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.