The decisive moment is several things. It is the name of a book containing the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson. It is the phrase Bresson came up with to describe his approach to his photography. It is the mantra that many have used to talk about street photography in the years since Bresson.
What does the concept mean? What did Bresson mean by ‘the decisive moment’? How does it help us become better street photographers? Does the idea of the decisive moment even hold true?
Bresson said, “Life is once, forever.” This single quote, maybe more than any other, gives us some insight into his thought process and what he meant by the decisive moment. A little later in this instalment I will suggest that, perhaps, it is not quite as true as Bresson thought and that we can experience our own Groundhog Day from time to time. That the single, defining decisive moment does, in reality, not exist or is, at the very least, a rare and ethereal thing.
That moment is not simply the position of the subject in just the right place in the frame, though. Life is not just the placement of a person, or people, at a particular time in a particular place. It is more than that. It is the entirety of the scene. It is the interplay of the subject with her surroundings. It is the way the light is falling within the scene and on the subjects. It is the totality of the construction of the image that makes it compelling. The geometry of the contrast between light and shadow. The particular way the light falls and places some parts of the subject in shadow while making other parts visible. The confluence of light and circumstance.
You may see the same person numerous times over the course of your wanderings but it will be the rare occasion that everything comes together just so to create the perfect photo. That is the decisive moment. To be fair, Bresson’s decisive moment is different from Winogrand’s. But Bresson’s approach was very different from Winogrand’s because their idea of how they approached the craft was different. Bresson was much more contemplative. He would often wait much longer for what he felt were just the right alignment of elements – structures, subject, lighting – then press the shutter. Winogrand, and many other street photographers, are much more active and shoot much more. Winogrand’s approach was more in line with the idea of street photography as a documenting of daily life. Bresson’s was more a ‘life as art’ approach. But the idea of the decisive moment still holds whether it takes hours to come together or mere seconds. With respect to Bresson’s approach, it raises the question of spontaneity in street photography. Is it a requirement? Can Bresson’s approach be considered to be ‘staging’ of a photo? Certainly there is spontaneity in his work, as with the man jumping over the puddle. Is spontaneity required? I would argue no. And will show why later in the essay with my Groundhog Day allegory. Does this lack of spontaneity mean the images are staged? Again, I would say no. Bresson did not go and ask a particular person to walk in a particular place in his picture. He simply waited patiently for the right person combined with the right light. Landscape photographers will wait for what they consider as perfect conditions, why shouldn’t street photographers?
You may be getting the idea that this moment cannot be forced. And you would be correct. The more you try to force a picture to happen, the less likely you are to come away with a good photo. It is a natural, organic process. This is part of the reason why street photography can be so frustrating. Some days you may go out and not see anything that makes a good photo. Other days, there maybe opportunities at every turn. It is sort of like fishing. Some days you can spend hours on the water and not get even a nibble. Other days, you can’t pull them into the boat quickly enough. What makes the difference? It is a mystery. But even on those days when you catch no fish, being out on the water can still be a very relaxing, meditative time. The same can be true for photographers. When you come back from a day without many, or even any, shots do not despair. It was not time wasted. We can learn as much from what we did not see as what we did. What was it about the day that made it unsuccessful? Reflect on what you saw and why you chose not to take any pictures. Is your eye becoming more practised? Are you becoming more discerning? Are you becoming more demanding of yourself and your photography? If so, why? Think about whether being so demanding is a positive. Are you actually passing up good photos? Have you become jaded about the location? Are you too used to your surroundings? Are you always going to your favorite location at the same time of day and would changing the timing be better? Might it be better to try somewhere new and, by you, unexplored? To see different things and different people, to get out of your comfort zone, then to come back to your favorite place with a freshened outlook.
