There is something almost medicinal about looking back at the work you've done and remembering the studio experiences you've shared with your sitters. If you are stuck and mired in "neutral"; not feeling particularly inspired, a quick look through your archives might just give you the direction you've been looking for.
I looked at some of these images on Tuesday evening as I was packing up cases for two portrait shoots, on location, the next morning. While I didn't shoot in black and white and I didn't shoot against a "studio" background I did remember that while making most of these portraits the single most important common denominator is that I learned to slow down, take time and look more clearly at the people in front of my camera.
When we rush we tend to concentrate on the technical side of photography. We allow our haste to focus our brains on things we know (or think) we can control. The f-stop. The direction of the light. The accuracy of focus. And we are lulled into thinking that if we just get these things right we'll be in good shape when it comes to making portraits.
I try now to make the technical stuff just background noise. I know a big diffuser or big umbrella will give me the soft, directional light I want so I don't spend a lot of time trying to find the "ultimate" light modifier. Most will work pretty much the same, all things being equal (size of modifier, distance from subject, smoothness of light spread). And these parameters don't change from day to day. If you set up a lighting scenario in mostly the same way across a number of days you'll get mostly the same results. If they are the results you want you get to move on to the more important steps.
Everyone is different but when I make portraits on location or in the studio I'm always looking forward to getting to know the person I'm photographing well enough to identify something about them that I can incorporate into the photographs. It might be their taciturn demeanor, the gestures, their body language or their smile. But everyone needs to spend time getting used to the process of being photographed and they need to learn enough about the photographer to feel comfortable and not exploited by the power dynamic. You have to share.
Many times we're photographing employees for a big company. They generally sign some sort of agreement when they are hired that allows the company to use their image for marketing or public relations. I may be "allowed" to photograph a worker for a project but I'm pretty adamant that anyone who doesn't want to participate should never be cajoled or manipulated into going along with the process because they feel their livelihood may be in jeopardy otherwise. It's so much better to honor a person's privacy and move on to a person who wants to play along and collaborate. Your success rate increases that way.
There's always a push by an ad agency or the clients themselves to rush along through a day of shooting location portraits but one of the most vital techniques may just be the ability to slow down and create little pools of calmness instead.
Wednesday I was on a location making portraits of two attorneys. There was a client in the lobby where we were photographing and he was obviously a fan of photography. We chatted while I was setting up my two lights and my light blocker. He was getting into the process. But when the time came to put the first attorney into position and get started I noticed he was right behind me and looking over my shoulder. I stopped and explained the whole concept of split attention and the perils of a portrait subject having too many "eye-lines" to check. I asked him to move to a location in the room where he wasn't directly in the eye-line from the subject to the camera to the photographer. The client understood and complied.
But my real desire, in the moment, was to make the collaboration between me and the subject more private and more of a closed loop. We needed to play off each other to get the kind of portrait I like; one which goes beyond a canned smile and a quick hit. By removing the additional observer the subject and I were able to simplify our feedback loop and work together in a way that sometimes just isn't possible with an audience.
Ad agencies and clients are especially guilty of wanting to be an audience. If we're using paid talent or paid models I get the ad agency's involvement. They are working toward something that matches the comprehensive layout they sold to the clients beforehand. And paid talent is used to working with lots of people on set. But that's a different situation than making portraits of "real" people. The portrait experience requires more of a one to one connection.
When I reviewed the older portraits I also noted that I am almost never a fan of the big smile. The toothy grin. In my mind the bigger the smile the smaller and squintier the eyes become. And the eyes are so much more important than showing off good dental care. A softer, closed lip smile is calmer and makes the person in the photograph seem much more accessible. A serious portrait, for me, is much more interesting. It connotes a whole different level of investment from all parties. If we do capture a smile I like for it to be one of those captured moments between the actual shots. The ones that get captured from luck and not set up.
When I approached Wednesday's sessions after having studied my past work I also felt more confident in the moment that I could have a good rapport with my subjects. Past successes tend to bolster my assurance that I will be able to connect with the people I'll be working with right now. That we'll have a successful session.
I know that some clients would like it better if I shot less (fewer frames) but the process of photographing through a lot of frames is also part of the process of desensitizing the sitter to the situation. At a certain point they tend to get into the cadence of the shoot, they drop "packaged" looks and present in a more genuine way. I like to spend time with my sitters. I love to ask them about their work and their play and instead of continuously shooting I like to step out from behind the camera and really listen to what they are telling me in that moment.
Once we share commonalities and stories we because more of a team and less of a fractured, two part equation.
I heard from the marketing team at the law firm yesterday. They had their selection already for one of my subjects from the shoot. I worked on retouching the image for about an hour yesterday doing little things like taking out flyaway hairs, fixing small blemishes, taking a bit of red out of the allergy plagued eye on the right side, and trying to even out skin tone in such a way that no one could tell that the image had been worked on.
I was delighted to work on the image because the look on my subject's face showed that she had been having fun during the shoot. That she was happy, relaxed, interested. And that's so much more important than deciding on which light to use or which lens might resolve more clearly the texture of an eyelash....
And that's why I look at older work I've done. It's instructive. It's a reminder. It's a confidence booster.
former senator, Kirk Watson.
Movie director, Richard Linklater.
Author of books on finance, LouAnn Lofton
Ben in the studio.
Ben in the studio a few years later.
former super assistant, Renae.
OT: Moderna bivalent vaccine side effects:
I got my Covid vaccine and a flu shot at 10:20 yesterday morning. By three in the afternoon fatigue set in. By 5:30 pm I had a headache and my muscles were getting sore. I usually never get headaches so that's always especially uncomfortable for me. After dinner I was so tired I hit the couch and napped on and off until bedtime.
Mid evening my stomach was hit by cramping and general discomfort. That persisted until around 1:30 a.m. Most of my muscles were sore through the night and the injection site was plenty more sore. I mostly tossed and turned trying to get comfortable. I'm usually a straight seven and half hour sleeper. But not last night.
I was up by seven and made coffee and toast. Through the morning I've slowly recovered and I'm now headache free, my muscles have calmed down and my stomach issues resolved (although I could also blame the hot sauce at Torchy's Tacos; yesterday's breakfast, for the gastro issues....) and now I'm feeling about 80% of the way back to normal.
Was it worth it? Hmmm. If I don't get three weeks of Covid-19 or two weeks of nasty flu I'd say it was a good bargain to give up being comfortable for one day in trade for gong through up to five weeks of pure crap. And possible "long Covid." But your mileage may vary. Some people are masochists.
Now ripping the bandaid off my injection site. It's no longer needed. In fact, I think it's just theater in the first place.