Magnum Photographers Share Images That They Took at the Perfect Moment

Magnum Photos is nearly 70, so to celebrate they got a load of their photographers and artists to pick images that represent co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson's idea of the "Decisive Moment".

av VICE Staff
2016 06 09, 12:00am

Florida. Birthday party at Olympia, a gated community. 2005. © Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos. "This image recalls a moment in my own life; it puts me in the shoes of myself before I moved abroad in my thirties, just starting my career as a photographer, so is this how I saw the US back then? Having returned to make new images after almost a decade away, it begs me to consider how I've changed, how my perceptions of this country have changed and how image-making has changed. This is one of the few early images of mine that have stayed with me over time."

Magnum Photos, perhaps the most prestigious photo agency in the world, is nearly 70. That's seven decades of representing some of the best photographers in recent history, from veterans like Bruce Gilden and Stuart Franklin – who took maybe the most famous picture of the 20th century – to photographic icons of the future, like Jonas Bendiksen and Peter van Agtmael.

To celebrate their imminent 70th, Magnum asked a load of their photographers and artists to pick one work that they felt encapsulated the notion of the "Decisive Moment" – an idea associated with Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson, who summarised it as: "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture [...] and you must know with intuition when to click the camera [...] Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

Because they're old and wise and kindly now, Magnum has decided to make prints of these selections available for $100 (€88) a pop, in their "The (More or Less) Decisive Moments" sale. Below are a few of the images, with a bit of explanation from the photographers who took them.


Jerusalem, Western Wall (Wailing Wall). 1989 © Micha Bar Am / Magnum Photos

"The Western Wall, also called The Wailing Wall, is the only remnant of the Herodian temple destroyed by the Romans over 2,000 years ago. The Jewish believers consider it like a shrine, and the orthodox tradition forces women to pray in a secluded section. When a group of orthodox women claimed their right to pray and wear prayer shawls like men, they were wildly attacked by zealots; police reacted with gas canisters to stop the mess. Some of the attackers then threw the gas canisters back at the crowd. The situation became surreal and the jumping man seemed to be levitating and reminded me of Henri Cartier-Bresson's iconic image."


El Paso, Texas. 2011. Two men who attempted to enter the US illegally run across the dry Rio Grande riverbed back to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, after being spotted by the American Border Patrol. © Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum Photos

"Few of my images fit with the common interpretation of the Cartier-Bresson decisive moment. I think this is because, for the most part, my work develops in the long form, the narrative unfolding through a series of images. Even though, I guess one could argue that every time a photographer presses the shutter it is a decisive moment or instance, in which they take a somewhat mysterious set of decisions that lead to making a picture.

"This particular image is a decisive moment because it captures an extremely fleeting moment. I was taking pictures from one of the bridges that connects El Paso and Ciudad Juárez when I saw something move through the corner of my eye. Just then, two young Mexican men who had tried to jump the fence to enter the US ran as fast as they could back to the Mexican side of the border after having been spotted by the US border patrol."


Paris, 19th arrondissement. Yves St Laurent 1985 Haute-Couture. Collection photographed by the Geode dome in La Villette parc. © Abbas / Magnum Photos

"I leave the 'decisive moment' to Henri. 'Decisive' gives the impression the moment was frozen in time. For 50 years, my photography has been a succession of 'suspended moments' – the characters in my photos were not frozen in time, but they kept on doing what they were doing before I photographed them.

"For over 30 years now, the assistant has been smoothing one coat; one model prepares to jump on the railing, while another is about to come down; two beautiful women lounge, odalisque-like, on the slab, the wind blowing into their dresses. For over 30 years, my camera has been in the foreground, eager for action. This was my first fashion shoot with the top models of the time."


Ibiza, 1991. Soap suds party. © David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos

"The decisive moment can take a lot of clock time. This particular decisive moment took two weeks of my time. The summer foam party at the club Amnesia in Ibiza, Spain, only happens once per week. It took me seeing it once to know what I should do. At first I thought I should get in the mess, which I did. I got some nice pictures there, but I thought getting above it would be better to get the feeling of mass hedonism, or like Dante's Inferno.

"It took some permission to get up into the lighting rig in the ceiling of the club. In the end I shot literally one Kodachrome film frame that looks like this. The club lights flashed multiple colours at random and only this one had the feel and tone I wanted. Two weeks of time literally down to two seconds of opportunity. Worth it all, of course."


Delhi. Wrestlers through the painted gate, Paharganj, 1988. © Raghu Rai

"I shot this image in 1988 when I was doing my second book on Delhi. While driving past, I saw the main door of a wresting complex, Akhara, garishly painted with two guys in a dramatic wresting pose. I stopped, and as I pushed the door open this is what was going on inside. I stayed on the spot and shot a few frames where the inside and outside human body shapes came into certain relationships, thanked them, shut the door and came back.

"There are certain situations that are physically very dramatic and potent; what you need to do is to wait for the moment when respective elements – in this case, human forms and physical action – come into a certain kind of rhythm and relationship to make the experience whole and enhance the strength and structure of the frame, bringing a certain kind of dynamism into it. Of course, the colours were dramatic and the forms did the rest of it, and this is how the decisive moment appears to disappear again."


Pakistan, 1983 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

"Tea is such an important part of Pakistan's culture that a tea plant is on the state emblem of the country. Tea is served with every meal, for tea breaks during the workday and for any and every social occasion. The fleeting moment captured in this image demonstrates the integral part the nation's elixir plays in daily life, even for the travellers on this train."


Tripoli, Lebanon. November, 2013. Interior of an apartment on Syria Street, where the sectarian fights between Sunnis and Shiite are more violent. © Lorenzo Meloni

"I spent more than a year working in Tripoli's Bab al-Tabbaneh district, documenting a politically-fuelled sectarian conflict. I visited many homes on the frontline, but people rarely wanted to be photographed because they were afraid, so I often returned home without even turning my camera on.

"The day I took this photo, I climbed the stairs to the top floor of a building, which was riddled with bullet holes. When I was leaving one apartment, I turned and saw the children there on the chairs in front of the shattered wall; they seemed to perfectly sum up how families were living in the middle of the conflict. With one foot already outside the door, I raised my camera and snapped."

Signed or estate-stamped prints for $100 (€88) from over 60 Magnum photographers and artists will be available for a limited time, from 9AM EST on Monday the 6th of June until 11PM on Friday the 10th of June, 2016, here: