Soul capture and the defining moment

Discussion in 'Portraiture' started by bibowj, Aug 15, 2009.

  1. bibowj

    bibowj Member

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    So today, while getting a haircut, I began thinking about portraiture and what common threads there are in a truly fine portrait. In every kind process there is a end customer that has to find value in what your providing, and if you focus on meeting those needs, youll be successful. So in a portrait, its the person in front of the camera that matters. Like in fashion, its the clothes... but in this case its the person.

    I think there are two common qualitys that make a sucesfull portrait from the viewpoint of the your subject:
    1- You make them look great.
    2- Somehow, you capture some part of their personality in a shot. You show them in their true, yet flattering way.

    I think #1 is about skill and experience, and is doable, but #2 is harder. If you dont know the person , or just met them, how do you capture their true essence in film?

    What got me thinking about this was recently I was looking at my portfolio, and theres one common series of photographs that EVERY one comments on. They were taken on 35mm film, nothing fancy. The model is striking of course, but not any more striking than most models working today. The difference was that I was in love with this woman, and what I captured was that moment. I somehow transferred those feelings from my body, through the lens onto film.

    That leads me to my question, what if anything do you all do to capture someones soul on film, assuming you dont know the subject well? Do you try to have coffee with them first? Talk on the phone? make out? What?
     
  2. Chazzy

    Chazzy Member

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    I think that the interaction with the photographer is everything. The Karsch book that I have mentions that in some cases he stayed for days with his subjects. But apparently he was able to engage people in a few minutes when he had no other choice.
     
  3. keithwms

    keithwms Member

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    The obvious counterexample being Karsh's photograph of Alfred Krupp... not sure if we should really consider that to be a portrait though :rolleyes: :wink:

    ~~~

    The flip side of what you are asking, i.e. how to get to know someone well enough in advance to try to gain entry into their emotional inner sanctum, that approach might well blur the line between objectivity and subjectivity. It will depend on your subject and your intentions, which could be journalistic or glamour.... or you might have some other more nuanced intention somewhere within the vast artistic expanse in between.

    Some photographers simply seem to have more innate ability to read people's expressions and know when the subject is in their element and expressing themselves in a way that makes a compelling photograph.

    As for me, I tend to shy away from most direct forms of portraiture; I suppose it's because I find it quite invasive, and really requiring an emotional connection. Being a scientist at heart I tend to cling to the (silly?) notion that I am merely observing a 'found' subject and not changing it or influencing it in any way. Anyway we all have something to work on!

    ~~~

    Just a piece of trivia, I recall when reading about early photography of the native Americans, it was quite problematic to take their photographs because many of them considered the eyes to, literally, be the doorway to the soul and thus found the photographs very invasive and 'soul capturing' or perhaps even stealing. Indeed one does not see smiling native Americans in any of those early photographs. Anyway, just an interesting aside, and what I read might well have been coloured by some cultural bias.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 15, 2009
  4. lmn

    lmn Member

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    The difference was that I was in love with this woman, and what I captured was that moment. I somehow transferred those feelings from my body, through the lens onto film.

    Don't have any answers for you, but just had to say that is a very beautiful thought. Though maybe there is an answer in there...find a way to feel love for every person we are photographing?

    Look forward to hearing how others do this.
     
  5. Jeff L

    Jeff L Subscriber

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    I read and agreed with a comment made by (I think JL Sieff) that a portrait is not one of the subject, but a portrait of the photographer/artist.
     
  6. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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  7. keithwms

    keithwms Member

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    Yep, sorry! I guess I had Karsh on the brain from his classic Churchill.
     
  8. benjiboy

    benjiboy Subscriber

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    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 16, 2009
  9. keithwms

    keithwms Member

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    Yes, that was the one I had in mind of course; apologies for the confusion.

    I wonder what Karsh would have done with Krupp, hmm!

    Anyway, on the subject of communication, some portrait subjects simply clam up when a lens is pointed in their direction. So it's important that the camera not become something that separates the subject from the photographer.
     
  10. Rolleiflexible

    Rolleiflexible Member

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    Gosh, I just wrote a book about this.

    For what it's worth, I seem to do more
    effortless work with strangers. Making
    a portrait with an intimate takes more
    work for me, with not necessarily more
    success. I think it has something to do
    with cutting through the overtones and
    assumptions of the relationship, and
    finding a colder eye to bring to the frame.
     
  11. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    I don't have a set, canned method.

    This may be of interest:

    "The never-ending fascination for the people I photograph lies in what I call their internal strength. It is part of the hard-to-define secret hidden within everyone, and the attempt to capture this on film has been my life's work."

    - Yousuf Karsh


    I try for that "capture" by downgrading my self-importance with the idea of acting as a conduit between the image and emotional aura - and the final print.

    That really applies to all of my work.

    Simple to write. Somewhat more difficult to do...
     
