12.05.2011

Why is this one of my favorite portraits?


Program Note:  for more information about shooting portraits: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/01/thinking-about-art-while-swimming-how-i.html


What is it in a portrait that makes me stop and take a long second look and decide that I like it better than most of the others I have seen or taken?  It's an interesting question because it has so many layers.  This portrait has one attribute that's widely considered to be a flaw.  The subject is nearly precisely centered in the frame.  I could fix that by cropping but, contrary to common strictures, I think it works just fine the way it is.

I like a portrait that makes me want to know more about the person being portrayed.  I want the image to spark my curiosity in a way that pronounces the person's uniqueness.  I want the portrait to have a visual appeal that supersedes the subject herself, and by that I mean that I want the tones of the print and the contrasts between various elements in the print to have a life and vibrancy all their own.  I like portraits better when I don't have to decipher intentionality in the background elements.  In fact, I am so linear I don't really like background elements, which is why I try to consistently make them go away by putting them as far out of focus as I can.

Male or female I want each portrait subject to have a direct engagement with the camera.  There are very few portraits I like where the subject is looking out of the frame.  And in those few, if I am critical with myself, I know I only like or admire them because the subject is famous or so visually compelling (beautiful/sexy/powerful/grotesque) that I am influenced by the energy of the emotionally charged aspect of the subject's image.  I want the eyes locked on me as in a conversation.  I want to feel the engagement that the subject had directly with the photographer.  I want to be able to imagine myself in the place of the artist.  If I was the one who took the portrait then the direct engagement always seems to have more spontaneous and visceral impact  when I view it than a more indirect and more passive subject countenance.  

I am drawn to portraits where the subject is not locked in a grinning smile but in a responsive attitude that signifies a conversation was being conducted.  That he or she was sharing collaboratively in the process.  But most of all I want to feel that the subject had a genuine interest in the process.  And a genuine interest in the artist.


A pleasant afternoon spent in the studio with black and white film. And an actor.

I was remarking to Belinda about how the change over to digital had presaged my addiction to the wild merry-go-round of camera buying and how it was well nigh impossible to choose "just the right camera" to use in making the images I really want to make when she laughed, derisively, and said,  "The camera indecision has been going on since the day I met you.  You can hardly blame digital."  And I was prepared to defend myself because that's what guys do when they get called on their bullshit.  But I took a few moments to reflect.....
These studio images of Rene Zellweger reminded me of my dalliance in the small field of medium format cameras.  Convenient memory wants me to believe that I only dabbled in prestigious German and Swedish brands but actual filmic proof demands that I recognize that I also sampled most of the Japanese fare as well.  These images were done back in the early 1990's with the first Pentax 645 camera and whatever lens I was enthralled with at the time.  I remember liking the very hip sound of the motor and shooting at least twice as much film as I normally would have.  The lighting camera from a studio, electronic flash with a 60 inch Balcar Zebra Umbrella, covered with their unique (and thick) diffusion attachment.  These were the days when I eschewed fill light altogether so the one light is it.

I came to the Pentax 645 from the Pentax 67.  That camera was a beast and the film had a wonderful look BUT unless you were shooting in the studio that gigantic mirror took its toll interms of vibration and very slow flash sync.  It sync'd at 1/30th of a second and the mirror slap was agressive enough to create secondary image blurs even when mounted on a hernia inducing tripod.  The practice of the day was to only buy the model with the mirror lock-up and to use it on every shot.  Even when doing flash. You got your ten images and then you loaded again.  You can see why I was lured into the 645 system with its preloadable inserts and 15 images on a roll.  You could shot forever.  At one point I even own a second 645 with a fiber optic enabled Polaroid back to shoot tests with.  But the 1/60th of a second sync speed stunted my affections for that system as well.....

It was always fun to shoot with Rene.  She would show up and we'd shoot whatever one of us had in mind.  One day we'd go out and shoot cross processed negative film down by the train tracks and other days she'd float down the steep hill on Tenth St. towards Congress Ave. in a giant platform heels, a tiny black dress, a leopard print scarf and Bridgette Bardot sunglasses while balancing a coffee cup and saucer in her hands...(we were making an ART video about coffee entitled, "Coffee.  Is it a gift from God or a took of Satan?" And we were using the very first Canon L1 high eight system in Austin.  Very bleeding edge.)  But the amazing thing to me, when I look back on our shoots is that fact that we rarely used the same camera twice.  There are negatives from both of the Pentax systems and from Leica M's, Nikons, Contaxes and Leica R's but we never did nail in a "favorite" camera.  

Which brings me back to Belinda's observation.  I've always enjoyed mixing it up.  In fact, I'm toying with the idea of opening a store for people like me.  We'd have a couple of all the coolest cameras and we'd charge a subscription rate.  Every day you could come in and trade out and use a different camera.  I haven't done my market research and it could very well be that I'm more or less unique in my indifference to routine.  Especially inventory induced routine.  But I don't think so.

None of my subjects have particularly cared which camera or lens or film I used.  They just wanted to enjoy the process and like the end results.  My only regret in my shoots with Rene and others at that time in my career is that I wasn't shooting with the square yet.  That would have made things a little more perfect.  As it is the work is still fun.  

It's cold and windy and wet today.  A nice day to stay inside and scan.  A nice day to blog.  I hope everyone is having a nice start to the week.