April 24, 2013

The Boston Marathon And "The Decisive Moment"

This is the only photo taken by David Green, 49, a runner in the Boston Marathon last Monday. He snapped it with his iPhone seconds after the two bombs exploded, and then rushed to help people who had been injured by the explosion. This remarkable image reminded me of what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment", the famous phrase he coined that described what made photography unique as it became its own art form in the 20th century. Green's picture, along with the photo of a downed runner at the finish line, have instantly become the two iconic photos of the Marathon attack. The Washington Post on Monday had an great article talking about the impact and legacy of these iconic images.

Considering Green's image though, it uniquely captures the terror of the horrific event while also perfectly and horrifically illustrating Bresson's "decisive moment". Green's photo shows a standard and almost generic cityscape that in a split second is completely transformed into a war zone by the people who are racing away in all directions from the hazy smoke at the center. There is an incredible sense of chaos but a strange feeling of balance to the frame as well, taking it beyond the realm of a snapshot into something that not only captures the historical significance of the attack but also the unsettling feeling of modern life where terrorism can turn an ordinary day on an average street into a nightmare.

Beyond the image itself, there is something utterly contemporary about this picture that I think would have fascinated Bresson. Unbeknownst to Green, his hi-res digital pic captured in its millions of pixels not only the terror of the scene but also the clearest image of the alleged perpetuator. In the far left of the frame, wearing a white baseball cap,  Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev walks away calmly while nearly everyone else is fleeing in a panic---an indictment as well as an ID. (The zoomed in version helped identify him during the manhunt which led to his arrest.)  So Bresson's "decisive moment" becomes a decisive tool in the investigation of the crime itself. When thinking about Green's extraordinary picture, it's really mind-blowing to consider how photography has evolved and advanced so far in the 100 years since Bresson was snapping "decisive moments" on streets of Paris during a entirely different  war.