08 May Portrait Photography Part 1: Serendipitous encounters.
In my last post which described my photographic beginnings, I sought to identify with some of the masters of the craft through opportunities to explore culture in an unfamiliar part of the world. At this time, I subscribed to Robert Capa’s possibly over quoted idea that “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” by literally throwing myself into the situations I was photographing. However, as I began to explore portraiture, I considered this adage in more of a metaphorical sense, “getting close” through empathy as opposed to proximity.
In this post I will begin to look into my experience as a portrait photographer and attempt to articulate the craft of how I make a portrait and how it is often inextricably linked with the relationship I have with my subjects. That all sounds rather ambitious especially when describing the simple act of one person taking a photo of another, but don’t expect too much as previous attempts to articulate the subtlety of a generally instinctive process have been painfully reductive to say the least! A famously tongue-tied Josef Koudelka’s thoughts on this strike a chord…
‘’I tried to be a photographer. I don’t know how to talk. I’m not interested in talking. If I have something to say, perhaps it can be found in my photos. I’m not interested in explaining things in saying “why” and “how.” “I leave it to others to say what they mean. You know my photos, you published them, you exhibited them, and so you can say whether they have meaning or not.”
Nevertheless there are aspects of taking pictures which I feel I should try to make sense of. I’ve always been sensitive to the fine line between exploration and exploitation through photography when deciding who I photograph and for what purpose. Essentially, I enjoy, respect and I’m constantly surprised by people so the portraits I take are a means of externalising this human interest. This may explain why some consider a portrait as equally an image of the sitter as of the artist.
I’ve always felt compelled to present people in a positive way that reveals something beyond a superficial likeness. This is sometimes easier with people I know. Sometimes not. I will happily stop people in the street if it feels right, but will never photograph people without their approval. Actually, that’s not true, sometimes I can’t resist (see Smoking, Taunton Town Centre). Without the intimacy you create something else, maybe not a portrait.It is challenging to describe a generalised version of a portrait making interaction. Some are planned and take place more on my terms, for example in the studio which I’ll probably write about in the next post. Beyond the studio, location often seems important (whether it’s included in the picture or not). Some sessions play out in an environment familiar to a subject, at home or in a place of work. Some are the result of serendipitous encounters which could be anywhere.
Over the years, I have settled on a couple of approaches that enable me to keep certain aesthetic qualities constant allowing me to concentrate on the various factors that come into play between myself and my subject. I usually work with an old 60s Rolleiflex camera, with a specific colour or black and white film. It’s a simple camera, as straight forward to use as any point and shoot camera, providing you take your time. I like the aesthetic of medium format film (square frame and the depth of field) and when using colour film I particularly like how skin tones are rendered. The camera is also a beautifully crafted object which I enjoy sharing as most people are unfamiliar with such relics, many are now also unfamiliar with film.
When adjusting the exposure, composing and focussing you look down onto ground glass as opposed to holding a camera to your face, so unlike other cameras there is no barrier between yourself and your subject. When, fired, the leaf shutter is almost silent, as is the process of winding the film on between shots. The process is slow and respectful and I believe puts people at ease, myself included. With only twelve shots a roll, it’s very expensive, so every shot needs to be carefully considered.
I touched on the merits of using film in the last post and although I use it for aesthetic reasons, the cultural and historical associations also appeal. Photography has always been associated with true depictions of reality. Susan Sontag writes “The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” It can be argued that the ‘truth’ associated with photography is challenged in the digital era through digital editing, social media and the wider consumer culture of smartphone use. Attempts to address this through mediated authenticity claims, for example the #nofilter hashtag on Instagram seem to result in further deception.
Within a world drowning in images and given the digital narcissism that pervades the media landscape, there is no doubt that people’s attitudes to having their picture taken has changed. Whether on some level my portraiture restores the veracity that is diminished in the wider use of digital photography I can not say, but I hope that the integrity of my portraits is communicated.