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Portrait Photography part 2: The studio

Portrait Photography part 2: The studio

My last post was a general introduction to my experience of portrait making derived from a basic need to connect with people. This post will concern another aspect of the craft I have spent a great deal of time practising – the studio portrait.

My experience of studio photography started with playful lighting experiments and involved lots of odd self-portraits, which I’ll most likely return to in a future post. I developed an understanding of the quality of light and how to create certain moods by varying the direction, hardness/softness and colour using reflectors, diffusion and gels to modify light. I would replicate classic three-point lighting techniques used in cinema and try to recreate the lighting in others’ work. These experiments ultimately led to opportunities to hone these skills in a range of commissions for theatre, film, music as well as for commercial purposes.

 

Although an understanding of how to light and other technical aspects are important, the social aspects of the craft or the process of engaging with the sitter, is probably more significant in achieving a ‘successful’ portrait.

In recent years I have adopted a very simple studio set up in which I present my subjects against seamless paper in neutral tones beneath one or two lights. Influenced by the portraits of Richard Avedon (In the American West) or Spencer Murphy (portfolio), working in this way allows me to concentrate on the person in neutral surroundings. The process of portraiture in the studio context is often a more intense experience than a shoot that may take place on location or as a result of a serendipitous encounter. The experience essentially mobilises a complex series of considerations which relate to the identity (public and private) of the sitter and so can be the source of anxiety for both photographer and subject. My overriding concern is that my subject feels comfortable enough to lower their guard and enable me to capture a moment that I feel represents them most naturally. To achieve this, I have developed a method that combines direction and conversation and use it to move between creating distractions and encouraging periods of concentration in order to produce a range of emotive responses. I try to ‘work around’ a person as we’re talking. Having to smile or not seems to be an initial concern that most experience. Being told they don’t need to smile is often liberating.

“I tend to feel that a smile is off-putting unless you have a personal connection to someone. It codes to a social superficiality; it’s like when someone asks how you are and you say, ‘Fine,’ and you’re not fine at all.”

Jennifer Blessing, Guggenheim Museum’s senior curator of photography

Those who are confident or used to the camera’s lens can be easier to photograph, however may also respond in a less naturalistic way referring instead to predetermined looks or versions of themselves. I once photographed the model, actress and former ‘Miss Universe’ winner Natalie Glebova, who whilst being photogenic and comfortable being photographed, was able to provide a series of stock expressions at will. Children can be photographed relatively quickly as their lack of self-consciousness enables them respond to direction without the insecurity that adults may experience. In my last position (as a teacher) I often photographed entire year groups of 200 children in a single school day.

“I realized a photograph could be easily manipulated and misinterpreted; that the person behind the camera is really controlling it all,”

Thomas Ruff in interview with By Sarah Coleman on November 14, 2013

The interaction between sitter and photographer is no doubt heightened through the performative nature of the space. There are expectations of both photographer and sitter to assume roles; the photographer to direct proceedings and the sitter to present themselves before the lens. This balance of power can be likened to the theatre (or other creative partnerships) where the director and actor are working together to present a narrative or in the case of a portrait construct an identity. The psychological factors involved essentially result in the subtle changes that occur in posture, expression or light which will affect the viewer’s interpretation of the portrait. As the photographer’s intentions ultimately determine how the subject is represented, there is a sense of responsibility which I alluded to in the previous post when I talked about the line between exploration and exploitation.

“I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes.

Roland Barthes implied that through the act of posing a person can represent themselves or someone else and so my efforts during a portrait session could be described as an attempt to distinguish this otherness. What someone becomes may depend on their background, their experience or determined by their psychological state with others. An actor or a ‘Miss Universe’ may be more aware of their features, posture and expression than someone being photographed in this way for the first time.

These ideas are also described by what Lacan would refer to as the psychological effect of gaze in which the subject experiences “a loss of autonomy upon becoming aware that he or she is a visible object” (Wikipedia). It is has been said that the studio considered as a space in which the presence of the gaze is particularly prominent.

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