What makes street photography so compelling is the decisive moment.
Street photography is a search for serendipity – so many things must come together in an instant.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
“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 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.
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.
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.
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?