Social mechanics and honesty in portraiture
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"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):
"Now, imagine that you're an Auschwitz survivor and you just lost your entire family"
"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?
In the words of Phillipe Halsman, "JUMP!"
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.
[COLOR=SlateGray]"You can't depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus." -Mark Twain[/COLOR]
Rio Rancho, NM
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 BradS; 04-24-2006 at 10:01 PM. Click to view previous post history.
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.
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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 ...
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.
"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid,
and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"
Originally Posted by df cardwell
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.
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?).
I had heard that to get a particular look from Churchill, Karsh actualy grabed his cigar from him.
Originally Posted by rbarker
When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money. Oscar Wilde Blog fp4.blogspot.com