Tuesday, 23 November 2010

More Avedon, some Kander, and the Process of Portraiture

A number of thoughts, discussions, questions etc have been drawing closer together in the last couple of weeks and I am going to try to document some of that here, if only as a record that I can come back to, but maybe to actually make some progress in the quest for a ‘portrait making’ process.
Avedon came up in discussions on the OCA website, in connection with the recent decision by PM David Cameron to dispense with his retained photographer; the connection being Avedon’s ‘The Family’ portraits of powerful US citizens, including politicians, in 1976 for Rolling Stone magazine - http://www.richardavedon.com/.  As well as leading me to explore this website in more detail and find Avedon’s own words on his ‘process’, of which more below, this also reminded me of another piece of work that I had seen much more recently, Nadav Kander’s ‘Obama’s People’ - http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/magazine/2009-inauguration-gallery/index.html - in which, prior to the actual election in 2008, Kander was commissioned by the NY Times Magazine to make portraits of Barak Obama’s team.  These two pieces of work bear comparison, potentially on all sorts of different levels and themes, but I’m not going to attempt all of that here.  What does interest me, in particular, is the process of making the portraits, and since there is commentary from Kander at the site linked above and an interview with him in Hotshoe magazine (June-July 2009 edition) on exactly this subject, there is a chance to make at least some comparison with his words and those of Avedon.
First Avedon and some extracts from various articles and interviews that appear on the Richard Avedon Foundation website (I have not, at this stage, had the time or the opportunity to research further than that – but there is plenty to go at there anyway).  I can’t think of a better way to approach this than a series of bullet points summarising and paraphrasing interesting aspects that emerge from what he has to say (about portraits in general, not specifically about ‘The Family’).
·         The background is usually a sheet of white paper, approximately 9 feet by 7 feet.  The source of light is to be ‘invisible’, in order to neutralise its role in the appearance of the portrait.
·         He would stand next to the camera (not behind it), several inches from the lens, and about four feet from the subject (I am assuming the use of a large view camera, and might even have read that somewhere).
·         From that position, he would ‘imagine’ the pictures he was taking and not look through the lens (though one assumes he had looked through to set up in the first place).
·         He describes the first part of the ‘sitting’ as a learning process for both parties.
§  For him, partly camera placement, framing, lens height, but also observing movements, reactions, expressions – so as to ‘heighten what the subject does naturally’ when it comes to making the portraits;
§  For the subject, becoming familiar with the fact that he/she cannot shift around, but also learning to relate to the photographer, accepting a degree of discipline and concentration.
·         The exchange with the subject, he says, involves manipulations and submissions.  One depends on another person in order to make the portrait, someone willing to take part, but with different ambitions. However, he says, ‘the control is with me’.
·         The process has a rhythm to it, punctuated by the click of the shutter.  Sometimes he would speak and sometimes not (and occasionally react too strongly and destroy the tension that is a photograph).
·         He was using disciplines, strategies and ‘silent theater’ to achieve an illusion – that everything in the photo simply happened; the person was always there, never told to stand there, never asked to hide his hands, ‘not even in the presence of a photographer’.
·         He said that ‘a portrait is not a likeness’ and also that he was not interested in the ‘secret of a person’.  But he does seem to have been interested if the subject had qualities that they were trying not to show to him – and it was the fact of their unwillingness that became the portrait.
·         He talks of a ‘kind of embarrassing intensity’ in these ‘peculiar intimacies and needs’ – the need of the subject to give something to the camera and to him plus his own need to take that in order to express himself.
·         ‘Portraiture is a performance, and like any performance, in the balance of its effects it is good or bad, not natural or unnatural’.
·         In the introduction to ‘The Family’ on the website, it says that ‘Avedon avoided expressing his personal opinions of his subjects by allowing them to choose their own pose and clothing, so that his biases would not skew the resulting photographs.  (Perhaps, it occurs to me, he knew that some of the subjects would feed those biases and opinions through their own choices anyway!)
There is lots more on the site, including some specific discussion of the Henry Kissinger portrait that includes reference to Roland Barthes, but this will suffice to describe his approach to making portraits.
So, what does Kander have to say about his approach with ‘Obama’s People’?  Following a similar approach, I am drawing out and summarising some key points from the online source above and the Hotshoe article.
·         He worked with a white background and aimed to shoot all the portraits ‘basically the same’. Keen that the results should not ‘date’ he avoided any specific type of lighting, just using two big softboxes to achieve simplicity and subtlety.
·         Working, as he would be, with a group of ‘no bullshit’, ‘intelligent’, ‘new contemporary’ people, it had to be done in colour.
·         He shot with a (relatively small) hand-held, digital camera, tethered to a computer – though he makes it clear that he doesn’t like to see what he is shooting at the time, other than looking through the viewfinder as he does it, of course.
