Why most images are compromised (or, whither the decisive moment)

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A photograph is an observation of a scene at a given moment in time. It’s an effectively instantaneous snapshot of the state of a scene or person or other subject, given the relative rate of change of those subjects. If we extend the duration of observation – i.e. with a long shutter speed – we might see some hints at that change in the form of motion blur, or eventually, averaging. If we get lucky, or observe for a long period of time, we might eventually be able to capture an interesting change or temporary state of the system; however, this assumes two further things. Firstly, that we can differentiate what is ‘interesting’ and have a good benchmark of what to look for; secondly, that we are aware and responsive enough to capture it. I think we can already see why there are some serious challenges here.

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Aside from the inherent limitations of defining how long a period of ‘peak action’ or ‘peak interest’ lasts – the very interpretation of what action is ‘interesting’ is so subjective that it lies entirely with the eyes of the observer. There may be nothing interesting at all in a given subject to some people; say if you’re not a motorsports fan, the position of the cars means nothing, nor does the instant of determining exactly who crosses the finish line first. But to somebody heavily invested – say one of the team principals – that can be a very significant moment indeed. To a spectator, the best part of a crash might be the biggest point in a crash’s fireball, but to the engineer, peak action is the point at which the component that precipitated the accident failed. To a photographer, it might just be when the scene is at its most aesthetically balanced.

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I see this problem most frequently in photography of what I think of as ‘continuous’ subjects – places, locations, things that change at a very slow pace but might have local spikes of interest or activity. It’s the comment of something does/does not represent a particular city or town because I’ve missed X, Y or Z event or characteristic with certain other visual cues (usually location- or culture-specific). Decompose that statement for a moment: firstly, the definition of interest and peak action is clearly different between audience and artist; secondly, there’s the effect of cumulative observation. If you see something often enough, the average state of that object tends to create an expectation in the mind of the observer that suggests to us what we should expect to see if we view the scene a further time. It’s how our brains process large amounts of visual information quickly; at a subconscious level, we see the changes – not what remains the same.

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However, if we’re only transiting through the scene and have not seen it before – we do not have an expectation of how that scene should look, and so we are evaluating the whole scene without the bias of history. We see merely what is, and not what was previously. This is an important difference, because it’s probably one of the few times at which we can observe something with a minimum of biases (of course, personal preferences cannot change as a function of physical location). As far as creative interpretation goes, it means that the local tends to notice only what has changed in their frame of reference, and can result in their getting bored or uninspired or somewhat tunnel-visioned; you tend not to shoot so much in your home town because nothing stands out as being interesting or different: you’re familiar with it already. It’s difficult to observe anything objectively if you’re already somewhat biased against it. For the traveller, you’re almost ‘too sensitive’: everything stands out because the whole environment is different, and you may be overreacting*.

*>And here comes my theory of why the best images are made towards the end of a trip: at the start, one is somewhat overloaded/overwhelmed and is reacting too much; after a bit of ‘acclimatisation time’, it’s easier to determine what stands out to both a local/familiar audience, and an unfamiliar one – hence ensuring the image is at least a cut above casual passive observation. For the same reason, some sitting time is required for objectivity in curation: we need to be familiar enough to remember the intention of the image, but not so familiar as to be dismissive.

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I think you can see how the problem develops now: on one hand, the person who has a lot of time and opportunity to actually observe a wide range of situations and changes and thus be in a better position to determine what is really exceptionally interesting is biased against doing so by familiarity. On the other hand, the fresh observer may not have had sufficient experience to make a more calm and fair judgement. In mathematical terms, the spacetime path of action and observer do not overlap for long enough to find a true local maximum (moment of interest, or peak action). What the observer thinks a moment of maximum interest might be only true for the limited time they are observing, and even represent a rather boring period in the overall lifespan of the subject. All they can do is spend a bit of time observing before and afterwards to make sure at least they have a true local maximum for that very limited window of observation. Even if you stick around a particular street corner for a day – that’s nothing compared to the lifetime of possibility, which might be decades or longer – the chances of capturing the most unusual, most interesting moment during that day are vanishingly small; in ten years, say 1/3653 assuming you are 100% observant, 100% responsive, have a 100% perfect memory of what else happened that day, and accounting for leap years.

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Thus, the concept of the decisive moment is looking a little shaky: how can we determine what is ‘decisive’ and which ‘moment’ we are aiming to capture if we do not have the benefit of seeing the whole timeline? Short answer: we don’t, other than for a very brief window of observation.

