Thursday, 16 December 2010

Assignment One: A portrait

This first assignment requires that we take one subject and produce 5-7 images of that person, in different types/style.  My subject is Isobel, and some of the following are from projects completed in this first section of the course; others are from different sessions.

This first image is taken, on location, at one of the places identified in Project 2.  I must admit that, when I saw this potential location, it was the contrast between the textures of the site and the texture of the human face that I had in mind.  This head and shoulders portrait highlights that contrast successfully, I would say.  The softness of skin texture, the light smooth shine on the lips, the gentle waves in the hair, the slight highlight in the eyes, and the warm tones of skin and hair, all contrast markedly with the rough, hard, decaying textures & colours in the stone background and the crumbling green/rust/red down-pipe.  Lighting is primarily from a diffused, shaded afternoon natural light, supplemented with a small amount of on-camera flash to fill-in the face.  We worked on a few options in terms of posing, but I think that this gaze to the left of frame, combined with a gentle smile has resulted in a somewhat dream-like look that suits the slightly surreal contrast of texture/context mentioned above.  The smile and warmth of expression in the eyes offer some ‘reassurance’ to the viewer; whereas a more serious, even startled look, could, in this context, have produced a more disconcerting image.  It would have been possible to portray a sense of threat, for example.  I am also reminded, to some extent, of (black and white) images of Hollywood starlets in the 40’s & 50’s, in which they were often portrayed looking upwards and out of the frame; a type of portrait beautifully copied in one of Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits, of course. As a portrait of Isobel, however, it works well in highlighting her features and her hair, whilst adding interest through the slightly surprising context/location.
The second image is taken from a session that Isobel and I shot for Project 2 (we called it the ‘catalogue session’ because we felt the outcome had a look of ‘Littlewoods’ about it!).  A full length portrait this time, it is shot from a slightly elevated position with the subject looking up at the camera, lit by diffused natural light.  The soft, ‘all-over’ light has worked well, I believe, in producing relatively low-contrast image of Isobel in which all facial features, dress etc are evenly balanced.  Although we did spend some time trying different looks etc, I like the relaxed, naturalness of the stance, facial expression, and of course, the gesture with the left hand.  The crop provides a good, balanced framing of the main subject, through the tree branch top left, foliage bottom left, and leaves to the right; and the colour contrast with her clothing works successfully too.  The metal platform, on which she is standing, with its large nuts/bolts, adds another level of overall interest to the image.  As I said above, it does feel a little bit like a catalogue illustration, but it works as a pleasing portrait of Isobel as well, hopefully!
This high contrast, closely cropped facial portrait is quite different.  Also shot outdoors, it is lit by bright afternoon sunlight that is shining over my left shoulder and being broken up by trees; hence the shadows on the face and the considerable tonal range.  We had to work at finding the right position so that the eyes were not in shade but where there was enough shadow for it not to look like a dirty mark on her face, or war-paint!  I made the conversion to black and white in Photoshop after seeing the image on screen; and I did it because I sensed that it would be a particularly effective way of using the high contrast in this picture, which I think has turned out to be correct.  The image is, of course, very dark on the left of frame, almost black.  There is a fair amount of ‘information’ in the shadows in the original RAW file, and I did try versions where that shadow detail had been brought out, but I prefer the very high contrast in the monochrome version, especially since it is balanced by the brightly lit hair on the right side.  The highlights in the eyes and on the lip work well, but I have to admit that I only spotted the one on the ear-ring afterwards; perhaps some sixth sense made me capture it anyway!!  The image has quite a serious and thoughtful feel to it.  The shadows on the face, plus the tiny hint of a frown line, and the gaze directed off frame into the distance, suggest the possibility of something on the mind (other than, can we get out of this bright sunlight, it’s hurting my eyes!).  There is a ‘mature’ sense that differs from the gentleness of smile and expression in the first two – and that is also, in no small part, due to the lighting, the crop, and the mono-conversion.
This portrait is from Project 6,’Best of a sequence’, and it is, for me, the best in this sequence as well.  I have written elsewhere in my blog about my interest in the ‘deadpan’, contemporary photographic style, and this is my ‘take’ on it.  I took some care to select a background that would have as little impact on the image as possible, and then experimented with lighting that would achieve a consistent, soft and ‘low impact’ feel (a ‘bounced’, diffused, off-camera flash, as explained under Project 6), eliminating shadow as far as I could.  There is a very soft shadow behind the lower part of her face, but I came to the conclusion that this was actually quite useful in introducing just a small element of depth to the image.  I deliberately went for the frontal ‘pose’ but asked Isobel to have as little expression on her face as she could.  There is, actually, a hint of a smile, but it seemed to work more effectively than some of the others that almost had too serious a ‘stare’.  I wanted to pare the portrait down to some very basic essentials.  The near symmetry of the pose, facial expression, dress, is accentuated by the simple square crop.  It is, of course, perfectly obvious that Isobel is ‘posing’ for a portrait photo, but I have tried to get as far away as I could from any sense that she is ‘putting on’ a pose.  I want the image to engage the viewer and make him/her want to look, but I’d also like them to wonder what it is about this very simple image that makes them look.  Not sure whether it achieves that, but it is my own choice from the sequence.
In complete contrast, here is Isobel far away from any form of photographic pose.  In one of two ‘action’ portraits in the selection, she is seen with her two horses, leading them out to the field, on what appears to be a cold winter’s day.  I took a number of pictures of her outside in this context – mending a fence; spreading hay on the snow for their feed; taking the horses through gates; breaking ice on their water buckets – but I have chosen this one, even though we don’t actually see much of Isobel herself at this distance.  The low winter sun makes for an attractive light, but the presence of snow, the rugs on the horses, and Isobel’s own clothes tell us that this is not necessarily a comfortable day on which to be out and about.  The three of them make an attractive grouping, but we can also sense that one of the horses is less willing than the other.  The slight turn of Isobel’s head and the expression on her face (just visible, even at a distance) tell us that she is encouraging him, and the position of her left arm also suggests that she is having to pull him along to some extent.  I like the comparison between the previous image and this one.  The former, fully face-on and looking straight at the viewer, might be assumed to tell us a lot about her, fully-exposed to the camera’s gaze.  Actually, this portrait, in which she is relatively small in the frame, clothed in thick winter garments from head to toe, and only letting us see the lower part of her face from many yards away, has so much more to say about her.
The final portrait, another ‘action’-based image, is also from within the ‘horse’ context, but we wouldn’t necessarily know that without the clue from the previous one.  This is taken indoors, in a stable, in low ambient light, using an on-camera flash unit.  I spent some time capturing a range of photographs of Isobel as she cleaned out the stables, and several might have formed part of this set.  I have chosen this one for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I like the composition.  There is a touch of the classic ‘thirds’, with a vertical line implied by her downward gaze, and a corresponding horizontal formed by her right arm; but there are various other interesting compositional lines – the rake handle; the diagonal wooden support in the background; metal verticals, wooden verticals etc.  Then, there are some specifics that I think provide interest – the pursed lips; the hand gripping the end of the rake and the wrist angle; the concentration of her gaze.  Most importantly, I want the image to provide a narrative interest and stimulus for the viewer.  It shows a young woman very clearly absorbed in some form of manual activity, concentrating hard, tensing her face and muscles, not actually posing yet almost seeming to adopt a pose anyway.  Her smooth skin and neat hair are in contrast with the cobwebs, old wood, blue binding string, piece of plastic packaging etc lying around in the background.
Overall, this set uses a variety of styles to show several aspects of Isobel and her life.  It isn’t a comprehensive ‘portrait’ and there are other images that I would have liked to include had time and opportunity allowed – a more ‘formal’ portrait, for example, with Isobel smartly dressed to go out for the evening; and at another extreme, something informal that showed off her sense of fun and humour.  I may even add these later, but it has proved difficult to arrange suitable opportunities.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Project 8: Varying pose (Part 2)

