Social mechanics and honesty in portraiture

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by kwmullet, Apr 24, 2006.

  1. kwmullet

    kwmullet Subscriber

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    This image of Peter Williams set me thinking about something again.

    I want to know about the dynamic of going up to strangers and asking to take their picture. My understanding is that when Avedon went out into the American West, Laura Wilson broke the ice with potential subjects and talked them into sitting (well, standing) for him. How would have In the American West been different if it had been Avedon alone?

    Here's another inspiring bit of portrait hunting, with an 8x10 yet.

    I think part of it is my own hangup about feeling legitimate. If I were a photo student, or were doing a project for a gallery or book, I think I'd be able to convey more legitimacy than if I was just some yokel out taking pictures of people. Coloring everything as 9/11 and the subsequent paranoia does, any kind of behavior out of the ordinary could yield suspicion, and it's a given that if a man and a woman are out doing exactly the same thing, the man will be looked upon with greater suspicion.

    Then, there's the whole issue of disturbing the shot if I interrupt it to ask someone's permission. I talked to Jeremy Moore about this earlier today, and he mentioned that he doesn't ask permission -- he just shoots. Hmm..

    Street shooters and portraitists alfresco of APUG, what say you? What have you learned in your collective years?

    I'd like to be able to hop in my car (without a map, even) drive to some interesting place and fill my film with introspective portraits of people I never met before I took their picture. Now, I'll leave the questions of "Introspective of what?" or "what value does a portrait of someone you hardly know have?" for another discussion. [well, apparently not, as I wander into that topic below...] What I want to know now is two things; the social mechanics of approaching strangers whose default reaction would be suspicion to take their picture.

    I also want to know about the part of portraiture that has nothing to do with photography. In a PBS thing on Avedon, I saw him giving a masters' class on portraiture, and there he was with a TLR about three or four feet from his subject/student...
    "Okay... just empty your head of thoughts"
    "Now, imagine that you're an Auschwitz survivor and you just lost your entire family"
    Or when he was shooting two of the Windsors who were just putting on their "portrait faces" and he wasn't getting anywhere (he had prior knowledge that they loved their dogs):
    "Sorry if I seem a bit off. On my way here today, my car ran over a dog and killed it"
    Granted, these are two higly manipulative examples, but what kinds of social devices do you use to reveal a subject's pallet of emotions, or would you even want to do that? If they're stiff and nervous is your task then to photograph "stiff and nervous" or "plastic smile" or however they are without attempting to reveal more of them/yourself in their "mask"?

    I struggle with this issue in photography of children as well. Do you manipulate them to be happy, pouty, affectionate to their siblings, etc?

    It seems to me, there's a continuum in portraiture from photographing "how someone looks" at one end to "who someone is" at the other. Of what value is honesty in portrature? If the portrait is more-or-less equally of the subject and the photographer, does emotional manipulation corrupt that honesty? Is all photography honesty? Avedon said that if it wasn't there, it couldn't find its way into the picture, so does anything you can get to happen in front of the lens qualify as honesty, even if it's the synthetic honesty of who someone is, what they're projecting and what you're trying to manipulate it into?

    -KwM-
     
  2. Lachlan Young

    Lachlan Young Member

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    In the words of Phillipe Halsman, "JUMP!"

    :D

    Lachlan
     
  3. rbarker

    rbarker Member

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    I'm of the opinion that each photographer must develop the techniques with which they are comfortable. While storis abound of photographers manipulating the emotions of the subjects, sometimes to the point of being verbally abusive, I remain unconvinced that any image is worth that sort of approach.

    The flip side of the coin, of course, is that most (non-street, non-candid) subjects require "direction" to get good results. My preference is to discuss this with them in advance, and then, with their agreement, use the softer versions of those "acting" techniques - the "close your eyes and imagine [whatever]" sort of thing. If you've discussed their personal interests, hobbies, work, etc. with them, you'll have a sense of what things to use in such exercises. If they have had any drama experience, such as school plays, all the better.

    This method is probably less efficient than Karsh falling on the floor in front of Churchill, but it feels better to me.
     
  4. BradS

    BradS Subscriber

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    Yeah. I wonder about this exact thing too. Especially in light of Roak Johnson's stanger a day portraits. I actually have long involved day dreams about it....how does he do it?

    I imagine that he's got an elaborate set up that he's (conveniently) not disclosing. Signs? Suductive women? I don't know.

    Sometimes, when shooting small format in the street, I just trip the shutter without asking or even acknowleging that it is any concern of anybody else. That always leaves me feeling a bit guilty.

