Anatomy of a friendly portrait session.

 This is a portrait of Selena.

I have a friend named Selena. She's a musician and she has a promising band here in central Texas, with lots of fans. We've photographed together from time to time and I used images of her to illustrate some concepts in my LED book. We worked on this portrait at Willie Nelson's ranch, just west of town. I wrote about the session a year ago. But I didn't really touch on the actual give and take of a portrait session; only the nuts and bolts.

When you do a session with a friend an exchange of money isn't necessarily the goal. In fact it rarely is. Each participant comes to the project with their own hopes for the outcome. Selena wanted to be able to use the images we would create for the promotion of her career. I wanted to go through the process/experience to, on one level, practice my craft but on another level to prove that a 56 year old photographer could bring a relevant vision to bear in the service of someone half his age. In effect I was trying to prove my own relevance to myself.

At the time I rationalized that I was getting value from the session by being able to use the images of Selena in my books and here on the blog but when I dig down deep I really wanted to know if I could still talk across the void of generational differences. And that was a much bigger unknown than anything having to do with the mechanical construction of the images.

We all fight the inertia of our own history and our own tenure. We learn to do things a certain way early in our careers and we tend to cling to them because the known ways are comforting in their familiarity. When you get to be a certain age there's a two way assumption that you've got a fixed way of doing things and it's never going to change. You feel this because you think you are right and your audience of younger people feel this because they've already experienced the intransigence of experience. "That's the proper technique."

I hear it all the time from people all over the web and all over life. Some people argue themselves hoarse over the noble provenance of three-to-one lighting ratios. Others offer that they'll give up an optical viewfinder system when you pry their cold, dead hands off the carcass of their Nikon/Canon/Fill in the blank camera.  And the young-ish aren't immune from the super glue of conformity either.

No, I took a day's worth of images with a conscious effort not to control things the way I had done images before. I didn't drag along strobes and softboxes and other lighting "just in case" and then press it into use for everything. I didn't presume to control the posing or the props. I tried to flow along with what Selena was interested in while trying to put my own spin on the process.

But when I look at the images even now I see the iron hand of precedence in the mechanics of the images. The one above is shot with an 85mm 1.4 Zeiss lens. It's a prejudice I find hard to break. My default is that medium telephotos with fast apertures are THE way to shoot nice portraits. I find some of the "rules" I picked up over time hard to break because they've worked and by working they reinforce their own efficacy.

But when I really drill down I did the shoot because I wondered at the time if I still cared enough about the outcome of my photography to make good work. Could I move past blasé to get back to committed? Could I find the fun and curiosity that made all of this so much fun back when I was 25 too?

That was then. Now I know that I can answer "yes." But it's important to me to understand why I take on some of the things I do. In some sense I want to see what the magic is all about now that they really have changed the formula. 

People think I change gear because I'm in love with the gear. I really change it because the only way to stay fresh and relevant to yourself and the process is to keep growing and keep questioning. I have the advantage of being able to look back and see how we used to do it long enough ago to see the stark contrast between the days of hypercontrolled and stiff photography that comprised the art when I started out in the commercial field. It's totally different today and the same old tools don't necessarily apply.

The brain stays flexible as long as you challenge it. I can think of nothing less challenging than to use the same tools to do the same craft over and over again in the same way.  It's something to think about.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
edshots said...

brilliant piece KT!

i often shoot people i'm friends with and find it harder to get them on "film" than i do strangers. but sometimes all that history just comes out in the photo and really makes it. with my move to m43s i still like the shots the most from the 20 1.7 and the 45 1.8 because they feel like we're sharing the space or in a moment.

John Wilson said...

As soon as I saw the thumbnail I said "Hey, that's that person who was in those shots that Kirk took with that INCREDIBLE lens. I wonder if this is the same lens."

Some lenses are so nice. This is one of them.

Kirk Tuck said...

No. I spent the day doing photographs of a friend. Only later ( a year later ) did I get around to thinking about it. My writing must be getting opaque again....or the anti-reading comprehension drugs they're putting in the water are finally hitting their loading doses somewhere.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Hm, speaking about relevance. I think the best we can do especially for friends is to bring all of our previous background knowledge, and to create something which keeps the moment to remember later. "Ah, this is how I looked like when Kirk was with me", things like that. What maybe differs us from younger generation photographers is that first and foremost, we're looking for the light (and sometimes we know we have to create our own one).

Just did a few portrait shots (environmental and classic) for a colleague who will soon retire, after being in that company for 33 years. Ordered some prints which are a present for him. I guess I just don't wanna forget the man, who really is a nice guy. For him, maybe he will remember how he looked some few weeks before his retirement.

Oh, and he was very interested in the process, and mentioned his Canon A1. Was even thinking that this might be a nice hobby for himself again.

Carlo Santin said...

I can think of nothing less challenging than to use the same tools to do the same craft over and over again in the same way.

I can't agree with that statement. I think there is nothing more challenging than trying to use the same tools over and over again and keep your work fresh and interesting, to avoid creative ruts. How do you re-create and re-invent yourself using more or less the same tools? That's a hell of a challenge in my opinion.

Patrick Cote said...

This sort of article is what makes VSL soooo great Kirk. Thanks. A lot to think about.

Crix said...

Interesting thoughts. In the middle age one continously battles the balance of going down the same, well-worn road that has proved itself, and the urge to do something different, fresh, new to feel the pulse of life. I think it goes beyond confirming that you are still capable, it is more the brush with life, the dangers, failures contained outside of one's protected way of life.