More often than not I'm disappointed and, honestly, the person on the other end of the lens ends up being a bit.....underwhelmed with my photographic capabilities. The problem usually isn't that the person isn't beautiful in some way, or that I've suddenly lost any technical or aesthetic skill I had only days or weeks before; no, the problem is that what I find to be interesting, attractive, captivating, alluring or just plain photogenic in people is generally different from the tastes or cultural perspectives of my friends.
Part of this is the disconnection between the way people, who are not interested or trained in photography, see the people in front of their eyes and the way a camera would see the same person. They tend to subconsciously minimize flaws that the camera can't ignore or they are captivated by some facet of the person that doesn't translate well visually. In many cases it's just a difference in what I'd like to see, specifically, in my portrait subjects and what my friends think would just be a generally attractive person.
I never want to hurt anyone's feelings so we generally set a date, try really hard to make good photographs and I'm happy if the sitter finds some good images that I can retouch for him or her to reward them for their time and effort even if the results are something I would never consider putting into my own collection. All I will have lost in most of these encounters is some time and, sometimes, even if the imaging doesn't work out or the results are inconclusive, etc. I make a good, new friend and we are able to connect well on topics that are removed from photography.
One of my friends here in Austin, back in the days when I rented a large studio in the east side of town, was a wonderful painter named Mercedes Peña. She had, for a while, been married to another great painter named, Amado Peña. Mercedes was every bit the classic artist. She kept her own chaotic schedule and had a house that was so colorful and vibrant that many people mistakenly believed it was some sort of contemporary art museum devoted to brilliant and intense color.
Part of our connection was the popular morning meeting point in the Clarksville neighborhood, a bakery called, Sweetish Hill Bakery. I had a revolving show on the walls of the bakery which included some of my favorite portrait work. Mostly people with their favorite pastries or their favorite coffee. Some were a bit naughty such as one image of my friend, Renae (not Renee above) who posed for a black and white image nude, holding pastries over her breasts.
Mercedes and a large group of our mutual friends would gather in the morning for coffee and the most excellent pastries and we'd dissect and argue/discuss the issues of the day. One warm Summer morning Mercedes mentioned a younger friend who she described as "very beautiful" and asked if I would interested in photographing her. I agreed and days or weeks later Renee came to my studio.
At the time we were working in about 2,000 square feet of live studio space and it was my practice to have at least two lighting setups that I was interested in trying out set up, metered and ready to go. I thought it was the height of bad manners not to be prepared; to waste the time of someone who was, in turn, sharing their time and energy.
When we start a portrait session I like to place the person on a stool or chair in the middle of the light I've designed and to start a conversation. Nothing deep or serious, at least at first, but touching on what the person's interest in being photographed might be, what their preconceptions of a session are, what they like and dislike in portraits that have been made of them before.
During this conversation, in which the subject is in the sweet spot of the lighting design, I'm also making adjustments to the lights and to the black scrims that I usually use to intensify shadows and mid-tone to highlight transitions. I watch how the light plays across the person's face and how they sit in relation to my camera (which is generally anchored to a tripod). At the time I was doing this portrait I was enamored of a style of lighting that used big soft sources as main lights but very little fill. I was excited about the potential of the shadows and the intersection between deep shadows and flesh tones.
I was looking for the light to create a triangle in the midst of shadow on her right cheek (on the left side of the image and I was looking for a catchlight in each eye.
Most portrait sessions start with big smiles and lots of anticipation from the subject about what the photographer might want to see. I like to suggest early on that we do more serious looks. That squinch-y eyes and a toothy smile are not at all what I usually want to see.
In some ways it was easier for me in the time of Polaroid test materials and film because when we struck gold in a pose or expression or gesture I could share it with the person I was photographing and we could extend the thing I liked about the action in different ways. Shooting in this more intimate style with digital means taking the camera off the tripod and walking it over to the subject to share the image on the back of the camera which then invites a look-see at any number of previous frames; some of which might be counter productive. Certainly, this kind of review breaks whatever spell the two of you have woven between each other and requires some retrenching and re-advancement.
At a certain point both the photographer and sitter feel they've exhausted one lighting set up and it's time to move to another look. We might take a break to go outside for fresh air or have a glass of wine and talk about painting or whatever but we build up from scratch new energy in the fresh lighting set up. Almost every session like this is rife with trial and error. Which lens draws the subject the way you want it? Which expression is most in line with the photographers subconscious preconception.
And all the while you are gauging the interest and attention of the sitter; hoping it doesn't wane as you clumsily zero in on the exact look and energy you were looking for.
Portraiture can be a classic example of "I'll know what I like when I see it." It's almost always that way for me. I'll start with a lighting idea and a general idea of how I think someone would look best and then the subject will turn their head slightly and smile in a certain way that just hits the mark in a way I could not explain in words. Sometimes we get the shot in the moment but sometimes we have to acknowledge what I saw and work back towards it.
At some point you've exhausted the possibilities of that day. That session. You probably pushed past it to the point that you are both ready to give up for now. But if the session worked and the images emerge in post that make you both smile it's almost a certainty that you'll want to work together again and see if you can push a new set of images in a more daring or experimental direction. If nothing worked then mostly you shake hands, thank each other and chalk it up to just another mystery of the universe.
At least, that's how it works sometimes....