Fortunately, several things work in our favour. Firstly, memory is imperfect, limited, and often tends to view events in the immediacy of isolation rather than context. This means that we can easily forget what happened outside a limited window of history and future on either side of the recorded moment. So long as we at least have something that’s interesting within a small window of observation, that’s usually good enough. Secondly, memory is transient: it’s much easier to analyse and notice a presentation that’s static rather than moving; it’s the reason why video can get away with being much lower resolution than stills – our visual cortex can only process information at a certain rate. If we isolate and preserve a single instant for further observation, then there can be particular details in that instant that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, and serve to hold interest.

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Thirdly, we have the power of imagination: that is, connecting the dots. Even though a photograph of a moment is static, our experience and memory creates and approximation of the events leading up to that point, and the events that must have come beforehand. The gesture and body language and spatial position of the objects in a scene, together with other cues like shadows and light intensity/direction etc. make very strong suggestions to the narrative sequence of events. Finally, there’s dumb luck: both working with us (think of the ‘what if’ game) and against the observer: the chances of the image being viewed by somebody who did really observe a greater peak of action are slim, because of limitations of audience reach, and for the aforementioned reason of an watcher of that duration likely no longer being as receptive or observant. If anything, most observers won’t have seen that particular subject or location at all, which makes them even less experienced observers than us. Finally, there’s a question of subjective interpretation and perspective: if we present any subject from anything other than fairly similar-to-eye perspective, there’s already a noticeable difference. The more uncommon the interpretation, the greater the difference: this is something an experienced photographer can use consistently, and I think more often than not makes the greatest difference in the outcome of the final image.

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Don’t get me wrong: I’m not by any stretch of the imagination diminishing the achievements of the great photojournalists. They still had to be extraordinary observers and able to find that different point of view – that’s not to be taken lightly. But they were not portraying the sole zenith in the timeline for those subjects. The only conclusions we can come to are that the decisive moment is really not the zenith of all action: rather, it’s a very short but somewhat elastic period of time in which we must observe, notice and isolate some action or event or subject of interest to us, know the reason behind that attention, and then present it in a way that isn’t common. At very least, we must present an image that contains a transient element – be it time, state or spatial arrangement of subjects or something else – and more importantly, have that element be a critical part of the image: it can’t work without it. In all of the example images presented here, I was not an observer for any length of time. Yet each has a clearly identifiable transient element that is unique and distinctive: if you take that away, the images simply don’t work (or become a commentary on ennui or staticness rather than anything else). I think if anything, that actually takes the pressure off us somewhat… MT


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  1. Dirk De Paepe says:

