The decisive moment

If there’s one word to describe the Lichtenstein retrospective at the Tate Modern, it’s dizzying. All those dots and primary colours make your eyes swim after a bit, like you’ve stared too long at a Magic Eye poster to find the hidden 3D image.

But I loved it. His work is so bright and definitive, and sarcastic, I didn’t mind feeling occasionally disoriented.

lichtenstein-a-retrospective-tate-modernLichtenstein is perhaps most famous for his painting Whaam! capturing the moment a fighter jet is struck by gun fire and begins to explode. In all his work, he focused on capturing the critical moment as a way of telling in one image the whole story.

Just after Christmas, I went to a street photography day, where we learned about styles of street photography and then went out with our cameras to snap merrily away. I can’t say I took any pictures I was proud of that day, but this idea of the critical or decisive moment is key to street photography too.

PAR43607Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the first and original street photographer, also tried to capture those moments with the click of a button and the snap of a shutter. ‘To me,’ he said, ‘photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.’

‘Photography is not like painting,’ he told the Washington Post in 1957. ‘There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.’

The artist or the photographer captures this moment in a frame. But what does the storyteller do?

There was an article in She Loves Magazine recently where Scott McLellan talks about this. He says: ‘Investigators use several indicators to track and identify the point of origin of a fire, and to me one of the most interesting is pine needles. In the aftermath of a fire, one might find the pine needles of a tree pointing in a given direction, and as it turns out this is the opposite direction from the fire’s origin. When the blaze moved past the tree, its heat and wind push the pine needles back, straight back, and thus provide investigators with a clue. Though the needles point at the future, the source of the trauma lies in the past.’

To work, a story has to have a critical moment, the point where everything the reader has known before pivots, and in turning reveals a new landscape that clears the mysteries which were unexplained before. It might be something in a character’s past which is forming their future. It might be an event that happens in the plot. But without that moment of criticality, the Whaam! or the Oop! there is no story to be told.

The question is, in the story of your own life, have you already had that decisive moment or is it still to come? And how much control do we have over what it is that determines our own stories?


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