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.

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