This picture describes a group of children both as living individuals and as shapes deployed against the jagged forms of crumbling walls, and its vitality arises from the reciprocal relationship between these two ways of looking at the world. Only two of the boys are in motion, but the vigor of its graphic pattern infuses the whole picture with the antic energy of youth. Cartier-Bresson coined a term for the instant at which the interplay of human meaning and photographic form can yield such a surprise. He called it “the decisive moment.”
Later, as a photojournalist after World War II, Cartier-Bresson earned the envy of his peers for his ability to seem invisible—to capture an event without disturbing it by his presence. In many of his early photographs, however, his subjects were aware of and even performed for him, as the boy at the upper right does here.
This photograph has sometimes been misinterpreted as a document of the Spanish Civil War, but it was made three years before that war began. No matter the context, however, its social dimension—the photographer’s identification with the poor and disenfranchised—is quite real.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)