In Experimental Photography, Is There Ever a Decisive Moment?

Sixteen boundary-pushing photographers included in the 2016 Aperture Summer Open curated by Charlotte Cotton weigh in on their practice.

In Aperture’s new exhibition Summer Open: Photography is Magic, curator Charlotte Cotton highlights the work of contemporary artists who employ a diverse scope of magical approaches to photography. The practices and techniques of the artists vary immensely. While some find their images in everyday life, others create intricate sets and stages, while still others rely primarily on digital techniques. Ahead of the exhibition, Aperture asked a group of the participating artists: “In experimental photography, is there ever a decisive moment?” Here’s what they have to say.


Anastasia Samoylova, Desert Mirages, 2014 © the artist

“The ‘decisive moment’ is a beautiful fiction: the idea that a single decision of the artist is responsible for the creation of the picture. Each set that I photograph takes hours of pre-conceptualization and physical construction, yet is captured in a fraction of second—right before everything falls apart.” —Anastasia Samoylova


Tabitha Soren, Untitled 023224, 2016 © the artist

“When I’m making marks on the fragile photo paper, I try to approach the point where it seems reckless to keep going, or until the paper breaks. That is the decisive moment for me—and it is very often where the piece begins. The images so far have turned out much more serene, even though I often use pellet guns, razors, and bow and arrows to allow for the possibility of accident to influence the piece. And yet, the violence and anger often gives way, in the end, to tranquility.” —Tabitha Soren


Adam Ekberg, Eclipse, 2012 © the artist

“If we’re talking about moments, I see myself as generating them rather than merely recording them. In my practice, there’s always a moment where everything comes together for the camera, but ‘decisive moment’ is a loaded term and a bit incongruous with my practice of planning my images. First, I begin with sketches of improbable actions or phenomena. Recently, I wanted to generate an eclipse with a commonplace object. On my bicycle, I passed a fruit stand and a prominently displayed pineapple caught my eye as the perfect item to obscure the sun. I set up my camera in my front yard and—to the amusement of my neighbors—began throwing pineapples in the air.” —Adam Ekberg


Bubi Canal, Beautiful Mystery, 2015 © the artist

“For me, the process of taking a photo is like going through a forest looking for the unknown . . . standing by a river and listening. Something unexpected and magical happens—that is my decisive moment.” —Bubi Canal


Joseph Desler Costa, Layered Guitars, 2015 © the artist

“The ‘decisive moment’ has always been a slippery concept for me, a term that can be loosely applied to any and every image. In my process, and as I compose, frame, and reframe, there are multiple ‘decisive moments’ happening as current imaging processes allow us infinite possibilities. I try to make pictures and compositions of moments and material the eye doesn’t see, but still recognizes, reflecting how much of our contemporary lives are virtual, rather than physical.” —Joseph Desler Costa


Chris Maggio, Untitled, 2014 © the artist

“Just because a photograph is alternative in its technique, doesn’t mean that it is absent of that fleeting instant where one’s creativity, worldview, and technological skills coalesce. As the photographic field continues to evolve, the meaning of Cartier-Bresson’s celebrated concept has only expanded. Now, whenever it strikes, that moment is when a concept just ‘clicks’—be it with the click of your shutter, the clicks of your mouse in Photoshop, or simply when the idea for a composition suddenly comes into focus. Whether you’re planning an image for months or composing it in 1/100th of a second, there’s always that personal, inexplicable, and sudden energy that informs you that this is it.” —Chris Maggio


Megan Paetzhold, Amblyopia, 2015 © the artist

“I’m skeptical about the division between ‘experimental’ and ‘traditional’ photography. Experimentation has always been stitched into the fabric of photography’s nature. The ‘decisive moment’ is typified by waiting—waiting for reality to align perfectly in front of the lense—a mixture of luck, happenstance, and the photographer’s intuition. In my work, the definition of the ‘reality’ being represented may be fluid, but the structure of the Decisive Moment remains; luck, happenstance, and intuition are all essential to my image making process.” —Megan Paetzhold


Matthew Leifheit and Cynthia Talmadge, Sag Harbor Inn, 2015

“We feel that any work of art that could reasonably be conceived of as a photograph must stem from some kind of decisive moment. It is photography’s unique anti-time effect that gives every picture ever taken the immediate quality of nostalgia, if not morbidity. The question now is whether to amplify or undermine that moment, with the understanding that photography’s ability communicate time and place can be harnessed.” —Matthew Leifheit & Cynthia Talmadge 


Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay, Interview, 2015 © the artist

“For a lot of contemporary photographers, including me, who experiment with the magical, that is to say, the deceiving properties of the photographic medium in our studios, the ‘decisive moment’ takes a backseat. However, it does linger in the studio and works its magic from time to time, less in the form of aesthetics and more in the form of luck, inspiration, and breakthroughs.” —Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay


Valerie Green, IMG6411, 2016 © the artist

“The ‘decisive moment’ in my work expands beyond Bresson’s notion of the ‘creative fraction of a second.’ I utilize both chance and choice to capture not only a singular moment, but a multitude of moments that are layered on top of each other.” —Valerie Green


Hyounsang Yoo, how to be invisible, 2015 © the artist

“I think artists and photographers interpret their own way to make a decisive moment. My work is often heavily manipulated, staged, and stripped of contextual information. I do not take a photographs; I make them. However, I work on them until I am satisfied, which is my own decisive moment.” —Hyounsang Yoo


Radek Brousil, Hands Clasped, 2015 © the artist

“Experimental photography is horizonless. It allows me to escape and explore undetected. Photography in general went through a certain revolution of the medium during last decade. From this cataclysm it became a medium that can be anything we fantasize.” —Radek Brousil


Irene Mamiye, No Use in Crying 3939, 2015 © the artist

“While twentieth century artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson were concerned with formalist ideals, twenty-first century artists are ‘on the run,’ seizing tools as they become available. The shift from an analogue to a digital ‘darkroom’ has extended the decisive moment so that it can be frozen in time in an ever-growing field of discovery. This fearless spirit is afforded to us in part by the impermanent nature of our decisions, which can be undone in a click, confounding photographers with a myriad of possible ‘decisive moments.’” —Irene Mamiye


Amelia Bauer, A Ghost (Portrait), 2015 © the artist

“I’ve never thought of my image making as capturing a moment, but rather each image as a stop on a continuous journey through various lines of thought. There are decisive moments along these paths during which certain ideas synthesize, and the way forward becomes crystalized. These ‘aha’ moments happen both before I embark on a new series in the moment, when I conceptualize the next body of work, and when I’m playing with images I’ve already taken, unsure of where they will end up. Henri Cartier-Bresson believed that photography is ‘an immediate reaction,’ whereas ‘drawing is a meditation.’ It is my belief that photography as it functions today rejects this premise and exists with fluidity between these two opposing characterizations.” —Amelia Bauer


Ryan Oskin, Stacked Glass, 2015 © the artist

“Even at its most experimental, photography always has a ‘decisive moment.’ The original ‘decisive moment’ was the clicking of the shutter, but could also be the moment you expose pigment to a substrate, or the moment you think and act on a new idea. In my work, I try to prolong the process after photographic capture to intervene in my own imagery. By moving beyond a straight photograph, I question the possibilities of the image’s materiality and expand on our collective perception of what a photograph is and can be today.” —Ryan Oskin

The Aperture Summer Open: Photography Is Magic is on view at the Aperture Gallery through August 11, 2016.