I think I’ve struck a nugget of gold.
I also believe the chances of finding it again might well be slim to none …
Jean François Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz, wrote in the 17th-century:
Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif. (There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.)
Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson used this quote for the preface of his 1952 book “Images à la sauvette” (The Decisive Moment). That phrase has been described in great detail and (mis)interpreted over the years, undoubtedly adding only to the legend and his place in the history of photography. With his landmark photograph “Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare” (Paris 1932), Cartier-Bresson described moments like these as:
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 which give that event its proper expression. (Photographier: c’est dans un même instant et en une fraction de seconde reconnaître un fait et l’organisation rigoureuse de formes perçues visuellement qui expriment et signifient ce fait.)
What does any of this have to do with the photo above? Everything.
Right place, right time
I’m on Hamilton Street in the Yaletown neighbourhood of downtown Vancouver. The mid-autumn sun is behind me on this beautiful October Sunday afternoon with people out enjoying the weather.
Approaching Nelson Street, I see a woman in a black dress and she’s crossing over to “my” side of the intersection. Is she going to/coming from a big social occasion? There’s an odd look about her; she looks weary, resigned, a little haunted, and in somewhat of a hurry with mobile phone clutched tightly in her hands.
I recognize this moment, and I decide to make a photograph. Carrying a big digital camera is conspicuous enough, and I need to be careful not to stick my camera “into her business.” My camera is slung around my neck and I’ve preset for a front-illuminated street photograph. I lift my camera chest-high, initiate focus lock, and press the button fully for the exposure.
I cropped the “landscape format” photo to square, emphasizing the central figures. But consider also the fortuitous convergence of elements:
- The young man with blue baseball cap, blue jacket with gold stripes: a line of shadow bisects his cap and the space between his momentarily closed eyes, nose, and face
- The curvature of light fixtures and shadow lines “meet” at the golden halo around the woman’s head
- Vertical stripes of light and shadow form “open hands” with the woman at centre, emphasizing distance and reluctance
- My shadow pointed at her feet, with my arm raised chest-level to the camera
- The black and white one-way street sign (and its reflection) pointing towards the woman
- In the background, a man in a light blue shirt is stopped, his vertical stance aligned with the light fixture. He appears to face the woman, holding his arm up to shield his eyes from the sun
- Above this man is a street sign for “no stopping”
- More blue and gold in the symbol for Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in shadow at the upper left
- What’s her story? What’s the story with the guy in the cap? Are they together; if so, are they happy or are they in some distress? Or are they strangers?
No more than five seconds have elapsed, from the moment of decision to the taking of photograph. Even if I wanted or planned a recreation, arranging circumstances (that light! those shadows!) to come together in the same way would be a difficult task without post-production. But luck’s a fickle thing, that timing can hold fast in this exact moment, and yet, there’s no recollection of the entire stream of individual seconds before or after …
It is both blessing and curse of photography: recognize the moment, and it’s gone.
I made the photo above in Vancouver, Canada, on 26 October 2014 with the Canon 6D, EF 24-105 L zoom-lens and the following settings: 1/250s, f/14, ISO400, and 24mm focal length. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.