Before sunrise one morning I set off for the Connecticut River to photograph the base of the Arrigoni Bridge from its eastern end in Portland, CT. With the sun coming up behind me, I hoped to get some dramatic shots of the early-morning light striking the bridge’s massive brownstone abutments and steel undergirding. When I got to my hoped-for vantage point, I was disappointed to discover that the entire area around the base of the bridge was now so overgrown that I could not get a clear shot.
On my way home, I drove by a small town green just as the sun started to burn through the early-morning fog from the river. The grass and trees glistened from the rain that had fallen during the night, and the whole scene was bathed in silvery light. I pulled over and hopped out of the car with my camera and tripod. The pictures I brought back that morning were better than anything I could have planned, and I was greedy for more. But try as I might, I have never been able to recapture the magical quality of that scene, even when I return to the same location on mornings when the sun is starting to burn through the fog.
The photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about the “decisive moment” in capturing a subject. “To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality,” he wrote. In a similar vein, he said “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….Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
As I discovered, there is no going back, even when you have successfully captured your image the first time. You can photograph a particular moment only once with the freshness of discovery -- even a landscape in some particular light or atmosphere. Thereafter, if you try to duplicate the shot, it becomes a mere postcard. You can, of course, photograph the same subject many times and never exhaust its possibilities, provided that you are always seeking to discover something new about it.
In life, as in photography, the decisive moment always awaits our discovery. The secret of life is that it is eternally new. This moment, any moment, has never happened before and will never happen again. Our habitual ways of seeing the world and thinking about it only blind us to this fact. We become tourists rather than explorers, clinging to familiar ground while telling ourselves we are being adventurous. "Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God," Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus. To be born anew is to see everything afresh, as if for the first time. It is to understand what Cartier-Bresson meant when he said, “Life is once, forever.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson, “The Decisive Moment”