Portraits. What really happens in a good session?

There's portrait photography and then there's personal portrait photography, and though the two undertakings use the same kinds of cameras and lights the outcomes are worlds apart.  Is one better?  Is one worse?  I wouldn't presume to tell you because they are two different products and they are world's apart....

I've read many, many books about portrait photography and they follow several threads.  On one hand we have handbooks that walk you through the entirely technical process of "manufacturing" a portrait.  You know the drill:  "First you establish your main light looking for a small triangle of light on the opposite cheek.  Then you add a fill light and establish a ratio of 1:2 for portraits of women and 1:3 or even (horrors!) 1:4 for men.  Once your main light and fill light are established you can move on to your 'kicker' light and rimlight the subject's hair.  Be sure to back off the exposure by 1.5 EV if you are rim lighting blond hair........"  The process goes on with advice on cameras, focal length, and optimum camera to subject distances.  It can be the formula for generations of remarkably boring and eerily similar portraits.  No doubt that a few gifted artists use the same formula for lighting and camera specs and still make dynamic and eminently beautiful portraits.  But most technically driven workshops, books and approaches tend to lead to portraits with no more differentiation from the mean than a random sampling of McDonald's hamburgers.  And the output is equally bland.

But portraits done in this way are comforting in the same way a Big Mac is comforting:  You know what you're getting.  You know what it will cost.  You know it's not going to be too spicy (interesting).  Working to a formula is a dangerous way for artists to proceed because you quickly move from experimentation, and the thrill of possible failure, to an assembly line approach to producing a product which can be.....reliably produced.  Good for production and efficiency.  Bad if you got into photography to pursue and be seduced by your muse (the goddess, not your subject!)  or because you already had a unique vision to ply.

This technique-driven approach also spills over into posing.  And here it's even more egregious.  Several publishers here in the U.S. publish books on posing.  There are workshops about posing and some marketing genius has also created a line of posing flash cards for the aesthetically deprived.  "Have the girl tip her head forward to show subtle submissiveness...." (Yuck).

And taken together these obsessions with formulae conspire to convince compliance with the general mythology that taking a good portrait is nothing more than "excellent" lighting and "good" posing.  And nothing could be further from the truth.

The single most vital component of getting a great image of a person is to establish a collaborative rapport. An emotional and intellectual understanding of each other's intentions.  And there's no book or workshop that will help you to do this because each person you meet is so different.  It's suggested that you make small talk.  Find out about their hobbies.  Play their favorite music. Give them a glass of wine.  But each of these approaches, or mixed matrixes of approaches, is shallow and fraught with the very limitations you bring with you and your client brings with them as human beings.  A deep and revelatory rapport is rarely possible to establish in the first meeting and even more so in the first fifteen minutes of a session with a stranger.  And I speak from experience.  I've done thousands of rushed corporate portraits that have failed, in my eyes, miserably and yet; since the client and I both understand the limits of that commercial intersection we soldier on, use the images and don't look back.

But from time to time I am really driven to make portraits because I find the person interesting.  Because I find a gesture or expression expressive and compelling.  But mostly because I want to see the person portrayed in a style I like and with an emotional frame of reference that transcends the process, even if just by a little bit.  I want my light to work a certain way that isn't "right, proper, standard" and I want an expression born of shared sharing and not banal manipulation coupled with resignation.

So, in the few instances that I've been successful, what is it that happens in a session that makes everything come together and actually work?  Little more than patience and listening.

When a beautiful woman comes into my studio, especially someone over say, 25, we have to work our way through the poses that every photographer who ever convinced her to sit attempted. In this way we cover, or break down, the past.  Then we slow down and get quiet.  We talk about what I'm trying to do with this time together.  We talk about what we really love to see in photographs and portraits.  Usually we both agree that black and white portraits are more interesting, more visually sensual, than color.  Then we share about how we like the shadows.  Darker and contrasty?  Open.  Mostly people have never thought about it but when we look at samples they seem always drawn to the mysterious nature of a rich, dark shadow setting off their face.

Then we work slowly.  One shot at a time.  I usually have to explain that constantly moving is the antithesis of what I want.  For some reason all the fashion geeks have "trained" beautiful girls to constantly move around, change expression, adapt "sexy" poses, etc.  But I explain that I'm shooting and looking and finding what I like about their face. And to do it right we need to move in small, small steps and when we find a position where the light kisses them with passion they need to hold that position so we can play with expression and subtle nuances of gesture.  We hold the position that provides a beautiful frame, and then we try to light up their eyes with curiosity and passion.

The talk becomes quieter and more sporadic.  Suggestions become one or two words.  "A tiny bit left.  A bit more.  Right there."  And once we find the spot where the light plays across lips and cheek bones and eyes just right we dig in and talk about what sorts of emotion we want to see in the final, ultimate photo.

