The most significant moments in our lives are usually made up of tiny slivers of time. I will always remember exactly when my daughter took her first breath and the moment my wife said “yes” when I asked her to marry me. I remember where I was when I learned that planes had hit the towers in New York City and I remember the time I said something brutally honest to a friend and then regretted it instantly, even before I saw the hurt in his eyes. I remember all of the times that my sickest patients, whom I had fought so hard to resuscitate, defied the odds and started breathing again. Many of these moments were only seconds in length, but I remember all of them with absolute clarity.
The times in between these events, however, are rarely remembered with any true clarity. I don’t have special memories of grocery shopping, waiting in line at the bank or of working out at the gym. To be honest, as the years go by, I find myself trying to clear the “noise” from my life more and more, actively focusing on the important slivers of time that really matter. I don’t want a life consumed by “in between” things… I want the memories.
Now, there is a direct parallel between these moments in our lives and our photography. Anybody who has shot long enough will have experienced at least one special moment when out with their camera; the street photographer who sees and captures that rare time when the subject, background and light all come together in a perfect composition, or the landscape photographer who finds themselves shooting through a sunrise so beautiful that it must have come from God, or the wedding photographer who captures the first kiss, but who then stays with it and captures a tear on the cheek of the bride as she pulls away, her eyes still locked on her new husband. These are the moments I live for as a photographer.
As we gain experience I think it is important to learn how to anticipate these moments, to create them if it is within our power to do so, and to not get distracted by all of the “in between” photos that present themselves. It is important to know the value of that one special photograph and to not get lost in a sea of “in between” ones.
I love the photograph at the top of this post. I think the lady is beautiful, the expression on the waiter’s face is perfect, and I love how well the subjects match the background. The light in the scene is good and, perhaps most important of all, the photograph tells a story. There is a genuine moment here, captured as a slice of time in my camera. These photographs don’t present themselves often, but I would gladly trade one thousand “in between” photographs for ten or twenty that truly tell a story like this one does.
When I took this photo I knew I had something I loved as soon as I clicked the shutter, and it got me thinking about the fact that I seem to be making more and more of these images as time goes on. Upon reflection, I can honestly say that the main difference between now and a few years ago is simply this: I have slowed down, which allows me to see more. I have learned to focus on those special moments in time and to not get distracted by all of the “in between”.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of modern street photography, wrote often about this concept. Here are a few of his thoughts that have influenced my approach to photography:
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
“A photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”
“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”
What is Henri saying here? I think it is that the photograph is already out there, but to capture it we need to be more patient, more cerebral, more focused and yes, sometimes more instinctual. We must slow down, see more, and be ready to act when we do find that perfect moment in time that will only last for a few seconds. Henri also wrote:
“We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.”
When we first learn photography the right side of our brain is often overloaded by the technical aspects of shooting. This is as it should be, we need to shoot a lot in the early stages to develop our skills. Once we have the technicals down, however, it is important to place the focus on our creative vision. For the street photographer, this means learning how to become more attuned to the environment, to anticipate moments, and to shoot photographs in a way that captures the story that our eyes are seeing. We won’t nail it every time, far from it actually, but it is so satisfying when we do.
So, here is my challenge to you:
The next time you hit the streets, coach yourself to slow down and see more. Really take the time to become in tune with what is happening around you without a camera up to your eye. Don’t shoot the “in between” photos during this outing. Don’t settle… wait for that special moment. Wait for the decisive moment, where you make that one photograph that will mean so much more to you than a hundred “in between” ones.
It might take some time, but it will absolutely be worth it.