First posted 27 April 2010
Portraits have the potential to be amongst the strongest photographs we ever produce, but often the results are dull and lifeless. A look at the average family album will show a mixture of portraits taken indoors and out, but not many will be of any interest to anyone outside of the family.
It’s not just amateur photographers who produce unimaginative portraits, Many pro’s are guilty of it too. Just sitting someone in front of a commercial background and firing a studio flash at him or her will obviously produce a picture of a person, and strictly speaking will produce a portrait, but will it have the extra quality, which transforms a shot of a person into something powerful and magical?
How is that extra quality added to the picture? Is it a matter of shooting on a better camera or a larger format? Is it a case of having expensive lighting?
I believe that it is very rarely these things. The picture must have a mood. How to put mood into a picture is not really something that can be explained in 300 words, but I can put forward my own approach and principles. Much of my portraiture is not commercial, I don’t have to flatter the subject, and I just use their features and my darkroom skills to produce something that hopefully will grab the viewer.
Sometimes that means I am free to exaggerate a particular feature for dramatic effect instead of having to suppress it for the sake of the sitter. (Think of the paintings of Francis Bacon)
Lighting can be employed to emphasize features and dramatic lighting is easy to achieve. Sometimes I use lighting in a dramatic way and sometimes I have to work with flat daylight. In such a situation, compositions and the arrangement of shapes can vastly improve a shot. I recently watched a documentary on the war photographer James Natchwey and he is a photographer who most definitely understands the importance of shapes in composition.
Another element, which I perhaps ought to mention, is that often the technique or the materials will dictate the direction of the finished image.
When I work with a camera I always work out what are the particular qualities and quirks of the lens/camera/film/process before shooting so that I may use that to my advantage. If a lens works more creatively wide open rather than stopped down then I won’t shoot in really bright light. If the film emulsion is blue sensitive I need to know how that will work with red hair and freckles.
I can plan ahead to a certain extent, but always I like to leave a little room for the unexpected, for fate to take hand. This way I get images which surprise and delight me, though not all the time I should add. Being non-commercial allows me to have images which don’t work occasionally.
Perhaps another important element in my approach is that I often only take a few frames of a person, (making sure that I have thought it through before shooting) rather than taking a number of rolls and editing down later. Even when shooting 120 roll film I find it hard to expose a whole roll on one person.