I usually suggest that a smile isn't what I have in mind.  If I'm looking for a smile I want to see it as a twinkle in their eyes.  But what I really want is a look of anticipation and deep interest.  "What will we talk about next?"

And an hour later, after we've cleared out the weird poses and the fashion frenetics and the beauty queen smiles, we finally dig down to a calm and serene expression that works.  For a few moments I feel deeply drawn toward the subject.  As though we're thinking the same thoughts.  As though we have all the time in the world to get the image we both want.  And we work slowly through a process that's more flirtation (on their part) and an admiration and appreciation of the beauty they've chosen to project, in our session, on my part.

And just like a movie or play or even a tryst there's a single second, a single frame where it finally all comes together and we both know it.  We stay at it a bit longer to see if there's more or better but there never is.  The mystery's been solved and committed to film or sensor.  And we slowly close up shop and make some more small talk and the session is over.

Cost effective?  Not hardly.  Satisfying?  Like the best meal you've ever eaten.  You both walk out of the studio confident that you created art together that will be different from what any two other people will do.  And in this cookie cutter world it's the best feeling.  You've made something "one of a kind."

And it's that mutually supportive give and take that makes a real portrait work for me.  Everything else is one sided.  On one hand, the traditional retail portrait formula manipulates the sitter into accepting a "standard" iteration of the modern portrait product.  On another hand, in the example of a quick celebrity portrait, the celebrity uses the portrait photographer as a mechanic and causes him to project the celebrity's practiced image onto the photographer's canvas, nearly complete and inviolable.

In some respects my way is the middle way.  We both come into the studio as equals and wait quietly to see where the conversation will take us.


Dave said...

Excellent insights! I know my last session was way to hit and run, and though I was happy at the time I later kicked myself over missed opportunities for depth.

Gregg Mack said...

Fascinating, and inspiring. I can relate to what you are saying, but have not yet experienced this level of connectedness with anyone that I have made a portrait of, except for my wife. I've always tried to make the subject comfortable, in genuine way, but have not gotten down to this level of connectedness before. This will certainly be my next experience goal. Thank you for sharing these thoughts!

Todd Quinn said...

I'm working on portrait techniques and I've read all of the "formula" books and ideas. I agree that the great portraits I've always admired were never in any of these formulas. I imagine they were arrived at in the the exact manner you described...and this is where I want my "style" to evolve to. In all of my other photographic endeavors, I've never hesitated to take hours and hours studying one subject looking for the sweet spot - the image that I had in my head when I started. The "technique" you described is so similar to how I like to shoot that it was great hearing that I'm not crazy for thinking that the "formulas" are just not enough.

I want to create art - even it it's for the typical family portrait. If it takes me 6 hours to really get into a subject, then I'll just make sure I only take jobs from those willing to work with me!

Thanks for the story it was very inspiring!

Clay O said...

Absolutely beautiful. Thanks for the inspiration.

John Strong said...

Wonderful post. Maybe the best, most compelling I've ever read. I've wondered about how you manage to obtain such intimate, personal portraits. Now I know - and to use such eloquent writing. Just can't say enough positive about it.
Thanks so much for posting this!


Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

This is my favorite post of all time. It's what I really feel about portrait photography. If you read nothing else of mine and you are a person who takes portraits, please read this one again. It's the only smart stuff I know.

Greg said...

This is my favourite post of yours, too, Kirk! Thank you very much!

Greg Shanta

atmtx said...

This is wonderful Kirk. Something to aspire to in my portrait photography. Thank you.

Dave said...

Outstanding! I've done boudoir shoots where the subject cried when she saw her photos, the good cry. ... That's what I shoot for.

Richard said...

What an absolutely refreshing piece of writing. The words "where the light kisses them" should be foremost in the mind of anyone shooting a portrait.

Anonymous said...

You are obviously right: to make a good portrait, one must establish a collaborative rapport. Except that it goes both ways: people must be willing to establish a collaborative rapport with you, as a photographer.

Therefore, if one is an uninteresting person, one will not be able to make good portraits. That is the reason I stop trying to photograph portraits. I went to a few exhibitions some years ago and was baffled by the energy in their portraits. I wondered how the photographers made it... until I met them and realized they were all cool guys (or cool women). I am not. I can't build the same rapport as they can. I've literally seen them take out their camera and have people smile, while when I take my camera people tell me "please, no picture". The same people, 5 minutes apart.

And there lies the key difference: the people discussing photography on Internet forums or going to portrait workshops, they are not cool. They will never be able to build this rapport. That is why the workshops teach them key lights and how to use photoshop filters. You can't teach them how to be cool and attractive (as a photographer), that will not work.