You may be reading and thinking to yourself, “he’s asking a lot of questions but he’s not giving any answers.” You are right, I’m not. I cannot answer these questions for anyone but myself. You have to find the answers for yourself too because the answers are entirely personal. As Yoda might say, “Answer not, I do, but question, yes.” There is an area of Toronto that I shoot in often called Kensington Market. Now, Toronto is not a great city for street photography to begin with; few Canadian cities are truth be told, but Kensington is one of the better areas. The reason, I think, that Canada generally is not that great for street photography is that it is too ‘nice’. It is too sterile and too staid. Montreal and Quebec City are much better because those cities have a much more European feel. The really good places for street photography though are those that are still a little ‘dirty’, a little gritty, still have a bit of an underlying seaminess creeping through. Places that have great history. Most of Toronto is not like that but Kensington is one of those areas that still has some of that feel. Despite that, I have had to move away from the neighbourhood and go to other areas of the city because I was becoming to used to Kensington. Everything looked the same. I wasn’t finding it held the same appeal it once did. After moving away from the area for a while, then coming back, I saw it with a renewed vision and was able to start seeing interesting things again. It is not so much the location as us. We are the ones who become stale and jaded, not the location.
One thing both the good and bad day have in common is patience. You must be patient and wait for the picture to happen. Wait for the light. Wait for the subject. Wait for the confluence of the light and the subject in the proper arrangement.
The pictures in below illustrate the idea of small differences and patience. The younger man was listening intently to the older gentleman. It was an interesting study of generations. But then, the older gentleman bowed his head slightly and the younger man leaned in to listen even more closely. That was the picture. That was the keeper.
This exercise in patience took only a matter of seconds to play out. Other times it can take much longer. Perhaps minutes, perhaps hours. Perhaps months or years.
Dundas Square in Toronto is a lively, vibrant setting. The actual square is surrounded by buildings with large, electronic billboards. It is reminiscent of a miniature Times Square in New York City. It can also be the proverbial ‘target rich environment’ for the street photographer; both during the day and at night.
On this particular Saturday morning, a man was standing with his dog near a street corner. The dog was young and the man held the leash very loosely. The dog was completely focused on its owner. The owner was engaged in conversation and was not outwardly paying attention to the dog, although I’m confident he knew just what the dog was doing. I was struck by the rapt attention the dog was giving its owner. In an environment like this, most dogs would be very distracted, mine certainly would. Some to the point of being uncontrollable. This was obviously a well trained young dog but also the bond between it and the owner was incredibly strong.
As I watched and looked, the two were standing on a large sidewalk block. Large enough that other people could also walk on the same block, but no one did. It was almost as if there was a force field keeping other people out of the sphere of these two, so strong was their connection. I waited for several minutes with my camera ready. Then my shot appeared. A woman was walking past from left to right and was just outside the edge of the ‘protected zone’. At the same time, another man walked by on an angle from right to left and over the corner of the area, but did not step right into the sidewalk block, almost as though he was purposely avoiding entering their space or was prevented from entering their space. That was the picture.
Does this idea of the decisive moment mean that opportunities for good pictures are rare? Or that there is only one possible shot in a given situation? No, absolutely not. Particularly in an environment where there is heavy activity there may be multiple moments even in a short space of time. Continuing to look and work the area, using different angles, different distances to subjects, different lighting patterns may well generate other good photos. When you get all of the photos into one place to review, you may find that what you thought was your best decisive moment was, in actuality, not. Bresson did this too. Yes, the originator of the idea of the Decisive Moment would take multiple shots of a setting at times. You can see this if you look at his contact sheets. He would take several shots, sometimes separated only by time, sometimes at a slightly different angle, or in portrait rather than landscape orientation.
Some street photographers speak with disdain at the idea of ‘working a scene’. They liken it to the ‘spray ‘n pray’ approach to photography. This is the cynicism and conceit that may photographers, particularly street photographers, feel. Their one interpretation is the only true interpretation. It is nothing of the sort. There is rarely just one shot to be had, one angle, one action, a single interaction of light and subject, of subject and subject. By continuing to look at what is happening, by walking around the area and our subject, we can often see other things happening that we missed from the first approach. Those who disagree with the idea of working a scene will say, ‘but those are things you would have seen in the initial walk-around and you chose the best framing after that evaluation.’ This mindset almost presupposes that the world stands still while we take our picture. That time stops for us, then starts up again after we press the shutter. Of course, such is not the case. Our main subject may not have changed, but what is happening around quite possibly will. Continuing to watch and see can often lead to other, equally, or more, compelling pictures.
