Category Archives: Project 3 Surface and depth

Project 3 – decisive moment debate


Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log. You’ll come back to this in Assignment Three.


I admit that I admire the art of Cartier-Bresson. There: I’ve said it. His best photos contain elements of composition and humour which make them attractive and easy to understand. There isn’t the harsh banality of (for example), Paul Graham’s work The Present, which risks the viewer thinking “I could do that”. The problem with being “decisively indecisive” as Pentall (2012)  points out is that “we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for”. If this is the case, then boredom and confusion are the most likely result rather than interest.

Ghazzal (2004) argues that ” … there are less and less decisive moments, and more repetitive urban landscape[s] …”, but I simply don’t agree. Have human interactions stopped? Have people stopped making the bodily gestures that Ghazzal talks so much about? Of course not. Carter-Bresson said that what matters is to look.  He didn’t say it was easy.

Wells (2015) paints a picture of the master’s method:

Henri Cartier-Bresson lay in wait for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image that he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing. This he called ‘the decisive moment’, a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder.

I think this very well describes both the intuition and patience that Cartier-Bresson had. My own experience of looking for and capturing these moments has given me a whole new respect for those people who can do it on a consistent basis.

So, where do I stand regarding the decisive moment debate? I think there’s life in the old idea yet. I can’t do it myself, but that doesn’t prevent me from admiring people who can.


Ghazzal, Z. (2004). The Indecisiveness of the Decisive Moment. At: [Accessed 02 April 2016]

Pantall, C. (2012). The Present. At: [Accessed 02 April 2016]

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)


Part 1 – research point – surface & depth


Read the reviews by Campany and Colberg and, if you haven’t already done so, use them to begin the contextual section of your learning log. Try to pick out the key points made by each writer. Write about 300 words.

If you wish, you could add a screengrab of an image from Ruff’s jpeg series, and one or two of your own compressed jpegs (taken on auto mode of course!). You can achieve the effect quite easily by re-sizing a photograph to say, 180 x 270 pixels, and saving at ‘zero quality’ compression. If you use Photoshop’s ‘save for web’ you can see the effect immediately without having to save, close and reopen the file.

jpeg ny02, 2004 - Thomas Ruff

jpeg ny02, 2004 – Thomas Ruff


David Campany: Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel

Campany points out the fact that all images available online are electronic even if the original was on film. He points out that “Ruff has done a great deal to introduce into photographic art what we might call an ‘art of the pixel’, allowing us to contemplate at an aesthetic and philosophical level the basic condition of the electronic image.” According to Campany, this kind of recognition of the fundamental nature of these images isn’t common.

Technically speaking, the blocks in Ruff’s images aren’t pixels at all but blocks of multiple pixels that are a side-effect of the JPEG compression algorithm.

Campany notes the historical recognition of film gain as somehow “a sign of the virtuous materiality of the image and of the virtuous, embodied photographer”. The presence of grain in photos has often been noted as a sign of authenticity – possibly with an image of a harassed newspaper photographer in mind. Pixels don’t have quite the same meaning, although Campany states that there are signs that this might be changing.

In the final part of the article, the author observes that  “we switch from looking at figuration to abstraction and back again”.  Thomas Ruff (2010) himself points out in a video that from a distance, the (large) photos appear to contain considerable detail (i.e. figuration), but as the viewer gets closer the JPEG blocks become more visible and give a “painterly” effect (i.e. abstraction) (from 6:43 in the video).

Joerg Colberg: Review: jpegs by Thomas Ruff

Colberg is far more critical in his review expressing his “unease” with the images pointing out that “the tremendous beauty of some of the images notwithstanding, the concept itself seems to rely a bit too much on the technique itself.

He makes the interesting point that “now’s the time to move beyond form” which I interpret as a plea to move beyond formalism (i.e. “prioritisation of concern with form rather than content. Focus on composition and the material nature of any specific medium.”  (Wells, 2015)). In this sense, Colberg sees Ruff’s form as a focus on form rather than content and this explains his (seemingly exasperated) statement that “the medium is the message”.

Colbert makes similar statements in his blog entry (Colberg, 2009) where he suggests that Ruff’s work is a “shtick” (or gimmick). In this article he makes the point that there is nowhere for Ruff to go and that impression was reinforced by a second exhibition that Colberg saw of Ruff’s work. He sums up his impressions as follows:

I’m probably overly critical of Ruff’s jpegs, but when his second series looked just like the first one, I thought that the whole idea had turned into some sort of shtick (or gimmick if you prefer that word), where the medium – or the shtick – really is the message.  

My own images

Cudrefin, Lac Neuchatel, Switzerland 2011 Abondoned Car, Tel Aviv

Learning Points

Campany chooses to focus on the aesthetic of the photos while Colberg focuses on the form. I find it interesting that actually the photos contain both views at the same time. You could think of the distant view where the blocks are not visible as the aesthetic view – what is obvious is that they are dramatic and often beautiful images. The closer view could be thought of as the “form” view where the patterns of the building blocks become obvious. In effect, we have “aestheticsism” (that’s now officially a word!) and formalism in the one photo.

The “battle” between Colberg and Campany serves to highlight the important point: make up your own mind and try to look beyond the obvious. But sometimes there is no “beyond”. What sticks in my mind is the drama of many of Ruff’s images and it occurs to me that they work anyway, with or without the JPEG trick.

A point which does come to mind relates to some of the images: some are dramatic, even frightening. The huge forces in these images are usually man-made, but some of are of nature. They could be said to invoke the sublime (Alexander 2014) due to their overwhelming effect.

The images which contain these huge forces have an air of unreality about them – we are not familiar with such forces and events in everyday life (happily). Perhaps the unrealistic JPEG effect reinforces this sense of unreality i.e. the forces are so immense that we as small humans simply can’t imagine them in their detail – the best we can do is some sort of rough approximation.


Alexander, Jesse (2014) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 29.09.15)

Ruff, Thomas (2010) Thomas Ruff on JPEGS and Previous Key Series. At: (Accessed 12.10.15)

Colberg, Joerg (2009) When does a shtick become a shtick?. At: (Accessed 12.10.15)

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)