The project was completed in one 90 minute session, with Phyllis as my model (thanks for your help, patience and co-operation in the process).  We worked on three basic ‘sitting’ poses, with multiple variations of hand position, body angle etc within each; and on two basic standing/leaning poses, again with multiple variations within each.  Working from around 100 images covering 40-50 different variants, I have selected the following.
Firstly, five variations of pose whilst sitting in an armchair, including some in which we used a book as an additional ‘prop’.  All five seem to work successfully and the book certainly seems to help ‘relax’ the hands, as well as supplying a narrative element to the images, particularly the last one.  The crossed legs position was retained throughout the first five because we felt it was the most natural and relaxed when the subject was leaning back in the chair.
The next batch is again based on a sitting position, but this time behind a dining table, as though engaged in a meal.
Interestingly, although initially designed to produce a more informal feel to the portraits, it is probably those with a more formal posing position that work most effectively, for example the first and the last of this sequence.
The third sitting pose mimics one that I had seen a number of times in magazines, looking over, and leaning against, the back of a chair. I think that we probably got the best sequence of all from this basic pose.  As illustrated, the back of the chair presents opportunities for many variations on hand positions, of which seven are illustrated here, but we tried one or two others as well, which were less successful.  Thinking about why this pose works well – facing the wrong way in the chair lends an air of informality, for a start; then, as mentioned, the hands are probably more comfortable than in most poses; turning the upper body will tend to tighten the muscles and draw the subject towards the camera.  I noted in ‘Part 1’ of my notes on this project, that some ‘celebrity poses’ have the look of yoga about them.  The top right pose in this sequence has a little bit of that feel about it.  We noticed that the relative positions of the hands/arms in that particular pose didn’t look or feel entirely natural – but interestingly, it works quite well in raising the face to the camera and creating a compositional line from bottom hand up to the face.
We then moved on to two standing positions.  In the first, Phyllis has put on a coat and is standing by a door.  Again, I thought that a degree of narrative would help the eventual outcome and also lend some credence to different poses adopted within the basic one of ‘standing by the door’.
Apart from the fundamental issue of ‘Is she preparing to go out, or is she posing for a photograph’, the key difference between the poses is hand position again.  Of course, as observed in looking at the Rineke Dijkstra portraits earlier, when standing immediately in front of the camera for a full length portrait, especially with a frontal facing pose, the subject is likely to feel some uncertainty as to where their hands should be.  I give direction for most of these variants and, rather like the last set with the chair back, if the hands can be occupied with a door handle or hidden in a pocket, the subject is likely to be most at his/her ease.  The last two illustrate the ‘by-the-side’ issue.  In the first of those two, I simply asked Phyllis to put her arms by her side.  The fingers are tensed, not quite sure whether to face stiffly downwards like a military pose, or to clench into a fist.  In the final image, I specifically said ‘relax your arms and hands as much as you can’; and I feel that the overall result is more relaxed than the one without that direction.
The last sequence of images retains a standing pose, but this time with an element of ‘leaning’ – against a tall chest of drawers.  The leaning aspect makes it easier for a subject to retain the pose and, rather like looking the wrong way over the back of a chair, tightens the muscles whilst introducing the ‘informal’ element again.  There is an opportunity to vary hip position, too, which we didn’t particularly explore here, but which is evident in the bottom left image.  The last images was a bit of spontaneous fun in which Phyllis was mimicking the pose of the angel in the little statue on the chest of drawers.
The project confirmed that there are any number of variations of detailed pose within any one overall positioning of the subject.  It is useful to have some basic ones in mind before a session, but some degree of on the spot creativity and thought is desirable – including working with the subject to understand what feels natural and comfortable to them.  Providing the subject with something to do with their hands helps to make the portrait more natural and relaxed, but I think I can also better understand the efficacy of the ‘celebrity pose’.  Turning, twisting, tensing muscles, introduces a greater element of muscular control, which probably helps the subject to hold a pose, however ‘unnatural’ it might look.
I have chosen the image from each of these sequences that I felt worked most effectively, as follows.

