Portrait of an Art Historian.

I was commissioned to make a series of portraits of art history professors at the University of Texas at Austin. The client and I decided to go with black and white images as it seemed appropriate to the nature of their work.

To make the assignment most efficient it was decided that I would go to their location at the Fine Arts College and set up a temporary studio. I worked with medium format cameras and high powered electronic flash generators. The lighting was very simple. I used a 4x6 foot soft box as my main light, adding an extra layer of silk diffusion material to give me the look I wanted. I did not use any fill to the opposite side of the subjects' faces in order to add contrast and black intensity to the images.

I was able to select a room that had a good amount of distance from front to back and I set up my canvas background as far from the subjects as I could while keeping the subject framed correctly and without showing the edges of the background material. The background was lit by a small soft box powered by a second electronic flash generator. The background soft box was positioned directly behind the subject and just below the shoulder line.

For each subject I exposed two twelve exposure rolls of black and white film after testing the set up carefully with black and white Polaroid test materials.

After we wrapped up the shooting I returned to the studio where I processed the film and hung it up to dry. The next morning I went back into the darkroom to make contact sheets of all the rolls of film I'd shot. I made two sets. One for my use and to keep with the film in the filing cabinet, and a second to give to the client for selection purposes.

After the individual images were selected (days or weeks later) I went back into the darkroom and made 8x10 inch, double weight fiber prints of each person. Excluding test prints I made sets of prints "bracketing" exposures by small increments in order to get exactly the level of highlight detail I was looking for. The prints were marked with copyright and contact information on the backs with pencil and I asked that the prints be returned to me after the contracted use.

I came across the envelope this morning as I "thinned out" a drawer in one of the filing cabinets and pulled the prints out to take a look. These are quick copy shots of the printed material and certainly don't have the same impact,, as small images on the web, that they do when one is able to hold them in one's hands and really examine the subtly toned surfaces in good light. Maybe that is a reason why actual photographic prints seem overlooked these days; there is less exposure to the actual product and what is seen on the web is hurried and prone to bad electronic interpretation.

In my encounters with subjects I am rarely interested in in smiling images and much more interested in images that show the personality of the sitter as I have experienced them, even if our exposure to each other is limited. I like the compression I get with longer lenses and I like to fill the frame with the main subject so I can really go back and inspect the nuances of their faces.

The critical part of a portrait shoot is establishing a rapport with the sitter and providing an emotional space that makes it safe for the sitter to relax into the stasis that represents themselves at rest. Everything else is just showmanship...

1 comment:

Wei Chong said...

Hi Kirk,

I thoroughly enjoyed your post about Portrait of an Art Historian. The reason is that you went through the entire shoot with technical details, without being too technical and specific. Yet I could visualize your decisions on the shoot.

And, you distilled the most important part of the shoot: capturing the personality of the person by establishing rapport.

FWIW, how would your shoot and process and result been changed if you shot digital? I'm not referring to the technical parts, but the rapport & final result part.