Developing Your Eye
How do you know when that moment is or whether you have a good picture in front of you?
Sometimes it will just be very obvious. You will see something unfolding in front of you and you will just innately know that there is a good photo about to happen. Other times it is not so simple. This is one of the reasons street photography can be so frustrating. You cannot force a good picture. Unlike in a controlled space, such as the studio, where you can determine the lighting and subject placement, camera angle and the exact camera settings for the perfect result, in the street you have to wait for the opportunity to present itself.
If you’re not scared you’re gonna lose it, it ain’t that great a picture.
That is how you know. There will be times when you are out shooting that you will be angry, or frustrated, with yourself for missing a shot. You will be worrying that you will not be able to react quickly enough to capture a scene as you see it unfolding in front of you. At other times, you will be somewhat, or completely, indifferent to the shot. You bring the camera up and hesitate. You think to yourself ‘why am I taking this picture?’, or ‘is this really that interesting?’ In those situations where you are unhappy that you missed the shot or are worried that you will miss it, that is when you likely have a good picture.
One way of helping to develop your eye is to set up projects for yourself. It does not even have to be a project related to street photography. It can be something entirely different. I do this regularly. I may go out with an idea to capture texture, or contrast. I will not just do this one time, but repeat the exercise on different days under different conditions and in different locations. When assigning these types of projects to yourself, try to think not just of the obvious interpretation but also the less obvious. Contrast, for example, has the obvious interpretation of light and dark. It can also mean large and small, tall and short. How many different ways can you think of contrast? Go out and try to find pictures that fit all of your interpretations of the idea. Or any other idea that you can come up with. Perhaps you will pick a color to focus on. Maybe you will look for people pointing. It might be people reading books – actual paper books – at a café. Make it something that is out of your regular routine and something that will be a bit difficult to find. Believe me, finding people reading actual books today is difficult.
It was directly as a result of these types of self projects that one day I saw a picture that could not be passed up. I was walking along a street in the Chinatown area of Toronto, looking around for something interesting when a small patch of red caught my eye on a building just above the sidewalk. The plaster coating on the wall had chipped away and revealed a red undercoating. The way the plaster had chipped away made it look as though the wall was smiling. Cracks in the concrete gave the appearance of lips. I happened to be out with a friend, a fellow street photographer, and he did not see what I saw at first. I got down on the ground with my camera and people walking by were perplexed at why I was photographing the wall. Yet it was completely obvious to me. This is a photo I know I would not have seen a year or two earlier because I had not taken the time to train my eye. Today, this photo is not possible because the plaster coating on the wall has continued to chip away and the smile is gone.
As I was out on a different day with the idea of texture and contrast in mind, wandering around some back alleys in Toronto, I came upon a garage with wonderful old wood and a rusted lock. Perfect! Exactly what I was looking for. I knew the camera would bring out some of the color in the wood that was not entirely visible to the eye. The rust and peeling paint were terrific. But there was something else too. As I started to take photos I noticed the lock. The padlock was in place. It looked like the door was locked. Then I realized there was no hasp. The door was not locked at all. It was an illusion. Once again, this is not something I would have noticed had I not worked to train my eye. Perhaps other people would notice it immediately. We all see things differently. And some are more perceptive than others. No one I have shown this photo to has noticed the incongruity; however, until I mention it to them.
The reason for this is quite simple and it has to do with the way our brain processes things we look at. We see what we expect to see. We see a padlock hanging on a door and we expect that the door is locked. You read a sentence and you don’t catch a misspelled word. You are glancing over the sentence quickly and you expect to see the world spelled correctly so that is what you see. Only on closer inspection do you see that the word isn’t right. You may have played those visual games where you have to find the odd character in a matrix of other like characters. It can be difficult because we see what we expect to see. We have seen row after row of the same character so even the odd character does not stand out because we expect it to be the same. You may pass the same location on the way to work every day then, one day, you notice something different. Asking a fellow commuter or the local coffees shop owner how long that new thing has been there the answer is, almost inevitably, ‘Oh, four or five months now’. It is the difference between looking and actually seeing. As street photographers, we need to train ourselves to see. Also to understand that the unexpected can make for a good photo.
