Street photography has existed for decades, with Henri Cartier-Bresson pioneering the concept and Vivian Maier refining it. It’s an art that relies heavily on three pillars: time, luck, and keen observation. In 2012, with a vision to bring emerging, contemporary street photographers together to celebrate the art of the “decisive moment,” amateur photographer Juan Jose Reyes founded the Miami Street Photography Festival (MSPF), which takes place every year during Art Basel Miami Beach.
“The ‘decisive moment’ is at the heart of street photography,” explains Reyes. “It’s a split-second decision that allows the image to become complete in its composition. If you miss a moment, it will never happen ever again, so it’s important to pay attention.”
This year, the MSPF featured the OBSERVE collective, which consists of photographers from the US, England, Lebanon, Ireland, Russia, Germany, China, and Canada. The festival doesn’t believe in including the titles of photographs because, as Reyes explains, it tells the viewer where to look and pay attention. “We want them to figure it out for themselves,” he says.
In that spirit, each year, MSPF judges must select which submissions capture authentic moments in daily life. We sat down with Reyes to talk about the outstanding submissions (past and present) that represent that decisive moment that makes the heart of street photography beat. Here are his top 6 picks, along with explanations for why he chose each one.
1. 6 Ft White Rabbit, 2014
“This is one of the finalists selected by the judges this year, and personally, I like it a lot because it’s the type of photography that I do myself. Here, you have different layers of people all over the frame, and I think it’s very, very interesting, because it captures the essence of the moment. All the different groups of people, engaging in different things, gestures and outfits, that come together to create an interesting scene that you can pull back on and give a different meaning to.
“In this case, what I like is that, in the front, you have two people kind of staring off in the front plane — the guy on the left looks like he just came out of the office and has a face that is very interesting — and if you look at the entire frame, you’ll see that the composition forms from both left and right, converging into the Elvis impersonator. That alignment inside the frame creates multiple triangles within this frame. Whenever you have triangles in your frame, you’re going to have an interesting photograph. And in this case, the lines perfectly converge to Elvis, who, at that split moment in time, is in a particular posture that is striking. If it was a second later, this photograph wouldn’t have worked out so perfectly.”
2. Maria Novoselova, 2013
“This is a great example of that ‘decisive moment.’ Here, it captures the ballerinas up in the air, the moment that this lady is entering the frame — a second later, these ballerinas would have been on the ground, and the woman would have been in front of them. What really strikes me here are the shadows of the ballerinas: they all fall in the same direction that the woman in the front is moving in. So the lady in the front becomes a fourth shadow right there, in front of the frame, and the ballerinas are in the back. The timing and the concept between the older lady and the younger ballerinas, and the play in the shadows going in the same direction as her is just incredible. There’s a lot of contrast here, and in this case, it works very well. I also like that you cannot see the ballerinas’ faces, because it adds another layer to the picture, and gives it a sense of mystery.”
3. Joshua Yospyn, 2012
“So this is a funny picture because of the contrast — not just a little contrast, but a huge contrast that makes the picture very interesting and attractive. The contrast is between the two characters: the office guy, maybe Wall Street, and the old man who has completely slid down and is taking a break. It’s rare to have such a big contrast and to find that. And in this case, the situation is funny and you get the diagonal divide in the frame that creates two triangles; that will always make for an interesting shot. Specifically, the position of both the characters and the tables divides the frame into two triangles. I think you always look for a little bit of humor, or you look for a bit of mystery, and both of those are great.”
4. Marcin Krupa, 2013
“This picture creates a lot of mystery. The reflection, or that light, on her face completely makes the subject anonymous. And then her outfit is very simple, going along with that anonymity. It feels like she has no identity, so the viewer can go and create an identity every time they look. The fact that the photo is black-and-white also adds a bit of charm and mystery.”
5. Siegfried Hansen, 2013
“This shows the importance of observation, and how you can use it to create a shot that will make people think, ‘Oh my god! I didn’t even see that!’ That’s a very good reaction to a street photograph. The juxtaposition and the composition that you find with a character or an element on the street is very interesting, and in this case, you actually don’t have people in it, but you have a very strong photograph, and it’s because the photographer paid attention and saw what nobody else initially saw. That’s why I think this photograph is good. This is also a good example of simplicity.”
6. Mai Garcia, 2012
“You’ll see the girl in the billboard who looks like she is holding her head in a state of panic and then below her are people rushing around. So to capture that and this juxtaposition and put it in a way that frames it as if she’s reacting to what is happening on the street, that’s special. That kind of play between the background and what’s happening in the front, something you find in the street with various characters in front, is a common style of street photography.”
All photographs provided courtesy of the Miami Street Photography Festival.