As a practitioner I keep favouring a non-interventionist attitude. As a theorist, I keep being fascinated by indexicality, by the sense of unforeseen authenticity, the value of unexpectedness some documentary images, or documentary films, are able to communicate, provided that they (appear to) grasp the essence of real. However, as a theorist, I also know that such a sense of authenticity is itself an effect.
In Roland Barthes’ view the “effect of real” is created by the very unfunctionality of details that do not fulfil any office in particular except connoting the real. Barthes calls this “l'effet de réel,” indicating how representations look paradoxically more real when they carry a lot of details of little, if any, significance. From that standpoint the credibility of documentary images is indeed guaranteed—or, at least, reinforced—by irregularity, and deviation. The presence of elements of little significance that do not obey the laws of representative efficiency help construct the feeling that “it can’t be fake.” In documentary practice, such unfunctional details are usually unplanned, fortuitous ones: residues. These portions of unexploited material happen by chance to acquire a paradoxical status offering clues about the authenticity of the take.
Noel Burch seems to be one of the very few cinema theorists to have speculated (in A Praxis of Cinema) on chance and its functions. He thus describes
The decisive moment
Being fundamentally a photographer, I cannot avoid basing my reflection upon snapshot photography as an attempt for mastering space, place and the moment.
The decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson tersely defined it, is
However, the state of the art, in snapshot photography, is not simply to release the shutter at the proper moment. Indisputably a major artist, Cartier-Bresson does not say everything about the process when he describes the photographer’s work as follows:
The very notion of decisive moment is indeed quite ambiguous. It seems to concentrate [a whole sequence of operations] in one point in time. I myself came to understanding this in practice. Being no Cartier-Bresson, it took me a long time to realise that one cannot go chasing snapshots by:
If one tries to work this way, what happens is, one does not get anything decisive at all. Decisive moments are fugitive ones, and while you are in the process of deciding there is something decisive about them, they’re gone.
The right person in the right place
In fact Cartier-Bresson himself gives another key:
This is fully congruent with my own experience as a photographer, as I shall show with two more examples.
Even before the “no parking project,” I was accustomed to take a number of pictures of a same pattern: a wall, in full frame, on a frontal axis, and a passer-by.
This simple scheme tended to construct some kind of relationship (on a plastic or anecdotal level) between the figure and the background.
One day I encountered an interesting graffiti in a street of Aix en Provence: a flashy, spray-painted kind of comic strip cowboy firing his gun: Pang! I prepared to take a picture. As I was waiting for a passer-by to act as an extra, a man came across and bent down not to be in the image, but looking very much as if he ducked down in order to avoid the cowboy’s shot—which is aimed however to the other side of the frame. I then realised that I had taken no time to consider whether I should take the picture or not. The man had bent precisely but unexpectedly while I was releasing the shutter.