There is another aspect of this to consider as well. Back to Capa’s idea of how ‘close’ you are to your subject, understanding your environment can help you see the unexpected and to see what others may not. The garage the lock was hanging on was old and dilapidated. It was in a less than entirely desirable area of the city. Knowing these things, understanding the environment, it makes a bit more sense that locks may be broken or parts missing.
What do you see that others do not?
Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.
That quote is often attributed to Jonathan Swift, although it can’t be determined with complete certainty. At least I could not determine it with complete certainty. It is useful still in making the point that, as photographers, one of the things we need to be good at is seeing what others do not and then capturing that thing so that others can see it too. We will not always be successful. Does this mean that the image has to stand on its own with no explanation? No. I find that line of thinking to be far too restrictive. I’ll explain why later in the series. The heart of the issue; however, is that we, as street photographers, are trying to make the mundane interesting. We are like the truffle-sniffing pigs (now more likely dogs) trying to root out that tasty gem from all the other surrounding detritus.
As photographers, we have a practised eye. We see things that other people do not. It is part of the difference between a photograph and a snapshot; if we want to be a bit snobbish. It is true though. We go around doing our thing and we look but we do not see.
On one day in Dundas Square in Toronto, this fellow was dressed up as Napoleon walking around the area. At one point he was standing just to the side of a queue waiting to board a tourist bus. There were a dozen people within eight to 10 feet of him and only one person noticed him at all. And even she did not look that perplexed. Now, I want to assure you that people walking around in period costume is not a regular occurrence so it is not really a matter of being used to it. And these were tourists so even if it were normal to locals, it would not be to them. I call it Life’s Oblivion.
By the way, did you notice that I used ‘world’ instead of ‘word’ earlier?
Developing your eye in this way and trying to think of as many different ways to conceive a particular concept will help you when you are doing your street photography. You will not have to actively look for pictures, they will reveal themselves to you and you will be aware of them innately. When that starts happening, you know you are really into the scene.
The Importance of Framing and Camera Settings
Timing plays a very important part in a successful photo. As does light. Composition and exposure are also very important in how the picture is perceived by viewers. And when I speak of exposure, I am not talking about the technically correct exposure. I am talking about the use of shutter speed and aperture to alter the appearance of a photograph.
Composition and Framing
There are many well known guidelines for composition in art. The Rule of Thirds, leading lines, S-curves, vanishing point are but a few of the more common. Sometimes you are not able to get a perfect composition because you need to react so quickly that framing up the shot to follow a technically correct compositional guideline is not possible. Don’t worry. If the picture is compelling enough the lack of perfect composition will be less important. That is not to say you should ignore the guidelines of good design entirely. Use them when you can. When you have the time to set up the shot. When you are waiting for that right moment with the light, when you are waiting for the right positioning of subjects in the frame. At those times you can and should work to create as pleasing a composition as possible. When you do not have the luxury of time, you can worry about it less.
Composition is not the only element of framing that plays into how a viewer perceives your picture. What you decide to leave in or, more importantly, leave out can play an even more important role. We will discuss this some more when we talk about editing in a later chapter. For now; however, we are going back to the construct of context and reality. How you frame your photo, how you crop in camera, what elements you leave out or include can dramatically change the way the viewer thinks of an image.
Going back to the photo of the dog and its owner, if I had cropped that much tighter to concentrate on just the dog and the man, it would not elicit the same feeling. It would simply look like a dog staring up at its owner. In the case of the version in Figure 2-9, I have cropped it to a very technically correct framing. Using the Rule of Thirds, I’ve cropped in from the right to put the man on the right vertical thirds line. I’ve cropped up from the bottom and in from the left to put the dog’s eye on the upper left intersection point with the left vertical running down through it’s shoulder. The composition is technically sound, but it is not the same picture and does not tell remotely the same story. Now it is just a dog looking up at its owner. Technical accuracy does not automatically correlate to aesthetic appeal.
