The Decisive Moment

In the history of photography, few images are more iconic than Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Derriere la Gare Sint-Lazare.”  Photographers often use the phrase “decisive moment” and this image is the ultimate illustration of that term.

Cartier-Bresson created the image behind the Gare Saint-Lazare train station in Paris in 1932.  He says he was peering through a fence and captured this image as the man jumped across the water puddle.   The arrangement of the image is incredible.  The more you look at it, the more you notice.  For example, the metal loops in the foreground echo the rings of water that are rippling away from the ladder.   The sign in the background is for a performer named Railowsky, the shot was taken behind a railyard and the ladder resembles a train track.   Add to that the repetition of the the shadow, the jumper, the man in the background and the clock tower behind him.   When you take it all in, it really seems too good to be true.  In fact, many have accused Cartier-Bresson of setting up the shot.

However it was created- either by planning or sheer luck- it represents a masterpiece in composition and timing. The more you study it, the more you notice.

An interesting fact about this picture is that it is one of the few cropped images that Cartier-Bresson ever produced.  He never allowed publications to crop his work – even going so far as to put a black border on every shot to make cropping more difficult.  However, since this image was shot between fence planks, there was part of a plank covering the left edge of the frame, so he had to crop in to remove it.

When you first look at the original, uncropped image, it really looks like something you would discard as a reject.  The crop – and resulting change in composition- helped to elevate this simple snapshot into one of the icons of photography.

I can’t help but wonder how this image would score in today’s print competitions.  Would its impact stand up to the dizzying digital creations that we have today- or would it be brushed aside as just another snapshot?  What do you think?


  1. Brushed aside! The sky is blown out, the subject is not in focus, the foreground has sensor spots which need to be removed and there is slight vignetting on the left side. Score: 35! How could he even THINK about entering the image? Jeez.

  2. How could you call the original bad?! The ignorance in these comments is making me feel sick! Sensor spots? Yeah, a Leica iiif is going to suffer -sensor- spots. Its called a dusty test print, made from the 35mm NEGATIVE, not a RAW file made on a “dusty sensor”.

    And my goodness, are you actually kidding me, photoshop? Really? Its called print-cropping, its done in one of those dark, smelly, red rooms that some old photographers use.

    If I could have a print if the original I would be the happiest man alive, its a masterpiece before any adjustments were made anyway.

    • Larry

      Thanks for your comment Ollie. Great to see someone who is still passionate about photography! With Photoshop, we can do a lot to fix color balance, sharpness, etc – but we will never be able to fix timing. That is what makes this images incredible.

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