    More often, I simply pause, show the camera and make some awkward non-verbal communication indicating my desire. Than, I look for an approval from the potential subject. I find that the key is to be non-verbal. Not get too involved with the person until after the exposure - if at all.

    Good question though.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2006
  5. lee

    lee Member

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    I always ask. I always talk to them a bit. I always ask them to look directly into the camera lens and not away or at me. I decided at that time when it is appropraite to trip the shutter.

    lee\c
     
  6. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    when i was in school and started taking portraits for the first time, i used to just steal the image. not tell anyone that the camera was taking their portrait ... that is until i was nearly beaten up at a diner when the guy grabbed my camera and threatened to beat me with it.

    since that night in 1986, i have always asked, had a small conversation and taken the portrait. it is strange, i hate talking to strangers, but if i have a camera ( big, small ) i somehow get over the fact that i hate talking to strangers and approach them, and eventually take their portrait.

    everyone does something different ... that is what i do ...

    john
     
  7. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    There is a monumental difference between a picture of a person, and a portrait.

    " A true portrait should,today and a hundred years from today, be the Testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was. Philippe Halsman

    Without knowing the person, or at least making an attempt to know the person ( which demands some humility, respect, or at least polite interest ) it is not a portrait.

    It is a grab shot, a snap, a dishonest and empty thing. It may SUGGEST something to a viewer, but with no connection to the reality of the person, it is simply an appropriated image.

    .
     
  8. AZLF

    AZLF Member

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    Thank you. I was going to post something similar to what you said as I read down the different posts but you have said it quite well. A portrait is a good deal more than a snap shot of someone. No matter if the shot is taken with an 8x10 or a Minox.
     
  9. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    Sometimes, a quickly grabbed photograph can truly be a portrait, but only if you are lucky, or very, very good (or probably both).

    I think the essence of the question is what the photograph reveals of the subject. If you just wander around and snap pictures, they are usually not too revealing, but there are exceptions.

    I think of some of the famous Henri Cartier-Bresson images - the decisive images are often portraits in themselves.

    From a Canadian perspective, there is a famous photograph of the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau coming downstairs (and sliding down a bannister for part of it) which is such a revealing portrait, that the Karsh portrait of him pales in comparison.

    A process that involves becoming fully familiar with your subject is more likely to result in success, but one should leave open the possibility of near divine inspiration (or should that be intervention?).
     
  10. livemoa

    livemoa Member

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    I had heard that to get a particular look from Churchill, Karsh actualy grabed his cigar from him.

    Brave man.
     
  11. AZLF

    AZLF Member

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    I was going to disagree with your descritption but I googled the word at a few online dictionaries all of which had about the same definition:

    "The likeness of a person, painted, drawn, or engraved; commonly, a representation of the human face painted from real life."

    Although none of the definitions included the word photograph I think the general meaning is clear and does not exclude the chance grab shot. However having shot portraits professionally at one time and having developed a personal preference for a certain type or style I would include one proviso concerning the "true" portrait. That proviso would be that the subject was both an aware and willing participant in the process. Many I'm sure would disagree.
     
  12. haris

    haris Guest

    Yasterday at ARTE (French/German sattelite artistic channel) I saw documentary about one German (he has German name and he was talking at German language)photographer who is working in New York, documentary how he photographed people for his book (which I saw in bookstores). I don't remember his name. Not "nobody", he was shown photographing Kaiser (Franz Beckenbauer) who just for that photo shooting came from Mexico to New York. That means serious photographer.

    Now, that photographer made setting on street (flashes, background, etc...), even he had assistants around. So, he approached people passing by with next words: "Would you let me to photograph you, you will receive 5 dollars and Polaroid" (meaning Polaroid photo from shooting, not Polaroid camera... :smile:

    One way of approaching your subject...
     
  13. Poco

    Poco Member

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    "I don't remember his name. "

    Could it have been Gerrit Engle? I had an email exchange with him in which he mentioned some project in NY, but didn't give details.
     
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  15. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    I attended a lecture by Karsh in the late 1970s and, IIRC, that is how he described what happened. Interestingly enough, he also showed us another image that he shot during the same session - a pleasantly smiling Churchill - the effect was certainly much less remarkable.

    The lecture was very good. He was very capable of keeping the interested attention of a large auditorium of people. Of course, he did bring slides. :tongue:

    I got to chat briefly with him afterwards - it is one of those memories that stays with me.
     
  16. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Well said, Don, as ever!

    Got me thinking about grab shots as opposed to more posed portraits. I'm not sur eI would always characterize them as empty... they can be quite revealing about the person, or, for that matter, the human condition. Of course, only the most observant among us can make such 'grab' shots. You know... HCB, Helen Levitt, etc.

