As handed down by street photography forefather Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment is the precise time and place street shooters hope to uncover and capture. The street is a public stage, with passersby as the actors stepping into its sun-lit spotlight. However, for most who walk through it, both as participants and unconscious witnesses, the curtain is still closed.
As street photographers, it is our role to pull back this veil, inviting an audience to see the drama unfolding—not by scripting and performing it, but by framing and freezing it.
The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.Henri Cartier-Bresson
If revealing the Decisive Moment is the goal, it requires first seeing it and then snapping it. The catch is that this needs to happen nearly simultaneously—the “lightning instant of give-and-take.” The Moment, by definition, is fleeting. Hesitate and it’s gone, lost forever.
That’s why to successfully capture the Decisive Moment (and, importantly, to repeat that success with any consistency), one cannot rely on being reactive. The key to snapping it isn’t seeing it (as that’s too late), it’s sensing when it’s about to happen. To react is to lose; to predict is to win.
To react is to lose; to predict is to win.@cpplunkett
That is to say, in practice, street photography is not a game of recognition; it is one of anticipation.
But anticipating exactly what?
Biographer Pierre Assouline described Cartier-Bresson’s passion: “to capture the world’s harmony and record its invisible order within a tiny rectangle.” A way of thinking about the Decisive Moment is the maximum level of harmony—when the notes combine in perfect unity—for any given photographic situation.
In this musical metaphor, imagine a photograph as a chord, a combination of fundamental aspects that produces a harmonic sound. The photographic aspects (notes, if you will) that must simultaneously come together then: the scene; the subject; the signal. Capture all three “within a tiny rectangle” in perfect unity and, voilà, you have music for the eyes! It is these notes which a street photographer can tune into while endeavoring to track down “the world’s harmony.” It’s Decisive Moments.
- Scene: surroundings and light; the stage
- Subject: the actor (human or otherwise)
- Signal: the action
A simple and effective strategy is latching onto one these aspects initially (a “way in”) to anticipate the potentially impending agreement of the other two. The following are three examples in which I did just that to capture some of my best shots of 2016.
Anticipation: The Scene
One of the most recognizable buildings in Chicago’s Loop is the Chase Tower, a 60-story skyscraper whose rectangular base beautifully slopes upward to its summit. On its southern side is an open space with steps descending to a large fountain. It’s a beautiful spot downtown Chicagoans frequent to lunch outside, something I often did when I worked across the street for a few years.
Since taking up street photography, I’ve stopped by the midday scene, but never at night—until last November. What a gem to rediscover!
With the fountain lit from within, it became apparent as people walked by it that there was an opportunity for a silhouette shot. Scene, check. I started at the top of the steps looking and waiting for subjects (it’s sparsely populated in the Loop at night, as it’s mainly a business district) and gradually worked my way down to the base level of the fountain, taking a few shots.
Some were decent, but nothing was Decisive. I used each to incrementally figure out the proper approach and perspective. Placing the camera and lens just above the ground appeared to be the best way to maximize the fountain as backdrop for the silhouette to appear against.
I spot a man finishing his descent down the steps who begins striding across the plaza on a trajectory to put in him in front of the fountain. Subject, check. I quickly get into position, centering the fountain in my frame. Now it’s just a matter of timing and luck: aiming to hit the shutter button exactly as he’s centered, hoping it’s in that ideal stride-by form, heel-and-toe with legs v’d apart. Click. Yes! The bag behind and the arm swung forward add to the implied motion and balance of his silhouetted figure in the center. Scene, subject, signal … Decisive Moment, score.
Anticipation: The Subject
Late afternoon in the Loop is probably my favorite time and place to shoot in Chicago as everyone begins pouring out of the buildings at the end of the work day. On a July afternoon last year, only one street north of Chase Tower and its fountain, I spotted one of my favorite species of Chicagoans: an older businessman in a suit. And smoking to boot! I jump into a run (yes, I realize how much of an idiot I must look like) in his direction. Thankfully, Businessman doesn’t notice me and continues his smoke break unawares. Subject, check.
As I get close, he makes a gesture toward his face—a potential signal. I take my first two shots. But the light is lacking from this viewpoint, and a lookaway chin scratch lacks oomph. I realize there’s a nice bounce of the setting sun from a tall building east of us, so I move around his back, so as to stay unnoticed, to grab the opposite ground. Scene, check.
I crouch to align the bounce behind his head and take another. He brings the cigarette back up toward his lips. The auto focus is fumbling. But now he’s making eye contact. And he’s got a ring on his smoking hand. Wonderful. I stay in the pocket, the focus locks on. The warm summer light wraps around his face, flaring slightly in my 35mm lens, as he pulls in a drag from his cigarette. Snap. Subject, scene, signal … Decisive Moment, score.
Anticipation: The Signal
I live in the north side of Chicago, so it goes without saying that last fall as the Cubs marched toward their first World Series in 108 years, the activity and energy picked up on the street. So on a playoff game night at Wrigley Stadium, I headed north on Clark Street, never out of sight of Cub blue as I walked. A woman applying makeup was a motif I had been keeping in the back of my head, with a couple unsuccessful attempts under my belt. Having tried, though, kept the concept accessible.
I pass a restaurant with large windows, looking in for opportunities, and notice a woman rummaging through her makeup bag. Promising. The available evening light is scarce by now, so I pop my on board flash and adjust my settings. I take a step back from the window to avoid giving my intentions away. I notice that she has on a Cubs fanny pack, still strapped around her front waist as she sits for dinner. Her nails are done in bright blue. Nice. Her hand emerges from the makeup bag with a cylinder of lipstick. Things are going my way. Signal, check.
Given that I have a flash, which will disrupt the proceedings upon it’s release, I realize I can’t “work” this scene with multiple captures. It’s one and done. She twists the lipstick and brings it to her lips. I wait a second for her to begin applying it, hoping to catch the refreshed color. She looks to the window as a mirror. Snap and flash. Subject, scene, signal … Decisive Moment, score.
Basketball was my favorite sport growing up. I played point guard (which is what you do when you’re short) and admired John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time career assist leader. In basketball parlance, he had “court vision”: the ability to see the floor and find the open player—seeing the play before it happens. And I think it’s much the same with street photography: the key to capturing more Decisive Moments—trapping the perfect harmony of Scene, Subject and Signal in a “tiny rectangle”—is better anticipating them before they happen. By doing so, to borrow more sports jargon, you can slow down the game for better success.