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  1. #1
    bjorke's Avatar
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    The Subject of Portraiture

    Quote Originally Posted by c6h6o3
    My most pressing aesthetic struggle at the moment is with portraits. How do we reconcile the fact that by definition, the portrait is "about" the subject? (I mean it's tautological - you can make the person an effective part of the overall composition, but the basic focus is to represent the subject.) Ah, but I wax philosophical. Better we should start a new thread on that one.
    Here you go

    IMO, it's an issue of context. The subject of the simple and direct sentence "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen" might be the immediacy of a single day, but it also opens "1984" and begins the loveless spine of that work.


    [SIZE=1]London, 2002[/SIZE]

    If you are photographing against a flat canvas, what does that mean? What is hidden, what is there in the negative? What are you seeking? What if these people were at home, at work, in front of the stars and stripes, or dying slowly in an AIDS hospice? Comfortable suburban portraiture is just that. Probing portraiture, even suburban, is revelatory and requires a specific vector of intent from the photographer. Portraits can reveal individually or be the bricks and mortar of a larger structure. What about them compels you, about the images, the circumstances, the specific or the generic character of these people?

    "Marley was dead, to begin with."
    Last edited by bjorke; 10-31-2004 at 06:29 PM. Click to view previous post history.

    "What Would Zeus Do?"
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  2. #2
    Cheryl Jacobs's Avatar
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    As some photographer or other once said, a portrait is always about two people: the sitter, and the photographer. There is always something of the photographer in every portrait, which I find wholly appropriate and somehow comforting.

    I think too many portraits are only about what the subject looks like, rather who the subject is at that moment. The reason I prefer to photograph people in their natural environment is that their familiar surroundings 1) are very much a part of them, and 2) provide an atmosphere where it is easier and more comfortable to coax something deeper than a surface smile.

    It takes very little environment in a portrait to give context and meaning to an image. When photographing a child on mom and dad's bed, I don't have to include the whole bed; I can photograph the child quite close-up, and the little bits of pillow, headboard, and blanket are sufficient to tell the story.

    Maybe slightly off-topic, but I think the temptation is to label any bit of context in a portrait as "distracting".

    OK, I'm very tired right now, so I'll have to reread and rephrase some of this after I've slept a bit.

    - CJ

  3. #3
    SuzanneR's Avatar
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    I think August Sander's portraits are some of the strongest ever made. They reveal the individual and the context in which they lived. He is a great one to look for inspiration. Bjorke, you've said very eloquently what I think Sander achieved. I also believe that a strong portrait is a strong photograph.

  4. #4
    jd callow's Avatar
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    When I'm shooting a person...
    For me it is about the object as a physical form first (shape, contours, texture and colour/tone). The psychological is second and is like gilding.

    Environmental portraiture is something different and is less about the person and more about people, and the human environment.

    My approach may make my portraiture some thing different than true portraiture. I really don't think about the story being captured as much as does this 'work' for me. It is all intuitive. After the fact I can apply all sorts of words or meanings and some of it may not be tripe, but for the most part the picture is good if I intuitively understand the subject and how to shoot it.

    *

  5. #5
    Bob Carnie's Avatar
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    I agree with Suzzane 100% , August Sanders work has a very strong place in my heart.

  6. #6
    bjorke's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mrcallow
    When I'm shooting a person...
    For me it is about the object as a physical form first (shape, contours, texture and colour/tone). The psychological is second and is like gilding.
    While there is an appeal to such an approach (I've done it myself on occasion) I have a hard time with it philosophically, as it reduces the person to a set of disparate decorative objects (viz. the now-standard pomo feminist criticism of Weston). In a reductive sense, this is true for all portraiture (even more so for painters, and esp for advertising). However the quick dismissal of "psychology" I find... difficult.


    [size=1]11 months[/size]

    I hope the post above does not sound like a condemnation of non-environmental portraiture, there is a long history of successful studio portraiture (and a lot of environmental portraiture that is so manipulated as to erase the environment/studio distinction). Nor do I think, as in my example, that an involuntary subject always makes the best subject. A short session with Bergman's A Kind of Rapture will dissolve such a notion.

    I hope that c6h6o3 also chimes in. Why is there a need to "reconcile" the subject of a portrait? What is meant by this phrase, that the presence of the sitter's identity is so clear as to challenge that of the photographer?

    "What Would Zeus Do?"
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  7. #7
    Nicole's Avatar
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    Bjorke, I love that shot! What lens, settings did you use on this?

  8. #8

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    A lot of my portraits are not to show who the person is. The model is used to show a certain emotion or expression that I like to show. The model, of course, is of big influence on the final result, but I use them to express what I want to show. I instruct and tell exactly what I am after. And then we play along and see what happens (while I instruct along the way).

    With kids, of course, I use a different approach. Then I put the instructions away and simply capture what I like.

    Greetings Morten

  9. #9
    jd callow's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bjorke
    While there is an appeal to such an approach (I've done it myself on occasion) I have a hard time with it philosophically, as it reduces the person to a set of disparate decorative objects (viz. the now-standard pomo feminist criticism of Weston). In a reductive sense, this is true for all portraiture (even more so for painters, and esp for advertising). However the quick dismissal of "psychology" I find... difficult.
    Bjork,
    I rely, however successfully or not, on my innate understanding. It really isn't as much dismissal of the of the psychological, but a reliance upon my experience as a person and my development as an artist (or fluency in the medium) to express my self without being deliberate (I choose this word because every other I can come up with-- contrived, intellectualized, etc. -- reads in a derogatory manner which is not my intent).

    In other words, I know it is a man/woman/child that I am shooting and I know that their humanity is going to emerge. I just don't think too hard about that and focus on the object.

    I am not referring to portraiture for pay, so my motivations and expectations are different than others.

    *

  10. #10
    SuzanneR's Avatar
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    [QUOTE=mrcallow]Bjork,

    "In other words, I know it is a man/woman/child that I am shooting and I know that their humanity is going to emerge. I just don't think too hard about that and focus on the object."


    This is a great way to make a portrait, and, as you said so nicely, your sitters humanity will emerge in the final work. I'll just add one more example from the history of photography that I think is relevant here: Steiglitz and O'Keefe. The photographs of her are clearly collaborations between sitter and photographer, and I think form and light were important when they were shooting the photographs, and Steiglitz printed very expressive prints, some are graphic, some dark, and each fit with the emotional tone of the moment. The content of the work reveals so much about their humanity and their lives. It's great stuff!

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