Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: capturing the moment

Street Photography and The Decisive Moment


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

What makes street photography so compelling is the decisive moment.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Street photography is a search for serendipity – so many things must come together in an instant.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The subject has to be interesting, but also reveal something deeper – emotion, personality, insight into a larger issue, a contrast with the surroundings or a key element in a textural landscape.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Subject matter is key. But also lighting, framing, composition and focus are just as critical. Bottom line, the image has to communicate or reveal something beyond person and place.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The concept of the decisive moment was coined by the father of street photography and photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson. You’ve probably seen some of his classic images, they are elegant, brilliantly captured moments of a heightened awareness.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

They also exhibit an exquisite interplay of light and shadow. In every case the decisive moment was captured in the blink of an eye, even if he waited an hour for that ephemeral instant to materialize.

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

photo by Jane Bown

Henri Cartier-Bresson by Jane Bown

In that sense, I think good street photographers are able to forecast the future – they sense that something unique is about to materialize and reach out to grab it just before it happens. I’ve had that experience with some of my photography. I like to prowl the streets looking for those magical moments that transform the trivial into little treasures.

Trained as an artist, Henri Cartier-Bresson was greatly influenced by the Surrealists and the intellectual and artistic experimentation that revolutionized our way of visualizing the world during the early part of the last century. Below is the image that launched Cartier-Bresson on his photographic journey. As he put it:

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkácsi

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkácsi

“The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street.”

There are two videos I’d like to share with you. The first features the master himself, Henri Cartier-Bresson talking about street photography. It’s quite illuminating.


Nina Berman self portrait

Nina Berman is one of many street photographers following in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson. She’s affiliated with NOOR, a Dutch photo agency and foundation devoted to social and political issues. Her work is often quite emotional and political, as you can see on her website and blog. But she also likes to roam Manhattan streets searching for her own decisive moments.

While Cartier-Bresson’s work has a subtle formality – with an elegant sense of composition and interplay of light and shadow – Berman’s street photography is rougher, with a greater sense of immediacy.

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

It’s not just that she works in color, but you feel closer to her subjects. With Cartier-Bresson there’s a sense of emotional distance – his work is elegant but more studied. Berman’s not afraid to explore working with soft focus as a means of abstracting or pointing you towards the focal point of her image.

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

She also likes to use foreground as a way to frame her object of interest in the background. These are some of her techniques that draw you into the frame.

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Times Square by Nina Berman

Nikon used her in a marketing video to promote one of their camera. I found her comments about street photography very informative and an interesting echo of Cartier-Bresson. So check out this video to get a more modern view of the essence of street photography.

While Nikon’s video is a little self-conscious – it is trying to market Nikon’s camera – I found it well-crafted and it really gave you a sense of how searching for serendipity can bring its own rewards. I’ve always been drawn to the interplay of skill and chance. When everything comes together, it offers a glimpse of a story in the making and opens you up to the possibilities. So what do you think? Is Nina Berman successfully taking the form in a new direction or do you prefer the quiet formalism of Cartier-Bresson?


Window on the Soul: The Portraits of Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey was hoping to be a jazz drummer when he went to see “Harlem on my Mind” and was struck by the images of everyday people displayed on the museum walls.  As a 16-year-old he’d just received a camera and was inspired to do his own street photography in Harlem.  That collection of work, exhibited in 1979 as “Harlem, USA,” was the beginning of an impressive career exploring the photographic portrait.  A retrospective of “Harlem, USA” is now at the The Art Institute of Chicago. This image “Man in a Bowler Hat” was taken at that time.  

A Man in a Bowler Hat, 1976

Notice the man’s open, friendly and curious expression and how the gesture of his hand at the bottom of the image adds a sense of relaxed  elegance.  Those elements give voice to the subjects’ personality and character and are a hallmark of a Dawoud Bey photograph.

The image below, taken a few years later, has all the elements of his recent color work:  the girl is posed, as are all his subjects, but natural and relaxed.

A Girl in a Deli Doorway, 1988

Unlike street photographers who try to capture an unguarded moment, Bey wants his subjects to participate in the photograph.  “A Girl in a Deli Doorway” is at once simple and complex.  She offers a wistful curiosity tempered by uncertainty.  While she appears open and engaged, she’s also holding back, and partially hidden with her hand closed. Look at the background and framing.  It’s very dynamic, with strong angles that take you into the background and the hard vertical of the wall that brings you back to the girl.

Just capturing a person’s essence with your lens is difficult enough – but working with teenagers?  Once again Bey has a deft touch.  Here are some portraits of high school students from his exhibit, Class Pictures.

This work led to a position as artist-in-residence with Emory 
University.  Part of his time there was spent in portraying the University’s commitment to diversity, called The Emory Project.  To make his point, he posed unlikely couples such as the ones below.

Kali Ahset-Amen, Sociology Grad Student and Geshe Ngawang Phende, Buddist Monk
Paula Biegelsen, Student and Shirley Simms, Custodian
Here’s a link to a video showing Bey working on the Emory Project.  Here’s a link to Bey’s website, which has lots of images of his other work.  In all, you can see a real celebration of everyday people – and a deep respect for honoring their place in the world.  

Dauwoud Bey
I like seeing the world though his eyes and meeting the people who inhabit it.  It reminds me of how much we have in common with each other.  And about those sometimes subtle qualities that we all share on our journey though our days.