    My son's school sent home these "portraits" that they had made of the kids last month. Not a bad snap, and I'm sure the photographer had a passing interest in the kids... at least to get enough "expression" out of them to sell some prints. Not nearly as revealing as the myriad grab shots I've made of him.

    When I'm photographing other people's kids, I'm polite, and try not to carry too much gear. I'll take a spot meter reading instead of incident... sometimes the light meter gets them confused, especially when you stick 'em in front of their faces for an incident reading! :tongue: I just let them play... and watch. Eventually, they'll get interested in the camera, and give you a good look!

    As for strangers, it's something I don't do very much, but if I had to, I'd ask, try to get to know them a bit. Gives me a chance to watch them a little. And get an address.. to send them a print!
     
  17. tim elder

    tim elder Member

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    At least one of HCB's famous portraits is a grab shot, the picture of Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie at their doorway. A portrait session had been arranged and he was expected, but he took that photo as soon as they opened their door and he knew that would be the one he would use.

    There is a need to have the confidence to feel legitimate when taking portraits and rather than fight that feeling, I think that you should do whatever you need to feel that you have the right to take someone's picture. If that means using a view camera, hiring a female assistant, taking a portrait photography class at a local college (three examples from the original post), then go for it.

    Some people are very sensitive to cameras and paranoid about having their picture taken; in three or four years of doing street photography, the people who have been most offended by my activities are people whom I never even intended to shoot. Just seeing the camera is enough to offend them.

    Something I've been planning to try is the method Bruce Davidson mentions that he used for his book "Subway." Since he was using flash in a potentially dangerous environment, he would carry a book of his subway portraits and promise a print in order to make his subjects at ease. Of course, the fact that he had a press permit, that he was a member of Magnum, and that he was a well-known photographer couldn't have hurt!
     
  18. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    I've started a couple of threads in the last couple of years about the whole concept of a "portrait".

    One was comparing a snap shot to a portrait and the other was a smart ass thing about capturing the "essence" of the subject. If you have no life and wish to plow through then again, here are the threads.

    http://www.apug.org/forums/showthread.php?t=6756

    http://www.apug.org/forums/showthread.php?t=4336

    But in my opinion, and I see the word "portrait" all the time here and everywhere else, where someone took a picture of a human face (or a dog face etc) and called it a portrait, it, in most cases it reveals nothing more about the subject than the fact that they have a face.

    On the other hand, there are the people that love to rave, "oh my god, you've captured the "essence" of that person", and that leads to a certain amount of nausea from me as well.

    In the first place, lets take Karsh's Churchill. Cool portrait. But is it really Churchill or just the way he wished to be represented as a stately old curmudgeon, or was he constipated that day and needed to get this thing over with.

    Let's face it. People are multi faceted, multi dimensional, moody and egotistical, and can any picture really capture their "essence". I doubt it. It may capture a mood, a split second expression, a phase of their life, or even the posed, put on expression that they wish to world to see. Is it their "essence". Who the hell knows.

    So is a grab shot a portrait, is "churchill" a portrait, does Avedon's parking hillbillies against a white background while standing slack jawed looking into the camera, a portrait? Or is it just some facial muscles and skin stuck in 125 of a second while the shutter is tripped.

    Can a camera really capture anything truthful about someone or is it just the viewer slipping their interpretation over the picture and calling it the essence of the subject.

    Michael
     
  19. thebanana

    thebanana Subscriber

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    Apparently Karsh removed a cigar from Churchill's grasp just before taking the shot, hence the scowl. Like a lot of major world events, it was all about a cigar:smile: . Maybe it is also portrait.
     
  20. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    There's just no such thing as honesty/the truth in art, it just doesn't exist. Supposedly Karsh yanked the cigar out of Churchills mouth and as a result he looks pissed, the point is that he could've just as easily look pissed in a way that turned out to look terrible when Karsh took this shot and then the shot would've gone in the wastebasket.

    Candids of folks who don't know they're being photographed shot by point nshooters who don't know how to manipulate a photographer aren't the truth either, but they're less manipulative of the subject matter and more honest than the image taken by the master of photography whose waited 6 hours for the light to be just right.

    It's impossible to separate the artist from his work, I say deep down, nobody/no artist even wants that, they want to do work that's 'well done', 'interesting',..........Ansel Adams or Avedon, a perfectionist, somebody meticulous, photographing anybody, anything, anywhere, getting the most interesting image, is the exact opposite of the truth cuz when things look bad, that's part of the socalled 'truth' too.

    The truth is a setting/landscape where the conditions look like shit, while Ansel Adams was waiting for it to look different, what he/we look at and choose not to take is just as much a part of whatever honesty or truth you're after as what you did take.

