Just working on an image and playing around with tones.

When I go into the studio to photograph a person I'm rarely looking for the "big grin" of the "happy face" shot. When I have the luxury of doing so I like to settle in with the person and try to find a point at which they stop role playing, let their defenses down and become real humans. It's hard to do in the work arena because the people we tend to photograph for big companies are on tight schedules and have agendas they have to follow. The most satisfying sessions for me take hours. I recently photographed a commissioned portrait for a real estate agent. She intends to use her final, selected images from the shoot for a wide range of professional applications and also on the social media sites she uses. In that session we ended up spending an hour and a half and going through three costume changes. I didn't mind because she was into my particular style and I was having fun.

Lately, the sessions that have worked best start with tea or coffee in the kitchen of my house. We might sit at the dining room table for a few minutes and just get to know each other. I always seem to ask directly, "What do you want to get out of this shoot?"  It's an honest question and it helps me know that we're either on the same page to start with or that I may have to compromise and do things in a way she'll appreciate and then also do a separate layer of work that I want.

When I think about photographing beautiful women the stories about two great photographers come to mind. The first is from an interview with Richard Avedon in which he says (and I am paraphrasing here...) that his best work comes when, during the session, he falls in love with the model. He goes on to say that when the session is over the spell is broken and life goes on but he strongly implied that there needs to be an emotional bond during the session that creates the impetus to make the person in front of the camera look amazing. I think this is true. The words might be wrong and the idea of falling in love may just be a clumsy attempt to verbalize a feeling or a thought that is about the nature of attraction more than anything else.

Occasionally I'll think that someone is not very attractive or engaging until they sit under the lights and face the camera and the dance between the photographer and model or portrait subject begins. There is a give and take in the conversation and in the best sessions almost an unspoken agreement to find a level of intimate sharing that unlocks emotions that are different from a routine session. But at the same time the interplay is different than a sexual attraction in that the conversation and collaboration is the vital ingredient rather than anything prurient.

I've seen many glamor shots that, while well crafted technically, are devoid of any sort of correspondence between the model and the photographer, as though the thing missing is some sort of real, human connection. Almost as though a person uncomfortable with intellectual intimacy compensated by trying to leverage the most titillating poses and exposures into the shots instead of taking time to find the interesting aspects of the holistic person. And these kinds of images are hardly ever compelling or interesting on any satisfying level.

The second photographer whose portraits I have always loved, is Irving Penn. He was the subject of an article by anthropologist, Lionel Tiger, who sat for a portrait done by the photographer. Irving Penn, via the article by Tiger about his experiences sitting for him, expressed very plainly that he felt a good portrait was the result of a certain intimacy between sitter and photographer. He was adamant that after his assistants had gotten the lights exactly right and had loaded enough film for a long session they must leave the shooting room at his studio and allow him to be alone with his subject. That audience reduction eliminated a lot of the self censoring that naturally occurs when a person splits his attention with two or more people of differing levels and interests. It also keeps people from looking beyond the camera to seek the tacit approval of the other spectators in the room.

Having been photographed before by a number of more traditional photographers Tiger expected to the session to be short and sweet. A bit of "look over here, turn your head, smile" and then we're done. But that's not the way Irving Penn conducted his editorial portrait sessions. He set up his camera and did not linger behind it. He seemed immune from technical concerns and engaged Lionel Tiger at length in a discussions about anthropology, art, music and culture. Occasionally Penn would trip the shutter.

Tiger pulled out all the routine "tricks" of a sitter trying posed pose after posed pose but eventually he tired of trying and a sort of sleepiness came over him at which point Penn, alerted to the falling of his subject's social "shield" began photographing in earnest. And those are the images that were used from the session. Essentially he needed privacy, time and shared conversation to move past the rote face, the clich├ęd pose, and into a series of expressions and manifestations that were a more genuine portrait of his sitter.

I learned early on in my career that people will rush you through a process whenever they can but I also learned from watching brilliant photographers that the ones who made photographs or portraits that I cared about made themselves immune to the coercion to rush through processes. They insisted on taking as much time as the art allowed. In anything I've done that is at all good the secret ingredient has always been my penchant to push back on the arbitrary clock and bring people to understand that time is part of the process. That and being bored. A portrait is a shared moment between two people. Three or more is a crowd.

The image above started life as a big raw file from a 24 megapixel sensor. It was shot in color as most digital images are. While the color version is good and useful I've spent the better part of an hour playing with black and white tonalities. Not because there is a single "right" answer but because the playing is part of a process of constant learning that informs our work going forward. Play. It's good for the brain.


Doug said...

Kirk: Enjoyed your thoughts. I'm in a bit of a dilemma because I have a combination of international travel photo needs (Africa) and domestic needs, and I do not have the budget to shoot two systems. Last year, I traded in some of my Nikon gear (D7000) for the Nikon 1 v2 because of the travel benefits and reach with telephotos. It's been good in some ways, but to be honest, the sensor limitations are definitely there. On the other hand, it's fast and responsive for general shooting and the autofocus works great. Bottom line, I'm thinking it might be appropriate to settle on a m4/3 system that would be a compromise, i.e. either a GH4 or an EM-1. I prefer the handling and the menus of the GH4 (even though it's heavier) and the 4K, but the in-camera IBIS of the EM-1 is awfully attractive, not to mention some of the new Olympus lenses. I do shoot nature and need a long lens. There are mixed reports about the Panasonic 100-300mm's autofocus and sharpness at the long end. Your thoughts?

Gato said...

Thanks. Always like the posts on photography and portraits.