Interesting – none of them is a ‘classic’ frontal facing pose.  To be fair, we didn’t do many of those because of the very nature of the project, but I think I’ve learned something here.  In the context of ‘contemporary’ art photography, the question of the ‘pose’ and theories about what it means are interesting and worthy of study and discussion.  In the context of taking someone’s portrait in, for example, a commercial situation, the skill of putting a sitter at ease, working with them to find a pose that feels most comfortable, or one that makes it easier for them to maintain a position and find something to do with their hands, is essential to achieving a satisfactory outcome.
Many thanks again, to Phyllis, for being an excellent model for the project.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Project 8: Varying pose (Part 1)

Having just spent some time looking at contemporary photographers using the 'simple' (it isn't really, when you consider what has been written around some of the work mentioned in the previous post) frontal pose, the next project is on the subject of varying pose!  The brief refers to the basic poses - standing, sitting, leaning, walking, squatting etc - but then asks one to also consider the variations within those e.g. the way that limbs are positioned, hands, twists and turns of the torso etc.

As suggested, I have looked through a few magazine and newspaper photographs and recorded just a selection of the variants used to pose subjects.

Sitting -  sideways in a dining chair, elbow on the back, head on hands, other hand draped over chair arm; perched on the corner of something e.g. desk.
Standing -  hands on a chair back, table or similar; arms half folded, but one arm free, with a finger under the chin; leaning, one hand on a kitchen work surface, other hand on hip (the teapot!).
Leaning -  over the back of a chair; onto a table - very common approach; against the frame(s) of a door.

I could go on; the variations are myriad.  One thing that does stand out, and it relates back to Rineke Dijkstra's teenagers on a a beach, is what to do with the hands when the subject is standing - pockets, clasped, on hip(s), folded arms, by sides, thumbs in belt/pants, behind back, hand on heart, combinations of these.  And another issue is that the use of hands can easily look false.