    Every photographic image ever taken only provides a small slice/wisp of what was actually there to be photographed, every photograph, is an illusion.

    I think it's taking photography too seriously, when when folks start to think that a photograph can be anything more than a convincing illusion, one of my portraits I'm most proud of, where the sitter has this look, she looked for only a mircosecond before she busted up because of a joke she heard while we were shooting, the moment I shot doesn't reflect in any way her real mood, I'm not telling anybody what she really was thinking when I shot her and some folks have asked, cuz it's NOT IMPORTANT, I got the LOOK I WANTED, that's what was important, I wasn't after the truth/an attempt to convey her honest feelings, photography/portrait photograhy is nothing more than interesting subject matter done well visually, and you pick and choose, dodge and burn, crop, reframe, bias the exposure, to get that.
     
  21. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    People shooting is as much about you as it is about the people you want to shoot, if you got a knack for it, you'll just know when to ask, and when to start shooting.

    If people don't feel threatened by you, uneasy around you and your camera, many, not all, will 'let you in' their space, and give folks credit, they'll look at you and make an instant judgement, if you see well enough to be a photographer, you'll see well enough to know whether the look on their faces means 'yes' or go away, when you approach.
     
  22. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    If folks feel accessible to you, where they may come up to you,......'so you're a photographer huh!!!???'......................you'll be accessible to them, it'll works two ways,...........................as opposed to somebody looking at you with the 'there's a creep with a camera' look,...........you'll know either way.

    I've felt both those emotions, sitting out on the beach with my family watching other folks take photographs.
     
  23. johnnywalker

    johnnywalker Subscriber

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    I think Karsh took the cigar out of Churchill's hand, hence the grumpy look. Churchill's wife never liked the portrait, because it didn't portray him as he really was. The other, smiling, picture was much more like him, at least to her. I suspect Karsh knew that the "grump" picture was what people imagined Churchill to look like.
    Karsh only had a few minutes to take the portrait, so he did what he had to in order to get the look he wanted in the time available.
     
  24. George Papantoniou

    George Papantoniou Member

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    I'm afraid I'll have (for once more) to agree with Michael here. There are times, though, when photographic portraits really seem to be really "speaking" about the person photographed (a trick of the viewers mind, without doubt).

    I tend to prefer studio shots in the style of Penn (or Karsh) and not snapshots, because of the lighting. I don't appreciate the "snapshot" - style portraits of HCB, even the ones that weren't "stolen".

    Returning to one of the original poster's questions, being able to ask (and convince) some stranger to sit for a shooting is something that I would like to achieve in an easy way, too. I think that (as you aren't a student) you could tell people that you're an artist and doing a big project that involves photographing people (adding "outside" or "in their house" or "without any clothes on" or whatever you choose). It might work with certain persons, especially if you add some details like "when the project is completed there's going to be an exhibition and you'll be invited" or "there's going to be a publication and you're going to get a copy". If your intention is not to get the work exhibited or published, you can always claim that it did't work and the project was abandoned. When I did that a few years ago (there was really a project and it was abandoned, I didn't lie) everyone that was asked to sit for a shooting said yes. Of course, I didn't ask people to take their clothes off...

    How do you think Diane Arbus convinced all the people on her pictures to sit for her ?
     
  25. Mike Té

    Mike Té Subscriber

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    I agree for the most part with the above except for the use of the word "dishonest".

    We've all heard the word used especially in the context of grab shots of down-and-outers in street photography, in the context of exploiting their situation for an image without permission or without establishng a personal connection (however brief) with that person. OK, I agree with that to a certain extent.

    But to generalize to all quick-snap portraits of strangers, the essence of candid/street photography, I think is unfair. I think the word "dishonest" is used too readily; we're often too quick to imagine some kind of moral deficiency in others' actions. It's the oozy edge of political correctness finding its way into all we endeavour.
     
  26. PatTrent

    PatTrent Subscriber

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    Whether photographing strangers or friends and family, I always ask first, and unless it's someone in my own household, I always offer to send them a print. I've never had a problem approaching people, and it definitely helps that I'm a woman--and now a "senior citizen" too! I never had anyone refuse, or refuse to allow me to photograh their children. But then, again, I didn't generally approach people who were "signalling" a desire to be left alone.

    In my youth I photographed for a local newspaper doing general news, and later major league baseball. Even with the players, I always asked first, was never refused. They (and their wives) always said I took "the best pictures." I doubt that the latter was true, but it expressed their appreciation for the respect I showed for their privacy--even as "public" figures.

    It post 9/11 days, people are even more concerned about their privacy, so I think it's even more important to seek permission.

    Pat