The Myth of the Decisive Moment
Plastic bags. They’re the death of us. Not only have they filled up our landfills, but they have also killed street photography. I cannot stress how much I detest plastic bags. Nothing quite ruins a composition like a plastic bag in frame. It says I’ve given up. They are ugly and visually disruptive like a blemish drawing attention away from the rest of the photograph. How can it not? When a plastic bag is captured in an image, it is all anyone is going to see. It just completely sucks the visual momentum out of the documentation.
Of course, the streets weren’t always like that. There was a time when consumer purchases were bundled up neatly in fine paper parchment all tied up with strings. Hat boxes, and parcels, and brown paper bags - all of it of all different sizes and clearly defined shapes of circles, and squares, and rectangles - adding structure and form to all compositions. But that was long ago, during a more picturesque era of malt shops and full service stations, when our current bottom line rationale didn’t permeate everyday life with plastic bags.
Formless, and crumpled, plastic bags are a blight to the eyes. Their undefined shapes clash head-on with the environmental order of rectilinear structures, and curvilinear bodies. As for their colors, it’s often out-of-place and at odds with the surrounding colors. Often white, when carrying sundries bought from the neighborhood bodega, plastic bags also photobomb our images as black trash sacks discarded in groups on the pavement, or in transparent or clear green sacks replacing more linearly defined public rubbish bins.
Sometimes, it takes the darkness to make one see the light. Other times, it requires some suffering. For me, it took some plastics bags. Seeing that captured in frame, it made me come to terms with the undeniable truth about street photography. The decisive moment is a myth. There, I said it! And before you berate me with your knee jerk defense of ne’er disputed doctrines preached by Henri Cartier-Bresson, need I remind you the great master never had to deal head-on with plastic bags photobombing his decisive moment.
Could you imagine what “Enfant à rue Mouffetard avec deux bouteilles de vin” would look like, if the boy had carried the two bottles of wine inside a plastic bag? The impact of that image wouldn’t be quite as direct, with the narrative of the image lost inside that atrocious bag - which would essentially consume the image capture in becoming the focus of the documentation. Then, it would be “Enfant à rue Mouffetard avec deux bouteilles de vin dans un sac plastique”. It doesn’t really convey the same thousand words, n’est-ce pas?
Had the great master not retired from photography in the early 1970s and continued to be active when the use of plastic bags became commonplace in the 1980s, he would have surely become disillusioned with his naïve perspective on the decisive moment. In counting the plastic bags, he would have realized the inherent flaw of his most cherished and formerly unassailable conjecture, and amended it accordingly. The decisive moment, he would have concluded, is unrealistic in today’s more plastic dependent world.
We often speak of the decisive moment in photographing the world in flux. For most, it’s the very act of taking opportunistic photos of serendipitous events, wherein every conceivable variable from the background to the subject is composed perfectly on a single skillfully timed shutter click. In reality, the decisive moment is never opportunistic. It may seem that way, but there’s always premeditation and preparation involved in positioning the photographer optimally at the right time for the best possible result in documentation.
From that perspective, it is easy to fall under the spell of the decisive moment. I mean, what is there not to like about it? The decisive moment is such a romantic construct. With just mere initiative and persistence, getting that perfectly timed shot is an objective that anyone can do. But, the world is never that neat with every single variable falling lock step into place. Once the actual shooting situation is dissected into all its many parts, one can finally begin to see how misguided it is to seek the decisive moment.
The world is a messy place. It’s a hodgepodge of widely varied colors and shapes moving in discord between one another in an unpredictable pattern. In this unending flow of autonomous masses circulating in and out of frame, all at different stages of undergoing shifts in facial expressions, physical movement, and body position, the prospect of getting every variables in perfect unison is far-fetched. On top of injury, there is still that whole pesky headache of plastic bags entering uninvited into the frame.
To accept the existence of the decisive moment as gospel is fanciful to say the least. It would be like believing that one can skillfully step into a shooting situation in capturing that perfect photograph when all the heavenly bodies in our solar system are aligned to the unchoreographed reality unfolding before our viewfinder. That is to say, the expression, movement, and position of everybody in frame, in addition to their relative shape, color scheme, and placement are all compositionally flawless in documentation.
Seriously, that is an unreasonably tall order to expect. It’s akin to the Chinese expression 守株待兔 of watching a tree stump in waiting for rabbits to run head first into it. For anybody to practice the photographic equivalent of that misguidedly hopeful approach, one would invariably end up starved of any fruitful photograph with the world failing to cooperate. It would be like surrendering one’s prospect of success in documentation to fate in bringing together every piece of the cosmic equation to fit in place - just for the benefit of your photo.
To be fair, I am not saying that the decisive moment isn’t possible. It can happen. Anything is possible. But my issue with accepting this mindset is the behavior it promotes in photographic practice. Frankly, it is a question of priority during the act of documentation. In my opinion, those in search of the decisive moment devote too much effort looking and positioning for the shot, as oppose to realizing the shot. In doing so, the optimization of their photos depends more on a chance encounter than an active undertaking in taking the photo.
For my sensibilities, a good photo shouldn’t depend on luck, nor should it place disproportionate expectation on preparedness, in waiting for that elusive one-in-a-million photo opportunity. Instead, a good photo derives from more material considerations, like better compositional understanding and proper shooting techniques. When deconstructed in that way, it becomes clear why the decisive moment is flawed. It has everything to do with timing and nothing to do with the underlying principles of accepted photographic fundamentals.
No, the decisive moment isn’t for me. The odds of actually capturing a good photo is just too unlikely. In all my years of practicing street photography, I have never taken a perfect photo. I mean, I’ve come close to perfect. But, being close isn’t the same as being perfect. And frankly, coming close is just too much of a heartbreak for me to take - especially when it’s ruined by something beyond our control, like an awkward facial expression, a last second photobomb, or a stray plastic bag carried into the frame by the subject.
To avoid the pitfall of imperfectly taken photographs, the only way to optimize a photo opportunity is minimize uncertainty. In other words, one must take the time to execute the documentation correctly - which essentially means you need to stage each photo opportunity to some extent. Hence, you must instruct your subject, your subject is required to participate voluntarily, and you have to undergo the tedious process of scrutinizing your frame of all possible hazards that can visually undermine the presentation of the documentation.
Of course, this is just my opinion. But I’ll say this. The world which Henri Cartier-Bresson knew was much less chaotic than the world today. There was so much less clutter in the past, less cynicism towards strangers with cameras, and no plastic bags. Frankly, I doubt he would have felt as certain about the decisive moment, if he had to endure the challenges we presently face. Then again, he might surprise us all by proving that he’s still the master today. In that case, he’d definitely remain firm on his views towards the decisive moment.
But for everyone else, that doesn’t mean the decisive moment isn’t a myth. If you can’t get it right, then it really doesn’t exist. Take my advice - forget about the decisive moment and take the extra steps to optimize the way your photos are taken. Believe me, it is a far better approach than playing the odds, just to end up with photos shy of perfection. #Heartbreak #SoCloseYetSoFar #PullingMyHairOut #BetterToPlayItSafe
The first twelve images have been digitized with the Nikon Z6 in NEF and inverted from negative in Adobe Lightroom. The rest of the images on this post were digitized on the Pakon F135 scanner. For some reason, Fujifilm Acros 100 won’t scan on the Pakon F135. All images have been cropped in the digitization process and tweaked in Adobe Lightroom.
PS - Like always, I did take the time to optimize the way each photo was taken - leaving as little as possible to chance to goof it up. For that, I left it to the pneumonia I was suffering.