not in the sense which seems to have characterised the genre for decades in the UK at least. There is no decisive moment – all moments are the same, there is no social angle – no critique of the surveillance. What there is however is a strong narrative (at least I assume that’s what it is) about our increasing isolation in an increasingly crowded and unfriendly society. So perhaps there are victims – victims just like us. Where are these people going – and why are they all alone?

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