·         The process of making this series of images is described as ‘athletic’, in that they did 52 people, in five locations, on two visits to the USA – shooting 13 in one day at one point.  Many of them were not used to having portraits made of them.
·         Whilst he says that his usual approach to portraits is to ‘have a real opinion pre-session’, he clearly didn’t have that luxury here.  He needed to watch them carefully as they came into the room, interacted, waited, looking for what he calls the ‘economy of gesture’ so that he could respond to it.  The tiniest of gestures would stand out against the white background.
·         Each person was asked to bring something with them, something that ‘seemed to define them’.
·         The framing was ‘instinctual’ – responding to those who seemed better standing or sitting, full frame or cropped tight – and he saw it as one way of achieving some variety within the sequence.  (Interestingly, he makes a comparison with Avedon’s set – commenting that there was little variety of dress in the modern group compared to ‘The Family’).
·         He talks about ‘a kind of one-on-one’ in which he wants to have the subject respond not just to his words but to his ‘willingness to make a good photograph’, and the talks about this being ‘very unspoken’.
·         He says that humans have a part of them that they put forward when being photographed, sometimes the person they want to be, and sometimes the person that they think you want them to be – but that this happens less with more experience and confidence.
·         There is much reference to the informality of the process and the people – ‘possibly the people of our generation’ were ‘standing so casually’.
·         He sees it as very important to make ‘accurate’ portraits and not direct too much; with this group of human beings, shooting them ‘as they are’.
·         ‘These people were the authors of their own pictures’ and ‘I just composed, photographed and edited.’
·         The use of digital with tethered computer meant that those working with Kander, and many of the subjects, were able to view the outcome immediately, and there was some element of input from the latter.  The major part of the editing was done ‘on the fly’.
·         He added the shadow digitally afterwards – his only piece of ‘post-processing’.  Recognising that one would not normally expect to see a shadow with this type of lighting, he says that it ‘sends a message that something is a little odd’, describing it as his ‘little bit of mustard in the pudding’.
Most of Kander’s commentary that I have looked at is about this particular piece of work, and most is taken from interviews, rather than being the considered presentation of an artist’s work on his posthumous website, but there seems to be some useful scope for comparison between these two.  Some of my own thoughts and comments follow.
·         Both work with plain white backgrounds and both use deliberately simple, subtle, unobtrusive lighting.  The black and white versus colour choice reflects contemporary convention as much as anything, though the Avedon pictures do display high contrast and tonal range compared with Kander’s.
·         Both use careful observation early in the process, looking for small signs that can be used effectively in the portrait session.
·         Both identify a softer, unspoken, emotional tension in the relationship between photographer and subject; and both, in their different ways, see it as a collaborative process – Kander much more so, of course, especially with the opportunity for the subject to contribute to the editing process.
·         I feel that both are concerned with accuracy, albeit expressed in their different ways.  Kander expressly sets out to achieve an accurate portrait, whereas Avedon famously said ‘All photographs are accurate.  None is the truth.’
·         The physical processes are quite different, with Avedon standing beside his large camera, closely observing gestures and looks, punctuating the process with the click of his shutter (and change of plate, one assumes), speaking from time to time.  Kander, partly because of the circumstances, is engaged in an ‘athletic’ activity, camera in front of his face much of the time, one assumes, able to move his position if he wishes.  That certainly throws up the question of some very different techniques for establishing the relationship.
·         Perhaps not unconnected to the previous comment, comparing the outcomes, almost all of Avedon’s subjects stare directly into the lens, whereas most of Kander’s look out of frame, which does produce a more detached result as per my own comments in some of my Projects.
·         One photographer looks to be ‘in control’ whereas the other sees his subjects as ‘authors of their own portraits’ and doesn’t want to ‘over direct’.
·         Kander is photographing a coherent, focused team of people, working together towards a goal, wherein he was partly looking for ways to bring out differences without going too ‘Hollywoody’ (his word).  Avedon’s ‘Family’ is actually a disparate, sometimes competing group of powerful people, and he has used the simplicity and standardisation of the framing to make comparisons and differences more apparent.
There is awful lot more that could be drawn out of this but I think I have probably taken it as far as is sensible at this stage.  Just looking closely into the processes of two different individuals, one very much of this time and the other more of a revered master, is in itself a highly useful exercise.  There is much to bear in mind in approaching my own humble portrait making in the coming months.  Actually, it also relates back very well to something I wrote at the very beginning of this blog – that it was an interest in this process of making portraits that partly drew me into People and Place.  The interest is growing as the course progresses.

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