Depth of field, or depth of focus, plays a role in perception of a picture too. To refresh, depth of field is a measure of how much of a photo is considered to be in focus. ‘Acceptably sharp’ is the generally used term. The depth of field chosen can be integral to how a photo is viewed and the message it conveys.
By isolating the subject through shallow depth of field, we are overtly telling the viewer that this is the subject, this is what I want you to see, this is where I want you to focus your attention. We are taking attention away from what else is around the subject. While focusing the viewer’s attention exactly where desired, a shallow depth of field also removes or minimizes context. There are times when that added context is not necessary and may do more to detract from the story. Arguably, in most cases, that context is necessary and important to the photo and the viewer’s impression of what is happening to and around the subject.
Choice of shutter speed can also alter the intent and perception of a photo. We know that faster shutter speeds stop movement. We also know that slower shutter speeds induce some measure of blur in moving objects.
Slow shutter speeds used to create blur can provide a sense of freneticism around a subject that is still and unmoving. The sense is that the world is passing the subject by, that he is unable or unwilling to keep up. Freezing motion with a fast shutter speed can have the opposite effect. It gives the viewer a sense that things are, perhaps, moving in slow motion around our subject. The inference is that the subject is at one with the surroundings. We are assuming here that the subject is still. If the subject is moving, the slower shutter speed will blur her and others moving around her. Here again we get the sense that she is in sync with what is happening in her environment. Or, if our subject is moving faster than what his happening around her, a sense of excitement is conveyed. The takeaway for the viewer is different, once again. How movement is rendered in the photo effects how the context of the photo is perceived.
You can see that not only the timing, light and composition effect the viewer’s impression of the story you are trying to convey but also the camera settings that determine how much of the scene we see and how sharply we see those parts can also impact the message. Make even an unintended mistake in these aspects of the photo and what the viewer sees may be completely different from what you wish them to see and the story you are trying to convey. This is the message and intent of the message rather than the pure technical settings on the camera. You need to know what message or intent you are trying to convey to your viewer. Without that, we are most likely back to Adams’ idea of there being nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept.
These are technical matters, yes, but also aesthetic and, more importantly, determine how your message will be received by the viewer and how successful that message will be, how convinced of your argument your viewer will be. That is far more important than the purely technical issues of how much depth of field a particular lens gives you at a certain aperture with a specific distance to your subject.
The Street Aesthetic
Artistic photography is very different from street photography. Commercial photography is very different from street photography. That is not to say that street photography is not considered art. It most definitely can be.
When I speak of artistic photography I am referring to things like landscape, or nature, or wildlife photography. By commercial photography I am thinking of product photography, architectural, studio portraiture and similar types of work.
The main difference is in the control of light or the ability to wait for the light. Landscape and nature photographers will wait hours, sometimes days for the light to be just right on their desired scene. They will return to the same place year after year in search of that perfect light. Commercial photographers often have the ability to very tightly control the light they use on their subjects. Sometimes with street photography we can be patient and wait for that perfect coming together of light, shadow and subject matter. Other times, we have to take the lighting that exists when the subject matter is very compelling. That difference means that the street aesthetic is often different. We may have overexposed or blank areas of sky. There may be dark sections of blocked up shadows. Normally these would detract from the picture and it would get tossed in the delete bin. Not necessarily so with street photography. We can accept, and live with, less than perfect exposure if the subject matter is compelling enough. If that subject matter is such that it demands our attention as a viewer then the other faults that may exist will be less evident and not matter.
Aside from exposure, there are other ‘sins’ of photography that matter less in street photography than other forms. As photographers we are taught about how to crop when taking pictures of people. Don’t cut off the very top of the head. Don’t cut off the tips of fingers or toes. Crop limbs between joints, not at a joint. This is all fine and good when you have the time to get everything just so. And with street portraiture, you do. With street photography, you may not. And that is all right. As long as the rest of the image is strong enough, these small errors are not going to impact the overall viewer experience. But the picture has to stand on its own. Otherwise, those small flaws will become evident and begin to detract from the story you are trying to tell. If your viewer is paying more attention to flaws or technical inaccuracies, your image is not strong enough and you are not being a successful storyteller. Now, that said, there is a cohort of the photographic community who will always look for even the most minute technical flaw and consider any image that is less than technically perfect to be an unsuccessful photo. They will, in all likelihood, remain unconvinced of the validity of such a photo not matter what argument is made.
