Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier Bresson - the name resonates in the history of photography. He was first and foremost an artist - and he just happened to take pictures. After his first few years in the field, he never worked in a darkroom (digital equivalent of processing an image), and late in life he abandoned photography completely to return to his artistic roots. He has been quoted as saying '....I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks.' Information about him abounds on the internet, this link should suffice. 

But what exactly is that decisive moment that HCB was so renown for epitomizing? This (another of his quotes) pretty well sums it up: '.... to me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression.'

I don't for a moment mean to intimate that I've mastered this concept and technique, but it's the most important guiding principle that I follow in my street work. In the first photo I was standing to one side of this attractive girl on a subway platform. She knew I was there and holding my camera at chest level aimed towards her, and tried to look nonchalant and un-self-concious. I wanted to get the shot, but it just didn't sing to me, until the gentleman in the background, looking at the girl from the other direction completed the image. Without him there the picture just disappears into the dark subway tunnel, the viewer's eye guided by the line of overhead lights and the line of the platform edge. With him present, the image continues past him, giving the dimension of depth, but his presence stops the viewer's wandering eye and brings it back to the main subject, caught between me, the photographer, and the man in the background. And she is leaning up against the steel upright as though it might offer some kind of protection from us or support.

Later that same afternoon I was walking on Bleeker Street in New York's Greenwich Village, and saw this gentleman relaxing on a bench outside a store, probably waiting for his wife to finish her shopping. He looked wonderfully relaxed as I approached  from his right. I started firing off shots as I approached him, but suspected that profile shots were not going to make the image for me. I had one chance to grab the 'money' shot as I walked past him. I think he was drawn out of his reverie by the sound of the shutter clicking exactly when I was standing directly in front of him and he looked right into the lens. The images of the moment before and after just didn't have any magic.