The Decisive Moment

by Randall J. VanderMey, PhD

I am no lover of paraphernalia—tripods, gimbels, lenses, filters, light reflectors—so if it were not for the iPhone, I probably would not be a photographer at all. I would continue to be a writer-poet with an arrogant sense that words were most truly evocative, whereas images were merely documentary or contrived. I once thought cameras were an obstacle to experience, technical devices interposed between the mind and the moment, recording, freezing, and distorting while purporting to tell the truth. But now I seek the kind of experience that can only be had with a camera. Now with the ability to stop at any moment, during any activity, on any day, and capture what seems uniquely manifested in time, place, and object, and then to edit the image in the iPhone itself, isolating and further pursuing that quarry, I think of moment differently. I’ve come to think differently of the camera and of poetry, as well.

“Good news of great joy to all the people”

Now I think of moment as that state of manifestation in which every aspect of the image—framing, focus, contrast, value, rhythmic patterning, the geometry and fluidity of composition—contributes to a concentration on the most arresting attribute of the thing. The phrase “the decisive moment” is famously associated with the great 20th century master Henri Cartier-Bresson. It connotes the making of an image that conveys a gestalt sense of action in relation to the environment that a nervously ready photographer can capture in the precise and non-repeatable moment of unfolding. I don’t have Cartier-Bresson’s highly cultivated skill, journalistic experience, or immersion in the human social scene to capture the magic in such moments. But I see textures, shadows, reflections, shapes, juxtapositions, visual metaphors, and abstract designs as having such moments as well. An object may not seem at first to participate in a narrative, but it is manifest to me at a particular time of day and condition of light. In that sense, it belongs to a long, slow narrative. And my awakening to it, concentrating on it, interrogating it, discovering it, learning from it, and working with it in the editing process puts me in a further narrative relation to it. I use cropping and adjustments of all kinds to downplay tired familiarities, irrelevancies, and distractions and to manifest the moment. At some point I have to say, “Stop. Any more changes would manifest less, not more, of what’s interesting here.” 

Cardboard Boxes

Now I think poetry should do the same, with this difference – that photographic images manifest also the peculiar characteristics of color and light, and poetry manifests also the peculiar characteristics of words. Poetry and photography have come to seem to me like two modes of the same kind of perception. When I’m most deeply into my art, I could not tell you—nor would I be interested in discerning—whether I were working in a verbal or a visual medium. The consciousness of an attentive connection between me and something other is what matters. That is why I produce limited edition books of my photos that place them side by side with brief poems meant not to explain or “caption” or illustrate the images but to participate verbally in the same act of perception. The death of that consciousness in either medium is the cliché. 

In a 1971 interview with Sheila Turner-Seed, published in the New York Times on June 21, 2013, Cartier-Bresson said, “Poetry is the essence of everything, and it’s through deep contact with reality and living fully that you reach poetry.” I find that statement thrilling, and an aphoristic way of explaining what I’ve been trying to say here. But as a Christian I interpret further what I am doing. The self-emptying, or kenosis, described in Philippians 2 as Christ’s central act of atonement serves as the template for my relating to the whole of creation in any of its particulars. Seeing, in this spirit, is an act of receiving, honoring, and loving the peculiar gift given by the Creator. Photography and poetry are ways of jumping into being while at the same time standing aside to let the glory of the divine nature shine through.


Dr. Randall VanderMey taught English at Westmont College for 30 years and is the author of numerous books, published poems, stories, and essays. He has recently adopted the practice of iPhone photography where he fuses poetry, visual art, philosophy, and Christian reflection. His work has won prizes in numerous juried shows and been featured in three one-person shows. His work is included in CIVA’s new Time+Again traveling exhibition launching this Fall.

Instagram: @rvandermey

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