If you have seen this Bill Murray movie, you know that he is forced to live the same day over and over till he gets it right. We can do that as street photographers too.
I noted above the Bresson quote of life being once, forever. While it is true that each moment happens only once, it is also true that similar moments can happen over the course of time and one of those similar moments may be better than the original.
The doorman at this theatre in Toronto was opening doors for patrons coming to see a matinée. He does not necessarily know; however, who, of the many pedestrians, is a ticketholder, so he opens the door for some people who are not coming to see the performance. As he opened and held the door a woman walked by quickly and I was only able to catch her as she was leaving the frame. It’s a good idea, but not a good photo. The blur of her movement is good. The blank look on the doorman’s face is good. But… because my two subjects are in shade, the shutter speed was a bit slow. I have movement which is evident on the doorman when the shot is zoomed into a bit. In addition, the woman passing by is a little too far out of the frame. I’d like her to be back to the right just a bit. What to do? I continue to go back to this spot and look for the better version of this shot. I have not got it yet, but I will.
Some of the puritanical bunch I referenced in the prologue will object and say this is not true street photography because it is, for all intents and purposes, staged. It is nothing of the sort. It is a candid photo of two people interacting, or rather not interacting, in the course of daily events. It is a slice of life. I do go back to the location at different times but there is nothing wrong with that. There is no rule that says we cannot try to get a better shot of something we shot previously, that we cannot wait for a better decisive moment. What difference does it make whether we wait a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, weeks, months or years? What we are looking for is just the right confluence of time and subject matter. If it takes going back to a location multiple times to try to find it, that is fine. The first moment of this shot was once and forever. So is every other instance after. But life also has a funny way of repeating itself in some ways. Groundhog day can work in our favour if we are open to it.
Toru Tanaka is a businessman living and working in Tokyo, Japan. A jazz saxophone player, the appeal of street photography for Tanaka-san is similar to the appeal of jazz music – the free form nature and expression of both. As jazz allows the musician to express an internal energy, for Tanaka-san, street photography allows him to show the world the energy emitted by his home city. All of his photos are captured either on his nightly walk home from work, or on weekends. More of his photography can be seen on his website, torutanakaphotography.com
This interview has been edited for clarity. All photos are used with permission. Click on the images for larger versions.
How do you conceive of, or define, street photography?
For me, street photography shows a moment taken out of time and the public space through the filter of the photographer’s subjective viewpoint.
What are your ethical boundaries?
Taking photos in the street is not illegal in Japan.. I have only once been requested not to take a picture. The reason was that the person I wanted to photograph was, himself, an illegal immigrant. Personally I’m not interested in going after risky situations, or scenes where trouble is involved. So, for me, the risk is small.
Japan is viewed as a very reverential culture. How does that impact on your street photography?
It’s hard to look at the cultural impact because I am a part of the society. My main influences come from record album covers and advertising photos. It is that style of photography that has the greatest impact on me. Some of the great jazz album covers have been particularly influential. (Ed: for reference, some of the old covers on Blue Note Records albums)
What are your thoughts on candid vs. non-candid in street photography?
I prefer to photograph life as it happens. Because of that, I’m not a fan of non-candid street photography.
Do you ever ask permission? If so, in what situations?
With my street photography, I never ask permission. When I’m working on documentary projects, I will ask.
Your Tokyo Solitude series is the only one that is in colour. Why colour for that one? Why black and white for everything else?
I have updated some of my other galleries to include colour photos now. Basically, I like black and white because it removes the chaos of the scene and concentrates on the main subject. It removes distracting elements.
What do you want to tell people, what message do you want to convey, about Japan with your photography?
Provocation is vital right now in Japanese photography. Trying to push boundaries. I have been influenced by this concept. But I also challenge myself to move away from this and create my own perspective. To show people something unexpected about the Japan they think they know.