On that point, there was, coincidentally, a piece in the Times today about posing for photographs.  I can't do a link because the Times is subscription, but it was entitled 'The experts' guide to posing like Posh' and was apparently prompted by photo of Samantha Cameron besides Victoria Beckham at the British Fashion Awards.  The conclusion was that she had been 'out-posed' by 'Posh', and the article then lists comments from three 'experts' on how best to pose for photographs - the creative director of a popular womens magazine; a yoga teacher; and the Times fashion photographer.  The advice included 'the leg-out pose gives the hips the illusion of being thinner'; 'pulling your tummy in is pretty much a given'; 'The chin is important. Whether you've got none or too many ...'; and 'If you think about pulling your ears up, it activates muscles around your jaw and your neck to give you a mini lift, and makes your neck look taut and supple' (thinking about pulling my ears up makes me feel like I might be in agony and definitely not in the mood for having my picture taken!).  To be fair, some of the best advice comes from the photographer (Zac Frackleton), not least his comment that 'the best pictures of people are always taken by their nearest and dearest'.  (So, where are David's pictures of Posh, I wonder??)

To be serious, the 'pose' does, if one looks closely at so much celebrity imagery, appear to be closely related to yoga.  It seems to require the subject to take up the least natural, but apparently most flattering, body position.  I don't claim to have understood everything I've read of Michael Fried, but the 'pose' feels to fit perfectly into his 'theatrical' categorisation.  And the efforts of the photographers discussed in my previous post to avoid the 'pose' are perfectly 'anti-theatrical'.

Tomorrow, I have a photographic session organised with a subject that I know, Phyllis, and I have been thinking through variations on the standard sitting/standing poses, ones that I would associate with her, because I'm keen to ensure that the images I take look as 'unposed' as I can manage.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Comparing some Contemporary Portraiture

Making portraits is temporarily on hold, awaiting arrangement of some further sessions; and I need find a way to get the wide angle image of my own face off the front of my blog; but, more importantly, I have been following through some reading/study of a few examples of relatively recent portrait-making, which is written up here.
This not being a piece of rigid academic study, I am not going to carefully record when I might quote from someone or other, but what lies below is combined from - 'The Photograph as Contemporary Art' by Charlotte Cotton; 'Training Your Gaze' by Roswell Angier; 'How to Read a Photograph' by Ian Jeffrey; and 'Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before' by Michael Fried.

Joel Sternfeld - 'Stranger Passing', for example; street photography; essentially deadpan portrait photography; stop people and ask them to 'pose', in front of a large camera on a tripod; a record of their personalised uncertainties; he has 'negotiated' and their reaction becomes a 'portrayed fact'; no quick hits or instant revelations; he invites us into the portraits; and they feel less sudden than they actually were.
Luc Delahaye - 'L'Autre' - using a hidden camera on the Paris Metro (cf. Walker Evans); close range and usually just the face; achieve, as near as possible, 'zero authorial presence'; presented in a photobook, with a sense of repetitiveness; uniform determination to absent themselves; painfully aware of exposure to gaze (in a carriage with strangers, each alone, and yet all sharing the same feelings); yet, obviously, completely unaware of the camera's gaze; 'obsessively' records the 'fact' of 'faces on hold'.
Rineke Dijkstra - teenagers on beaches; ask them to be photographed, facing the camera, but with no other 'direction'; full length images; drawing attention to aspects of behaviour that escape conscious control; vulnerability, physical self-consciousness, awkwardness - but with no sense of taking advantage (cf. Diane Arbus?); at point of transition from sea to land - and from child to adult; self-revelation; awareness and unconsciousness respond to the 'problem of posing'.
Thomas Ruff - Portraits - front pose, head and shoulders, even lighting; images of 'friends' (fellow students) with a request for 'lack of expression'; camera 'captures a picture not reality'; cold clarity of a 'likeness', echoing the ID photograph; lack of emotion; playing with the apparent certainty of a frontal pose & the expectation that we can understand a subject; confound our expectations of discovering a person's character through their appearance.

These are over-simplified generalisations of the descriptions, interpretations and analysis of the work but they suffice for my purposes here.  I am drawn to these pieces of work by some distinguished contemporary photographers (and I would draw a parallel with, for example, the landscape photography of Jem Southam, to which I was attracted when studying around the Landscape course.  Reflecting on 'Why?':-
  • I feel drawn towards an edge, towards a boundary of what contemporary photographic art is doing/can do. (One of many potential edges, I might say.)
  • This work strips away and pares down towards some bare essentials; honing down towards some fundamental questions.
What does it mean to make a photographic portrait image of someone? Does it actually mean anything? Why, as aviewer, am I drawn to all these essentialy similar, yet at the same time very different images of people that I don't know and that don't mean anything at all to me?

Some honest responses:
  • because I know that someone I respect has decided to make this image;
  • because I know that others I respect have written about and reviewed the outcomes;
  • but also because the images record the fact of a human moment, to which I, as a fellow human, respond with fascination;
  • because, in my learning and development, I am interested in the making, the negotiation (where it has happened), the planning/intent, and the decisions.
But it is the 'deadpan', stripped away simplicity, focusing onto the moment and what it reveals in the individual images and the series.  At present, that is what is interesting me most in photographing people; and in looking at the way others have photographed people.