  12. SchwinnParamount

    SchwinnParamount Subscriber

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    I'm not sure what you mean by 'soul'. Perhaps you mean 'personality' or 'nature'. For example, a person can be outgoing and good-natured. The image you make of the person will capture that as long as there is any sort of chemistry between you and the subject. You simply need to make an image of the subject smiling. You do that and anyone who knows the subject will say "That's Johnny. He's such an outgoing and good-natured person".

    Let me be a little less obtuse.

    If I see a photograph of a perfect stranger who is smiling warmly for the camera, I'll think "that person is smiling"

    If someone who knows the subject sees the same photograph, they will see the smile and fill in the missing data. They will know the subject is a generally outgoing and good-natured person. Then they will say... "Ah, that Johnny. He's such an outgoing and good-natured person"

    The photo cannot communicate anything except the physical appearance of a subject. The viewer must fill in all of the rest.

    Short answer? No. You cannot capture the 'soul' of a subject.

    One more time: If you have a good rapport with your subject, they will relax and react 'naturally' to the camera. When that happens, you capture their normal expression... whether happy or sad. A viewer who knows the subject will see the same face they see when they interact with the subject under normal circumstances.

    The viewer reacts positively to your picture because they see the subject just as they see the subject in actual life.

    Bottom line: Get your subject to relax and be themselves for you. No mystery.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 17, 2009
  13. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

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    I think it's important to remember that a portrait records, primarily, the subject's response to the photographer. Therefore, the photographer (and his/her expressions, words, body language, tone of voice, pace, appearance, etc) is as much a part of the photograph as the subject.

    There are plenty of examples of portraits which are brutality honest and not beautiful, and because of that are very successful. You always must keep in mind your end goal. If you are shooting commissioned portraits for a family, then yes, you will probably need to be sure the images are flattering and present the subjects in their best light. However, if you are shooting portraits to sell in a gallery (for example) you have more flexibility to shoot in whatever way you feel shows the character or the moment most effectively. That was the case in my "regulars" series; they aren't designed to be flattering, but rather are basically raw character sketches.

    When you realize and accept that the photographer is ALWAYS part of the portrait, it becomes easier to flex, tug, and coax the life into the image.

    - CJ
     
  14. Shangheye

    Shangheye Member

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    I am no expert on portraiture, but I have always felt (to take your point further), that EVERY portrait is a projection of the photographers impression of the subject. Afterall we choose the light, the moment and very often the context. At that level, the question becomes, is this a true representation of the person? I find it hard to believe that it is true most of the time. I also do not believe that a single image in any way can summarise anyones personality, though it can be powerful in emphasising a specific trait (e.g. Karschs portrait of Churchill looking resolute, but in fact angry).

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I do not agree with the OP's 2nd item, which I believe is a myth created by photographers to explain a feel or sense in an image, which stands out beyond the image itself. That feel is not necessarily the truth the majority of the time, but an imposition.

    A friend of mine once told me he fealt my street photographs were self-portraits, with their emphasis on solitary existence, detachment and melancholy (rather than sadness). I think he touched upon something, because I see that in the portraits I take also...even of my children...and I have happy kids.

    So I think I go even further than you Cheryl to suggest that more often than not, it is 80% the photographer and 20% the subject...but then I may be just a selfish photographer :D
     
  15. EASmithV

    EASmithV Member

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    I usually do or say something random, or some racist joke, to break the tension and try to create a natural smile right before I snap the shutter, but only if I think a happy expression suits the person.
     
  16. benjiboy

    benjiboy Subscriber

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    The President and the First Lady have just crossed you photographers list :D
     
  17. benjiboy

    benjiboy Subscriber

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    Do You do jokes about leaking oil too ?
     
  18. Jeff Kubach

    Jeff Kubach Member

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    It's not very good down in the Gulf of Mexico, but I'm sure there is jokes about it now!:sad:

    Jeff
     
  19. archer

    archer Member

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    Cheryl hit the nail on the head. The difference between flattery and truth is always in the eye of the subject and our job is discern the difference and remember why we are making the portrait.
    Denise Libby
     
  20. Dave Pritchard

    Dave Pritchard Member

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    The trouble with haircuts is that they encourage philosophy. Watching TV is the cure for that. I think it is impossible to think while watching TV, unless you are thinking how boring it is.
     
  21. nsurit

    nsurit Subscriber

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    One of the things I do well is images of my grandchildren. What I attempt to achive is an image which has me, as photographer and grandparent, connecting with my subject and capturing a moment that expresses what is in my opinion the essence of some aspect of this child. My goal is to create images which my subjects can view many years after I have passed which say to them, among other things, that "I had a happy childhood," ""I was loved," or "I had a special relationship with my grandfather." Don't interpret this as my saying I have a huge collection of images of children growing up with smiles on their faces, as few of my images capture those moments, but rather the images reflect the "real" moments of being a child and, I say, reflect the relationship between the photographer and his subject.

    My images are ones that only a parent or grandparent can created because of the relationship they have with the child and their access to the child. My formula is simple. Love you child where they are, keep a camera handy and see how many times you can release the shutter. Bill Barber