Your unique selling proposition is your unique way of looking at the world.


I will confess to being a horrible landscape photographer. I can point the camera at trees and lakes and mountains and beautiful skies and do all the technical stuff but I don't "get" landscape. It's a genre that doesn't get my heart racing. I don't pine to rush out at "first light" and make photographs while the mists delicately burn away in the first tentative moments of sunrise. Architecture? I do like a few older buildings and a handful of modern buildings but most dwellings and offices and public buildings leave me feeling like I've just walked through an appliance store and detoured down between the row of white refrigerators and matching washers and dryers. 

What I like to photograph is people. I like to make portraits for a couple of reasons. One is that it gives me an excuse to get to know people I've never met before and it gives me an opportunity to get to know the people that I do know so much better, and in a different way. The other reason is the interactive nature of having another person collaborating in the mix.  In a good portrait session there's always such an abundance of good energy and a wonderful feeling of sharing. Even a "bad" portrait session has its own "charms."

Yesterday I spoke to a group of photography students at Austin Community College about the business of photography. It's one of those moments when you are trying to distill and translate messages about the thing that you do so you can share the ideas. And the idea that kept coming to me as I tried to explain how to be "successful" in this crazy business was simple.  You need to understand that you will have a style and a vision that is unique to you. This is the thing that you nurture and once you understand what it is this style and vision is the magic stuff that differentiates you from everyone else in your market. Not everyone will like your style or understand your vision but your job, in the pursuit of a sustainable business model, is to find the people and the markets that not only "get" what you are doing with your photographs but also values them and are of the opinion that these unique expressions can either be used to move their own projects forward or, that they stand alone as visual objects that enrich the lives of people in these markets.

When I studied portraiture I devoured books by Kodak and every magazine article on portraiture that I could find. I waded through lighting ratios, charts that showed you which lens to use if you were shoot a full body, a three quarters, a half or a tight head shot portrait. There were rules galore for both lighting and the use of backgrounds and props. You could study the art of posing for weeks or months. In some corridors of photography and photo education there are more rules and restrictions than are offered by most major religions.  And awards are routinely given for strictly following the rules of the game.

It's only when I ignored the rules entirely and started to make portraits that I liked on some gut level that my portraits really became interesting to me. And once they became interesting to me they became interesting to more and more people who were not me.

The goal of a brand is to have your product become recognizable. To be different enough that one can pick your image out of a stack and know that it's one of yours. That's gotten a lot tougher as everyone copies everyone else's styles but it is do-able and it's something to shoot for, whether you do the work professionally or just for your own aesthetic pleasure. Because in many cases it means you've started listening to your own muse and your own ideas of good and bad and you can now proceed away from the learning and into the creating.

There are constant essays and blogs that profess to teach a person how to create their style but I find them mostly useless or downright dangerous to my progress as a portrait photographer. What I've come to know, for me, is that my work improves as I do more and more work. When I look for inspiration I look at paintings and movies. But mostly I use the images that my mind seems to create as I read descriptions in novels and images that come to mind when I read well written dialogue.  My work is at it's worst when I see a body of work on the web that's alluring, or flashy and new and I veer off my course and try to emulate it.  Then I'm not doing my own work, I am slavishly copying the vision of someone else and there's none of the power and insight we can bring to our own work embedded in my final product.

My style springs from my desire to be directly engaged with my subjects. There isn't a technical consideration that dominates. I think that's how art works best.

The photo above was done with a Hasselblad medium format, square aspect ratio camera. I like the square and it feels like I've come home to a warm house and the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies with walnuts in them when I come back to using one of these cameras after using most cameras with other aspect ratios. I used a medium length telephoto lens because it seems right when I look through the viewfinder. I light the way I do because big soft lights, used from the side are flattering but they still have the power to model the contours of the face. I want to reveal but in a gentle way.  But above all my primary goal is to make you become interested in the person pictured. To make you want to meet them and talk to them as well. 

In the end I see beauty or energy in the faces I like to photograph and I want to show everyone the wonderful engagement I experienced.  I always find it interesting to go through the process of distilling down what I do so I can explain it to someone else. If you want to be a good portrait photography it's much more important that you be curious about the person you've selected to shoot, and excited about showing the aspects you find captivating,  than it is to know everything there is to know about light or cameras or technique. It's actually the only important creative thing you bring to a shoot which no one else can.


Anthony Bridges said...

Well said. It seems like I'm stuck between the two. I love landscape photography and really enjoy taking candids. Just spent an extended weekend taking photos in West Texas. The previous weekend I was photographing pee wee football. I guess you can have more than one love although I was told that's naughty. :)

Carlo Santin said...

Nice description of the square. I like these insights you share as they remind me what's important. Charles Bukowski once said "Find what you love and let it kill you"...not exactly sure what that gem has to do with your post but it seems to fit, and I've always liked it. Beautiful portrait too. I've said this before but I'll say it again: I think your work with film is beautiful. Your digital work, I can take it or leave it, but your film stuff always speaks to me. It shouldn't really matter, film or digital, but somehow it does, for my own work too. I suppose it's just a preference I seem to be developing. Anyway, I enjoyed your thoughts on this and find them very helpful.

Jon H said...

I too love your portraits on film, and especially love seeing the Hasselblad portraits. I know that feeling of warmth. Still trying to work out how you scan on the Epson V500 to include the edges and those little notches. Would love to be able to do that with mine. Pretty please?