    Great article again, Ming.
    Since photography is thé art form to pictures moments, those moments can better be decisive. I believe that “the moment” can not be overrated and needs to be at the top of our priority list.
    This has implications on how we shoot of course. Do we first go for the esthetics of the overall picture (taking care of the light, building up the composition, etc…) and then wait for the decisive moment? I believe that, if we work in that way, we will almost always catch an OK moment, rather than a decisive one – especially when the people in the picture determine this moment. You’ll better understand why I state this, when I tell you that I find human behavior to be by far the most interesting subject in photography, since I believe it appeals the most to us, people, because freezing moments out of human life can generate our imagination in the strongest possible way and also has an infinite potential of variations and nuances. (There’s a fair amount of personal preference here, of course.) When people in the picture determine the moment, I believe they best “be” the subject, or at least one of the main subjects, since otherwise we mostly end up with good esthetics, but few content – the people only being “lifeless” accessories.
    When a certain moment is important, this means that in the moments before and after, the scene was different. In other words, something is happening. So the moment that we choose must represent or suggest in the strongest possible way what’s happening, or what we want to suggest that could be happening. Ergo, with every picture, we need to ask ourselves this question: what is happening?
    There are indeed pictures in which “the moment” is rather a timespan (for example a sunset), that only occurs every once in a while. This can vary between every so many seconds to every so many years. In those kind of pictures, the longer this period, the more exceptional and the stronger the picture, of course.
    Looking at your pictures, ming, I find most of them representing the second genre. And in most of them, when asked the “what is happening?” question, the answer is pretty short: a wave running to the shore (pictured at the right moment for esthetic reasons, but those waves come every so many seconds), a wall being demolished (a pretty exceptional moment, but not too much of a story, although pictured at the very precise moment), a number of umbrellas seen from above (occurring every rain shower, but from an esthetic point of view verrry well chosen – still a pretty simple story), a car (probably taxi) driver who is realizing that he’s being pictured (a rather stereotype story), a very fancy street with somebody in motion at the very precise esthetic moment (occurring every so many seconds, but pretty difficult to catch at the very precise moment – very beautiful and creating a great and catchy mood, but not a great happening), a rather abstract street scene with interesting play of lines and shapes and somebody “alive” with umbrella at an interesting spot to contrast with the abstract street (again an esthetic, moody choice, occurring probably every few minutes, but very well seen and composed, still a pretty simple story), and an incredibly beautiful and masterly shot sunset (depending on where it was shot, it can occur from every day to every few months).
    So IMO those shots are all perfectly shot, from technical ànd esthetic point of view, offering very beautiful images, but are not telling too much of a story.
    All of them, but one… the only one that I didn’t comment on yet. Indeed, in the first image, there is really something going on: a very subtle play between two young people. He is approaching with a tender caress, still, she is mildly rejecting him. This ignites my imagination. Are they lovers? Are they just friends? Is he wanting more from their relationship than she does? Is he trying to make up for something?… … It’s their spontaneous unposed facial expression and body language that ignites my wondering about what’s happening between them. A very rich, natural and typically human scene. AND this scene is put in a very strong and perfectly composed environment, enhancing the character of the occurrence by showing how this couple has kind of retreated in a window niche, which is strongly adding to my interpretation of what’s happening. I find the combination of such a human scene with a strong and perfectly composed street (or public place) scene to render incredibly strong images. IMO, this image is by far the strongest of the series. My only regret is that I can’t see it in larger format. Their facial expression deserves more detail. In this picture the happening has priority, but the environment on its own could make a nice picture as well. Together they make for one hell of a great image, indeed shot at thé decisive moment.
    Concluding: I believe that we can make more pictures of this level, if we give priority to what happens, even before composition and light. Of course those need to come immediately after “the happening”, and need to be taken the best care of. But when putting our priority at what happens, we will encounter a lot more special events, ergo true decisive moments, instead of just OK moments in a perfect frame. Many say: “if the light isn’t perfect, I don’t go for the shot”. I think they’d better not take the shot, when the event isn’t perfect and offering great content by itself. Personally I’m more thrilled by a great happening in a somewhat lesser light and/or composition, than by a great frame from a technical point of view, with not too much content. I consider that more a sterile, not that much enthralling photography. Noticing a great event, catching it at the decisive moment, and adding as much technical skills as possible, this is how IMO great work can be created. Anyway, it has my personal highest appreciation.

    • What if images of your ‘first kind’ just don’t appeal personally?

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        It’s rather impossible that any image will be appreciated by everybode, nor that any modus operandi will guarantee a good work.

        BTW, both “kinds” don’t differ that much. They both contain the same parameters that need to be taken care of. It’s just that in the “first kind”, the event gets first priority, resulting in a different way of thinking and shooting and IMO in more chance to encounter real decisive moments instead of just OK-moments, which, again IMO, will over all add more emotion to one’s work.

        • I’m not sure there’s a priority in that sense – the ‘shot hygiene’ stuff is second nature/ habitual/ subconscious for me. The event – we may well value different things (and there’s plenty I just don’t show because I don’t think anybody else will find it interesting outside myself or my clients).

          • Dirk De Paepe says:

            I think our “shot hygiene” only becomes a second nature through habit, which in its turn is the result of our approach to photography, our philosophy about it. I also believe that our work gets better when we develop a good philosophy, which must be our own. It is allowed to be “different” and we can and need to further shape it through time.
            But we must realize that we can’t make five great pictures a day. In a recent interview, on the occasion of his fabulous book “Wild Encounters”, David Yarrow says: “I only take about four or five good pictures a year”. And one of my teachers, many years ago, said: “Any artist must be judged by his best work only”. So when we publish more pictures, everybody must accept the majority of them to be average, maybe we’ll done, but still average. This doesn’t make us a bad photographer. Nor does it mean that we mustn’t give every picture our best shot, of course.

            • “So when we publish more pictures, everybody must accept the majority of them to be average, maybe we’ll done, but still average. “

              This brings up an interesting question: if you published very few, wouldn’t that still make the perception average?

              At least high productivity forces you to keep improving, if only to continually satisfy yourself – even if the ‘average’ keeps rising 🙂

              • Dirk De Paepe says:

                Yes, I absolutely agree. A photographer needs to produce a lot of work. But we can’t expect them all to be “masterpieces”. There’s a whole scale there and every few of us achieve the highest level only every now and then. But there’s no shame or dishonor in producing work that’s lower on the scale, purely documentary of even utilitary. Photography is the medium “par excellence” to produce lots of images. Still we’d better always think of how to produce the best possible image. Indeed, it will improve our general level for sure. As is thinking about our modus operandi and developing a strong philosophy.

