The Decisive Moment

When I think of some of the most significant events of the last fifty years, I always imagine the still image in my head. Even when there is video or film from the event, the still image seems to capture the essence and emotion and tension in a way that a moving picture rarely seems to.

The color image captured by Neil Leifer of boxer Muhammad Ali towering over a defeated Sonny Liston is one of the most incredible sports moments ever captured. Ali seems to be gloating about the knockout, but in the televised images of the event, the moment is over in an instant. If you blink, you’ll miss it. In the same image, photographer Herb Scharfman can be seen right between Ali’s legs looking defeated himself . Leifer’s image is considered by many to be the greatest sports photograph ever made. Ironically, 13 years earlier, Sharfman made his own iconic still image of a boxing match when Rocky Marciano knocked down “Jersey” Joe Walcott. The still image allows you to study Walcott’s distorted face in a way that a motion picture never could.


Then there is Bob Jackson‘s Pulitzer Prize winning image of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald’s arrest for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Although there is film of this event as well, the look on Oswald’s face and the faces of the men around him is frozen in monochrome for the viewer to study all of the detail and emotion that’s within the frame.

David Burnett‘s image of distance runner Mary Decker lying in the infield grass after colliding with Zola Budd is heartbreaking to look at. It occurred at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles and there were several TV cameras covering the event and the collision. But, it’s the anguish on the face of Mary Decker that was captured in a still image by Burnett that will always define that moment.

When Phil Mickelson won the Masters in 2004, it was Dave Martin‘s image of Mickelson frozen in midair, elation written all over his face, and a jubilant crowd behind him that defines the moment. TV had it from every angle, but Martin’s still photograph captures all of the action and emotion in one place and holds it steady for the viewer to absorb in every last, glorious detail.

Still images are everywhere and they continue to define our collective visual library. But when I talk to people, so many believe that video is going to eliminate the need for still imagery.

I just don’t see it.

When Eadweard Muybridge (ironically, a still photographer) made the very first motion picture in 1878 called A Horse in Motion, it didn’t portend the end of still photographs. When D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation in 1915, it ushered in the motion picture business and people rushed to go see this new technology. This was 15 years after the Kodak Brownie popularized low-cost photography and 75 years after photography was invented. Nearly 175 years later, we’re making still photographs by the gigabyte.


The technology has changed, the distribution has changed and the uses have changed. What hasn’t changed, is us. Our brains process still images in a very different way than we process moving pictures. Deciphering imagery at 30 frames per second is like looking at the ocean while riding in a boat—both experiential and immersive. Still photographs are like sitting on the beach and looking at the ocean from shore. You’re able to see and feel every shell, every bit of sea glass, the shape of each wave and the sensory and emotional part of being there. Our brains process each experience differently—and each has it’s place—but frozen moments leave an indelible imprint that motion rarely does.


My father was in the film business, so I grew up on a film set watching movies get made. I watched them use dollies and cranes and huge lights and telescoping booms to record sound. The tools available today are smaller, lighter, cheaper and they produce quality far beyond what was available then. But, all that’s really happened is that making motion pictures is becoming as mainstream as still photography has become.

The tools cost less, they’re easier to use and the content is easier to distribute—that’s undeniable. But the word processor didn’t make writing a novel any easier when it came to content, it only made the mechanics of writing a novel easier. The same is true of still images and video images alike.

Heck, my eight year-old has his own YouTube channel. On it are a series of time-lapse films shot with a DSLR of stories he’s told with LEGOs. Are they any good? Hardly. But the point is, he can legitimately say he has films on YouTube and that he’s a filmmaker. Is that really any different than someone picking up a new Nikon D3 and a few lenses one morning and calling themselves a photographer later that afternoon? It isn’t to me. But it’s happening.

When my dad was a film editor, he cut film—actual film with an actual blade. He’d run the film through a Moviola and using foot pedals and a hand brake, he’d find the exact spot where he wanted to cut and he’d mark it with a grease pencil. Then he’d pull the film out of the machine, cut it at the mark, grab another piece of previously cut film from the trim bin and piece the two together using nothing more than glorified Scotch tape. When you consider what is possible now using Final Cut Pro or even iMovie, it’s amazing that anyone ever made films before computers.


What hasn’t changed in film making, novel writing or still photography is the importance of content. Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s “decisive moment” of the man about to step in the puddle is just that, a moment. It’s the frozen nature of it—the still-ness of the image—that makes it one of the definitive photojournalistic images 79 years after it was made. And whether it was made with a Leica or a D3s, the heel of that shoe about to impact that water, and the reflection in it, is what makes the image as decisive as ever all these years later.

The content is the part that can never be simplified or automated. The tools make it easier to shoot and edit and distribute content—and that applies to both video and stills—but moving pictures are a different medium than the still image. And they always have been different because of the way our senses process each. Like men and women, unique and wonderful in their own way.

If you’re a fan of still imagery, and you’re hoping to make many more still pictures in the future, have faith. The still isn’t going anywhere. It’s been around for 175 years and nothing seems to be able to replace it’s power.

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