When Your Street Photo Has More Than One Decisive Moment

Forget the fuss about “layers” (receding planes with subjects of interest in them). If you want to engage in virtuoso street photography how about taking up “multiple decisive moments”?

As everyone knows, “The Decisive Moment” was the American title of the 1952 book by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The French title, “Images à la Sauvette,” means images taken hurriedly, or “on the sly” — candid images, if you will.

The book contained 126 photographs made between 1932 and 1952, among them some magnificent portraits and distant landscapes that could have been taken at another moment and still have been as good.

Yet it’s not Cartier-Bresson’s portraits that made the biggest impact on photography. It was his action shots, especially the iconic one of a man about to step into a large puddle of water behind Gare Saint Lazare.

The idea of freezing a moment and making it seem in some way significant brought out the best in photography. In fact, it’s what photography does better than any other art form. Painters may achieve a similar effect (like Titian with his “Bacchus and Ariadne“) but you know he’s had to do it laboriously by drawing an outline and filling it stroke by stroke with colour. By contrast, the camera’s shutter snatches the actual moment, tears it from the flux of time and enables it to live forever.

Now we come to the question, how long is a decisive moment?

In Cartier-Bresson’s most famous image it cannot be more than a tiny fraction of a second. His subject’s foot is barely a centimetre from the surface of the water. There’s quite a lot of motion blur in the figure, indicative of the briskness of the man’s movement. So let’s say the moment lasts for a hundredth of a second, maybe less.

I have a second question. What are the chances of taking a photograph in which there are not one but two or more decisive moments occurring at the same time? Will they still be decisive in the sense of seeming to be significant? Or will they confuse the eye and create a disturbing conflict within the image?

So many questions! I’m sorry about that, but we’re now veering towards the extreme edges of street photography where the entire process becomes a white knuckle ride.

For example, in my featured photo “Transaction” (above) I show some people buying food at a market stall. On a busy day, Bangkok street sellers behave like newsagents in New York — they serve more than one customer at a time. The woman in the yellow tee has just paid for her goods and the man is letting go of them (Decisive Moment One). As she begins to turn away she notices my camera and grimaces (Decisive Moment Two).

Meanwhile (there’s more!) the vendor is accepting notes from another customer at the bottom left of the frame (Decisive Moment Three) while the customer gestures with his forefinger and makes a comment (Decisive Moment Four). All these moments seem to combine into one decisive “super-moment” — a bit like those super-volcanoes with lots of vents, each capable of spewing out pure energy at the same time.

I’ve looked through my pictures to see if I can find some similar shots but there’s nothing that comes close. Maybe these multiple decisive moments are truly rare. I have plenty of crowd scenes, like the one below, in which various people are caught mid-gesture as they walk quite rapidly outside Charing Cross station in London. Yet their gestures are perhaps too subtle and too distant to be of real significance in the photo. Let me explain.

At the centre of the image three people are walking in different directions. They are perilously close to each other yet none of them seems the least bit worried. They’ve already calculated each other’s speed and direction and have no fear of collision. The girl in the micro-shorts places a protective hand on the bag that hangs from her right shoulder. In exactly the same way, the man in the purple tee protects the Canon camera slung from his left shoulder. Meanwhile, a girl in a butch leather jacket puts her arm around her friend’s neck as the two of them head off towards the Strand.

In this picture everyone is caught mid-step, except for the man looking at the second-hand goods on the right. Again, the whole image is a super-moment, but, like so many others, composed of micro-decisive moments rather than any of real significance.

I think there is still potential for developing street photography, even though eighty years or more have elapsed since Cartier-Bresson was first experimenting with decisive moments. One way we can move forward is to put ourselves in situations where significant moments occur frequently. However, you need to be close enough to the action so that two or three instances will be prominently featured in the image.

One further word of explanation: it’s not sufficient to photograph, say, a football crowd in which everyone is cheering in a slightly different way. They’re all cheering for the same reason, so it’s essentially the same moment. What I have in mind is when people are on different trajectories, when each frozen movement seems unrelated to the others, despite their proximity in space and their sharing of the identical moment of time.

If my concept of “multiple decisive moments” taken with a single shot seems contradictory to you, I can only say it’s my recognition that everyone carries their own time with them. Sometimes, separate moments from separate lives occur simultaneously.

From now on, I’ll start looking out for them. When I get another one I’ll let you know.

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