                • I think we *have* to produce a lot of images – there’s no other way to make good ones, and more importantly: no way to *know* you’ve made a good one…

                  • Dirk De Paepe says:

                    I agree again. And I’m pretty sure that even David Yarrow would agree. It’s only a matter of at what level you would call it a good image. And one can for sure publish a lot more than only these few very best images. Also DY does.
                    So the only matter where we kind of “differ” in opinion comes down to the important choice of the subject (and I’m typically limiting this to “decisive moment street shots”), where I would prefer to take the people as primary subject and the environment as accessory, whereas you would do it it the other way round (so I have the impression), which has implications on quite some things: mind focusing, way of shooting, composition, light… and IMO also emotion in the picture.

  2. Would you go so far as to say personally your images that you consider *fives*–those with that elusive “otherness” — necessarily have some degree of decisiveness (fleetingness, local apex, visual peak, etc.)? Just curious if you’ve nail this idea down yet 😛

    • Fleetingness and serendipity, yes – something not easily replicable or duplicable or controllable. But even then, if I waited for long enough – something even better still might come along.

  3. Very intriguing post Ming! Your topics bring up so many issues for me relating to the historiography of photography, our seemingly immortal fetish for HBC, photographic vision and memory, etc., that my multiple attempts to compose a coherent comment have all fallen flat. What I keep coming back to is the word “compromised” in your title. After reading your post a few times, I am curious why you chose to employ that one as it seems to me a presupposition.

    • Because to produce the ultimate, definitive, decisive image of that instant, you have to have been observing the subject for its entire lifespan: which is clearly impossible. Therefore, you can’t say you haven’t missed something; and probabilistically, the chances are you probably have since the duration of observation is much shorter than the duration of non-observation.

      • Thank you for your response. I hope that my initial comment did not come off as brusque or flippant. I agree with the fact that the idea of a definitive image is quite impossible, and I suppose that that positionality is the genesis of my question. To be honest about my positionality, I have come to a place where any photograph is necessarily a compromised, rather than compromised. From that ideological stance I then begin to question how or if we as photographers reify outmoded paradigms of thought with or without realizing it. HBC and his concept of a definitive moment seems laughable to me, especially once one understands the historical, social, and commercial context within which to situate his work and his stance, though it seems that I (or we—to make a broad generalization about photographers) cannot escape a continual fascination with him, his work, and his ideas, regardless of how disproven they are now, let alone might have been before he even picked up a camera.

        I sincerely apologize if my comments read as antagonistic or as a mere game of semantic gymnastics—that is not at all my aim.

  4. Very interesting HBO documentary about Tony Vaccaro, who, as a 20-year-old, shot combat photography during WWII – Normandy to Berlin – as a regular GI. Used an Agrus viewfinder with a plastic lens. Looted bombed out camera stores for film and chemicals. Had post war career in fashion photography and waited 50 years to show his war work. The work is fantastic. Interesting discussion about learning how to photography by hunting with his abusive uncle – more or less, miss the shot you don’t eat. Still alive, btw.

  5. But the picture evokes a memory and all that comes with it, at least for the photographer

  6. I was up on our company’s roof garden for a smoke lately, together with my colleague. And I saw another guy whom I’ve never seen before, sitting there, reading a book. It’s a rarely seen and somewhat hidden juxtaposition to see someone reading a book made from real paper in a computer company, and for me, I took his photo rather casually. Maybe it was that moment of serendipity and solitude which drew me into seeing this almost motionless moment. As usual I didn’t do much post-processing except to straighten and to change the (“keystone”) perspective to get those straight lines a bit more straight – I know, this should have been done with a tilt/shift lens or even bellows, but then again there wasn’t much time for that. In case of interest, the photo is on Flickr

  7. Jeff Grant beat me to it!

  8. I love your photography – so beautiful 👌

  9. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Awesome !! Maybe that striving for yet further improvement is the burden that genius has to wear, Ming – as in “you’re stuck with it!” 🙂

    Two thoughts.

    Monet kept repeating the same thing over & over, to plumb the depths of the particular image – in some of my projects, I find myself doing that too (and no, I won’t apologise for following the example of a great artist – one that I admire as much as I admire Monet – because even when I do, it’s still “my” work, and I’d never be presumptuous to imagine it was anything like his anyway). Digital kind of lends itself to this – it even encourages it. I’m not thinking of the fashionista who blasts off over a hundred shots at random before the model’s hour is up and she leaves – I am thinking of a study of light & shade, colour or B&W, form, shapes, relationships – giving myself the chance to probe, analyse and “see” – see in a way that one shot is hardly ever likely to.

