Eyeing the Decisive Moment

shutter to think: the rock & roll lens of paul natkin @ the chicago cultural center.

Keith Richards
Keith Richards, New York, 22 September 1987. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images.

Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning: It wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise…which will make it less acute. Hence the photograph whose meaning…is too impressive is quickly deflected; we consume it aesthetically, not politically.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Photographer Paul Natkin takes Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous goal to capture the “decisive moment” of an event quite seriously, and this nice little exhibit of his images of musical performances and personalities offers countless realizations of his efforts.

Many of these images are quite iconic on their own. You will recognize them from the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and elsewhere. What was most noticeable in bringing them together was a certain look to the eyes that Natkin seemed to catch repeatedly whether taking portraits or action shots. Many of these familiar faces and images—Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Madonna, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters—shared a kind of gaze of deep concentration that seemed, in the very same instance, to take in everything around them and transcend their moment. Looking at them intently, in the context of a museum gallery, I found myself continually drawn to the eyes no matter what the context.

The performers in these images are doing many things—strumming guitars, singing, dancing, sitting, talking, laughing, thinking, moving, posing—but so many of them seemed to be looking out from the image in the same particular way, and their shared look seemed to be linked to Natkin’s understanding of the “decisive moment.” Natkin’s images framed a silence amidst the exciting maelstroms of sound. This suffused the images, profane, with blazing, penetrating holes of religiosity. So too, the humanity of these iconic performers lurked in their eyes.

You might not notice it among the photographs one by one, too caught up in their commercialized uses, but taken together, the images presented the ecstasy shared in a common glance. There it was: Barthes’ famous punctum in the studium of stadium rock. These photographs suggested that popular music might roar out with movement and energy, but that its power, its attraction, its force, could be dramatized, paradoxically, through photographs that eyed a tremendous stillness.


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