We've all seen images that seem forced. Lots of time and effort went into the preparation for the shooting and we're delivered a photo with pizzazz. But the general effect is one of instant hyperbole alert. Especially now when everything seems to have been done and tried. By pushing all the buttons and frantically trying to make everything just so perfect it's so easy to see the hand and the mind of the creator (that's "creator" with a lower case "c") in every frame and that severs the suspension of disbelief by which so much photography becomes embraceable. If we feel we're seeing a private moment, captured unprepared from the slip of time we believe more heartily in the image's verisimilitude. We feel invited to share a wholly objective slice of time, frozen.
The biggest obstacle to emotionally unconstructed shooting is the preparation itself. When we signal our intention the antennae on our subjects snaps to attention and creates a different energy. It is at once on guard and also preening in an attempt to earn the upcoming inspection. If you make a shot a big deal then babies cry, teenagers pose, middle aged women grimace and everyone else toys with taking on the persona of everyone they've ever seen photographed on TV or in a movie. The greater the preparation, generally, the less likely you'll ever achieve an image without artifice and posture. A microcosm of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Oh, to trifle with position and momentum.... We love the random and unplanned shot of Henri Cartier-Bresson when he captures a man, in mid-air, jumping over a rain puddle. We feel betrayed when we find out that Robert Doisneau possibly staged his greatest hit, Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).
But for generations great and not-so-great-but-okay photographers have had a salve that could salvage much of the emotion of the moment glancingly portrayed. They carried their cameras with them at all times and made images every so often, and for no obvious reason. Almost random documentation but always in the service of the process of obscuring the artist's intention of the moment in order to wear down the vigilence of his subjects. And in this way they captured and continue to capture images that give us a front row seat to the impression of reality unfolding.
There are current photographers who are good photographers but whose work is very much about the prepared and orchestrated image. Perhaps because it's possible technically now in a way that it wasn't before, many of these photographers create images of subjects like dancers leaping on urban rooftops at sunset. They are frozen in space and lit by electronic flashes. And the artist's hand is so obvious that most viewers take one look and start mapping out the banal mechanics of the technique rather than being charmed by the kinetic vivacity of the seeing. The fill flashes at sunset cue us that applied lighting technology was involved. And we (fellow photographers) , as a large part of the photographer's audience, understand that flashes were placed on stands, with modifiers, and the units were under the care of an army of assistants, and the dancer is most likely springing off a mini-trampoline that we can't see but understand to be just out of frame. Further, we understand that she's leaping over and over again to until the photographer is happy with a shot. And we are unable to believe that we've been privileged to see something that genuinely happened because it was going to happen rather than the event being entirely constructed for the attendant audience.
The same could be said for classical portrait work. The best of that genre works when the surroundings are minimal and subdued and works less well when we see more and more of the hand (and taste) of the photographer. An old gray wall means that the image could have been taken, in the moment, in any anonymous location while a brilliantly colored seamless background peppered with posing blocks and faux Greek columns disallows our ability to divorce technique from message. In essence, what Richard Avedon was doing by shooting against white backgrounds was to divorce reference from image. And in that way make the structure of creation recede and the collaborative interaction (which is part of the human condition) move into the foreground.
The more cues we see in a portrait that reference a manufactured reality the more we are effected by the trappings of the attempted art and the less resonance, intimacy and value we feel directly from the intended subject.
For the binary readers who've wandered in from the "how to" pages of the web let me quickly say that I'm not making a stand that all images have to be totally candid to be successful. Far from it. The work of David Chapelle is brilliant in its own fully manifested intentionality. A large part of his success is that his images are constructed as inside jokes about culture and society and we, as viewers, are invited into the "special" circle for whom the joke is shared. We feel the inclusion as well as the cultural messaging and that makes his images, obvious though they are, work on a level that others don't.
Annie Leibovitz's best work isn't necessarily the work that is most candid but she does a good job creating lighting and staging scenarios that amplify reality instead of re-inventing it or, with inflection, re-parsing it. In this way we look at the images she creates, even the big tableaus and we accept their believability because she's hidden her artifice so well. To a less well visually educated audience her work could be the result of a quick candid, albeit a nearly perfect one.
All of this is to say that doing approachable images of people can be tough. The fewer things you try to control the more believable the images are to the widest range of viewers. But, if you do need to alter the light, create a different background or otherwise enhance or change the reality you'll do best, over the long run, if you can make your controlled parts as close to a sense of reality as possible. And you'll work to catch the moments between the peak moments as well.
Just a thought about taking images that work for people.