    The other is a ball from left field – I read something yesterday about street photography, and one section was devoted to suggesting to people starting to immerse themselves in street photography that they should think carefully about one issue. The issue was, is the subject matter going to “date” so quickly that photographing it becomes rather pointless. The author rattled off a list of things, like watching people doing goofy stuff with cellphones – asking the reader to reflect on how uninteresting a photo of that might be in a few years time when, like so many other inventions before it, cellphones disappear under the current tidal wave of new inventions and the person picking up the photo in 2 or 3 years is left staring at it, bewildered by it, unable to comprehend it, and without any “focus of interest” within the photograph because of that change.

    I found that comment “interesting” – the shots taken by people like Ansel Adams and Cartier Bresson ARE timeless – and there seemed to me to be a real message in that comment, going far wider than the topic of “street photography”.

    I am at my wits’ end to add anything else of value to this discussion, Ming, in the face of your photographs, your article, and your wisdom. 🙂

    • Not sure about the genius bit, by any means – I can hardly claim to be in that category as there are plenty far better photographers than I 🙂

      Digital gives us low cost of experimentation – not repeating the same experiment without analysing the results to see what we might better improve. It’s up to us to make the most of this – or rather, consciously decide to make the most of it.

      “The issue was, is the subject matter going to “date” so quickly that photographing it becomes rather pointless. “
      I’m not sure about this – the cellphones are the ‘man with hat and newspaper of the 50s’ of our age; I don’t think the historical photographers were doing any differently to us in recording what we encountered. We like men with hats and newspapers because they’re interesting and rare – and don’t get the same reactions as people on phones – but I suspect the reverse would have been true in the 50s (or whenever) – “another man with hat and newspaper?” or “hey, a cellphone! Hardly see that these days…” 🙂 This, I think is a very good point to add…the ‘dating factor’ is actually somewhat important in that it gives the rest of the image context. If anything, more so – as you point out, the rate of change in the current era is so fast that we may well not see cellphones for the same 100+ years as men with hats and newspapers…

  10. I am all impressed with that tunnel photograph. Here you got something, that not many encounter, therefore it is unique and surprising to most (apart from tunnel diggers, I’d suspect. But even those don’t get to see this too often in their lifetime). To capture such a moment is important and will be looked at with interest by many. However, most often, I think, we just go by intuition and experience, when taking pictures. To me, it is always a question of paying attention to what is around, rather than giving in to that eye-to-brain suppression mode, we are in all of the time. Seeing seems to be more a process of NOT reacting to those light impulses coming in through our biological lenses, filtering only the stuff, our brain already can match to something else, it has “seen”. To try to circumvent this process is the most important ingredient, I believe. Together with a good feel for light, proportion and composition in a frame and some knowledge about our equipment and there you have it.

    • That, and there are some safety concerns (that don’t seem to be that strictly enforced in Malaysia) that preclude the shot from being captured. You can’t use a remote camera because it’ll be swamped by the deluge and probably destroyed afterwards; I had to run out of there not long after the shot.

      To some degree we have to circumvent the ‘reaction delay’ as you say; to a larger degree we have to train ourselves so we act instinctively on the other ‘shot discipline and framing hygiene’ stuff and it doesn’t take up a conscious part of our concentration that could otherwise be focused on observing and timing the moment…

  11. I think this is the first time I’ve seen that tunnel breakthrough shot in color. It’s even more powerful than the black and white rendering — and that’s one which is hard to top. Can we assume it was done in burst mode? I can’t imagine deciding to punch that off as a single exposure. Sometimes the absolute decisive moment is found after the fact.

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      Just film it in 8k. then pick the best frame. The picture which is really fine, because it has a simple statement- breaking through the wall in powerful way. The dilemma is should it be as it is, the sens of motion taken care by cloud of dust and debris alone or the excavator machine should be clearly blurred giving the impression of motion. Clearly blurred is somehow is an antonim, like eyes widely shut. Blurr it too much and it looses detail. Maybe a bit of stroboscopic motion or perhaps second curtain flash. What do I know.
      ‘Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second’ Jean Luc Godard. The choice is yours.

    • Repeated single shots, actually. It’s much easier to hit critical timing that way than just hope it falls on that precise quarter second mark (4fps). Decisive moment after the fact is why we keep shooting til we’re sure the fat lady has not just sung, but has packed up and left the building and is on the way to the airport 🙂

  12. Whither?


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