Light and dark. Sharp and soft. The palette of expression is personal.

I have a photographer friend I'll call, "Andy."  He makes magic with his cameras.  Every one of them.  At least I think it's magic because his look is so different from mine.  His images are perfectly exposed but they seem airier and lighter than mine.  The shadows and highlights are crisp as cold celery and open.  And everything in Andy's images seems sharper than the content in my images.  So much so that I finally pressed him about his secret sharpening formula.  He walked me through an explanation that sounded so much like something I already knew and we both walked away feeling a bit baffled.  (At least I did....).  At another time a photograph whose work I really like was looking at two prints (not dissimilar to the ones I'm showing in this blog) and he asked me how I got such a feeling of gravity and substance into my prints.  But I couldn't answer any better than Andy answered me.  And then it dawned on me that we saw the world, physically, in a very different way.  That our prints are reflections of our own unique vision of the world.  And I realized, at that moment, that we all sing with a different voice and with a different timbre.  And it's not being able to reproduce exactly what Andy does that makes me so interested in the work he produces.  Because when I look at his work I have a visceral glimpse into how he sees the world.  It's degrees different than my vision.  And vice versa.  

And that's how art is supposed to work.  If everything could be reduced to formulas and spreadsheets we could program photo robots and never have to lift a finger to photograph again.  And how sad would that be?  (Note to self:  reject all creative formulas.   Additional note to self:  Is "creative formula" an oxymoron?).

This photo was taken for Primary Packaging in NYC.   I used a Hasselblad 500 CM,  150mm lens and Tri-X film.  The image above is a scan from a print on double weight,  fiber based, Seagull Portrait paper from Oriental Paper.  The print was toned in a very dilute solution of selenium.

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.

Is the print dead? Was analog photography really about print? Is digital a different medium altogether?

A number of years ago Steven Ray hired me to go to New York and shoot in a printing plant.  The company specialized in printing the boxes that exquisite perfumes come in.  The printer in the photo above is holding a thick sheet of glossy black that will eventually become a Chanel box.  The printers were masters as foil stamping which imparts a metallic design element to the printed product.  Their presses were also works of art.  We shot all day long with a Hasselblad camera and three lenses, the 50mm the 80mm and the 150mm.  All the film was Tri-X.  So what I ended up with a few days later was a box filled with sleeved slivers of negative film and sheets of black and white contact images.  Each one a delicated 6cm square with the frame numbers and edge information as a diffused and diaphanous ribbon against the black edge.  To a non-photographer the film was unintelligible.  It needed to be interpreted and applied before it had meaning.  From the  beginning of the project there was always the intention that the film would be printed.  The secondary intention was that it would be printed large.

The end result was large black and white prints in a display at the Jacob Javitts Center for an industrial graphic arts trade show.  The images were almost twelve feet tall.  And they were wonderful.  No one walked by the prints, which formed the boundaries of the companies large display area, without stopping to stare.  

And thinking about this made me reconsider what I think about photography and its transition from analog to digital.  Somewhere along the continuum we traded the idea that our work was destined for print (whether the fine art print, the magazine page, the poster, the package or the work print) for the idea that it was satisfactory for people to view our work on computer screens, telephone screens and as very low resolution projections.  We talk about losing the magic of film but perhaps what we are really saying is that we lost the magic of the print.

While the iPad screen is seductive in it's immediacy, and the flat screen TV in the living room seduces us into a certain relaxed passivity, neither is a good substitute for a well made print, well seen.  But what the electronic displays have done is to make it implicitly "okay" to not follow thru and make the print.  And without the print as the final step photography is transformed from something that could always be objectively viewed and talked about into a medium that presents your work differently from house to house and computer to computer.  Every screen is different and the proficiency of the viewers in preparing their screens is boldly distributed across the Bell Curve.  The ultimate in subjectivity.

How can we talk about images if green here and green there are not the same?  If the gamma is different from device to device?  And how can we take our fellow artists seriously when they insist on showing us their work on 5 square inches of telephone screen space?

When I pause to think about all this I come to understand my nostalgia for medium format film cameras better than I have in the months gone by.  It's really a nostalgia for the entirety of the process, including and culminating in the print.  The print is the gold standard.

Screens both hide and reveal many flaws of technique and visualization.  Sometimes with a mercilessness that precludes the idea that "loose technique" can also be evocative art.  The print is my interpretation.  It doesn't matter if the image started life as a digital Pen file or a scan from a twenty year old Tri-X negative, it's the interpretation into print that gives it the final step of life.  

When I made the images above PhotoShop had just been on the market for several years and was no where near as sophisticated (and culturally intrusive) as it is today.  Any effects I wanted in my prints I did by hand.  Done over and over again the eye and the hand (burning, dodging and softening) worked in close concert to draw my intention from paper and chemicals.  And, like snowflakes, no two darkroom workers work their process of interplay with prints in exactly the same way.  This gave both the image and the print (as a separate part of the equation) their own primacy and singular style.  And, try as I might to be uniform, each print that was burned and dodged and toned and nurtured was different, even if only microscopically, from the ones before and after it.  That made each print unique and surprising.

In all things artistic, and in all attraction between the sexes and between people, it's not the perfection or repeatability that inspires, intrigues and invests us, it's the imperfection. The thrill of discovering singular nuance.  Of savoring something that can't exist in exactly the same way somewhere else.  Each finished print was special.  PhotoShop, Inkjet printers, actions and all the rest of the new methods rob us of the genuine thrill of discovering and savoring imperfections.  The imperfections inform beauty.  And the unveiling of beauty is what drives my photography.  

My practice is not akin to a printing press where we stamp out identical products.  It's about constantly changing and challenging and experimenting.  And chance helps us fail better than perfection and by failing reveals a new path to art.

All of this to say:  We need to make and share more prints.  That's where the rubber meets the contextual road.