Just a Moment

To oversimplify, when most people think about street photography, they think about Henri-Cartier Bresson and “the Decisive Moment”. Some think about creepy people like the guy I saw this weekend, holding a video camera at hip-level, videotaping women in skirts as they walked between him and a really bright late-afternoon sun, which is neither here, or there. (Corner of Franklin and California.)

There are as many ways to photograph (people) on the street as there are photographers, just check out the discussions here on 2point8. If everyone addresses the variables differently, what about the constants? And what are the constants of street photography? As a genre that depends on flux, chaos, and harnessing the unpredictable, it’s a stretch to consider what’s static. The quality of light may be constant, but only if you’re walking with the sun at your back and don’t turn. Motion may be a constant, but perhaps not, if you’re doing portraits.

The minute motion comes into play, things get squirrely. What makes one moment more “decisive” than the next? Some of Bresson’s most decisive work (to me) are his portraits, which are nearly all indoors, but seem to exemplify his whip-quick street sense. They combine impeccable timing with insight. Even the ones that feel flat aren’t flabby. To take it further, isn’t taking a great portrait with a cumbersome view camera as much about the moment as photographing on the street with a lil’ rangefinder?

I’m beginning to think so.

The more one considers “a moment” and what makes a moment, both in looking at photographs and in taking one’s own, you begin to see that not all moments are the same.

I’ve only been able to really register the difference by doing. By fumbling. There are moments that stall and hang there just long enough (a second or two) for me to capture them, and there are moments that appear to exist only because I had a camera that’s faster at seeing than the human eye.

In looking at street photographers whose work is very dependent on motion and moments (the latter seems to require the former – nothing that stays completely still has a perfect moment) you can see situations that had a wider window. The moment (as it were) may have lasted three seconds or so, in which the photographer was able to carve out a section for a good picture.


In Bresson’s best work, the moment and the photograph seem tighter, more unified. It’s as if the moment only existed for the time that his shutter was open.


I’m not sure what else to say about this, other than serve it up as food for thought. This is something I’ve felt in my bones, while shooting, and I thought it might help to articulate it and get it down on paper.

As far as examples go, Bresson’s most well-known pic of the guy leaping the puddle is a perfect example of a moment that only lasted as long as his shutter was open.

Ultimately, every photograph is only a record of the moment the shutter was open, and there’s absolutely no way of knowing what was happening before and after, or whether or not the moment was forgiving, with a slow intro and lazy outtro.

Knowing more about the making of the image doesn’t help or hinder a reading of the image that exists. But as someone who’s figuring it out on the fly, it seems to me that if you photograph, you’ve felt the difference between a forgiving moment and a moment that wants the ball and wants it now. I usually feel it when I know I’ve missed it; if not in my gut, than in the tip of my right-hand index finger.

2 thoughts on “Just a Moment”

  1. Ditto. I’ve missed so many… Though it’s helped me immensely to shoot like a sports photographer, clicking a string of rapid-fire shots every time I go to capture something.

    On the street or taking portraits of people, multiple frames in row — like a segment of film — can provide more coverage over a moment that I’ll never get back. Then I can pick what I feel may be the “right” frame from the sequence — one that communicates more than the others.

    A related thought… It’s interesting to me that Bresson writes as if capturing the decisive moment is purely in the honing of intuition, practice, and creativity. How much of un moment decisif is also a bit of luck and surprise?

  2. I’ve just stumbled across this thread and it really hit home.

    I agree. When shooting it feels like i see a situation, bring up the camera and wait until something happens and then release the shutter to grab the picture.

    There are other times when you see a ‘picture’ for only a second and then its gone – with me wishing that i had my camera in front of my face in order to capture it.

    HCB seemed to almost influence when those moments occured, (especially in his portrait work,) and have the camera there and ready for when they did.

    i also think that anyone – including HCB – would have to admit that sometimes luck is essential!

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