Passing Moments

They’re one grade down from those “decisive moments” — the hypercritical instances captured by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Certain actions are so commonplace, so casual and unremarkable in themselves, that it’s pointless to call them “decisive,” even though they may be critical to the image. What are they?

I call them “passing moments.”

My featured image is a good example of a passing moment. The woman in the orange jacket is standing on a street corner in Hong Kong, handing out free newspapers to commuters on their way to work. She repeats her action time and again with each person who passes.

There’s nothing “decisive” about the moment of delivery. In fact, it seems to happen over a period of one or two seconds rather than in an instant. The man approaches; the woman readies the paper. The man gets closer; the woman offers the paper. The man never breaks stride; the woman doesn’t even look at him. The long moment has passed.

I like these passing moments. They give a sense of “life continuing,” rather than “life frozen.” I actually prefer them to Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moments, which are surely an attempt to identify a phenomenon that doesn’t exist beyond the confines of photography.

You can find actual “decisive moments” only in the realm of science fiction. I remember watching a BBC TV serial called “Quatermass and the Pit” in which scientists dig up an alien space craft which has crashed near a Tube station. When they eventually break through the super-hard metal exterior of the craft they discover what appear to be dead, but perfectly preserved (and very frightening) insects, almost as tall as men. Then Dr Quatermass offers a key insight. These space-voyaging insects are actually alive. They’re simply existing in a different dimension, caught between two micro-seconds of time.

Life Continues
You see, we human beings don’t exist in decisive moments. For us, one moment blends imperceptibly into another. Even if we pause mid-air for a micro-second — like the gentlemen (below) who’s checking his recent purchase of some fresh cakes — we’re not really stuck there for eternity. We delight in swimming through the flux of time — and I really think the happiest people are those who “go with the flow” and enjoy it.

Looking at cakes

I grant you one thing: photography fixes our appearance for eternity, or at least for as long as the image can survive on disk, paper or computer memory. But there’s a huge gap between the reality of the image and the reality of the material world. It’s a gap that doesn’t exist in, say, literature, in which the flow of time is recreated by the act of reading the poem or novel.

If you concentrate on a single, isolated incident in street photography, you can certainly reduce the scene to a single instant. Yet I really prefer to see a contrast between this briefest of moments (the man looking at the bag) and the wider context of the image (people walking past in the background). When you put the single instant into its context you get…the passing moment.

In the photo below, a shopper examines a dress on a shop dummy. The woman is undemonstrative, pausing for a moment or two before moving on. The inanimate dummy, on the other hand, appears to be much more lively, holding up one hand in a gesture that would yield a “decisive moment” if made by a real person.

Looking at dummy

My photo therefore contains a fake decisive moment, simulated by the dummy, but sufficiently convincing nonetheless to give the image a sense of “rightness.” I’m not sure if I can even call it a “passing moment,” because the mannequin is poised in such an insistent, transitory position, in imitation of real life.

Yet the formula remains the same. There is a point of focus which appears to be pivotal in the flux of time, around which you can see time still flowing naturally.

That’s a passing moment: not particularly decisive, but a key element of street photography.

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