People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Photographer: Saul Leiter

This post is a companion piece to my review of the Saul Leiter documentary I saw a week or so ago, as it inspired me to get a decent book of his work so that I could find out out a bit more about his style. I got the simply-titled ‘Saul Leiter’ [1] book which is a combination of photos, paintings and essays on the great but publicity-shy man.

Whereas the film was a great portrait of Leiter the man – immensely talented, ramshackle and charming yet very self-effacing, humble to a fault – the book digs a little deeper and analyses both his work and his influences.

Leiter as pioneer

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

My first response to seeing Leiter’s work a year or so ago was that he was a master of using colour. The book illuminates his place in art history somewhat, as conventional wisdom until about 20 years ago had that colour photography as art really took off at the turn of the 1970s with William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Yet in the 1990s Leiter unearthed a vast collection of his previously unseen work going four decades, using colour as primary element and subsequently rewriting the history of colour in art photography. He denies he was a pioneer, of course, as it doesn’t fit with his ‘aw-shucks-me?’ humble demeanour. The fact that he was overlooked for so long means that he was very much an unsung pioneer, so one can hardly accuse those that came later as jumping on a bandwagon… but it’s interesting in retrospect to learn that these colour techniques weren’t new to everyone by 1970…

What others saw as the limitations of colour film of the day – slower, softer, less precise than black/white – were the aspects that he embraced and turned to his advantage. It allowed his work to be more impressionistic, more experimental, tending towards the abstract and not obsessing about technical perfection. I like the fact that he often used out-of-date film stock as it added interesting unpredictable effects to the resultant photos.

A painter with a camera

Beyond the obvious predominance of colour, dig a little deeper and you realise that Leiter’s style wasn’t simply down to the fact that that he liked to shoot nice colours. Rather, his work demonstrates the depth of knowledge in, and undoubted influence of, much more traditional forms of visual arts, especially painting. Indeed, he painted alongside his photography work for most of his life. He even merged the two disciplines in his over-paintings of photographic prints. He wasn’t just a practitioner of these more traditional arts, he was a (self-taught) lifelong student of artists. With the help of the critical essays in the book (as my own knowledge of traditional art history is somewhat limited) it becomes easier to see how his work is informed variously by Vermeer, Degas and Rothko in his mastery of colour palettes, abstract expressionism in his compositions and even cubism is the graphical structure of some of his fashion work using mirrors to create fragmented images. Put simply, his work is what you get when you give a painter a camera and he sees it as another kind of brush.

Reading the essays, three adjectives stand out, recurring as motifs throughout the analysis: painterly, lyrical, poetic. While the first one of these is visually quite evident, it’s interesting that Leiter’s images are also compared to musical lyrics or poetry, but I understand what they mean. He had the gift of being able to tame photography to elicit a mood, a state of mind, an almost dream-like quality that is quite different to his contemporaries of the New York School, who were all about black/white documentary style, showing real life on the streets. Leiter used his camera on these same streets to produce something much more subtle and non-specific than capturing ‘things happening’. One quote in the book that stood out for me was from Ingo Tabhorn, describing Leiter’s best images as “[having] a non-linear and non-narrative structure that conveys a sound to be heard all around rather than a story.

What and how he shot

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

Outside of a foray into fashion magazine work for a little while (bringing his own style to the genre) his body of work is predominantly US city street scenes, mainly New York, and much of it within a few blocks of his home. He had the kind of eye that could see beauty everywhere. He used recurring visual motifs that clearly fascinated him: umbrellas, hats, steamed-up windows, rain, mist, snow, people in cars, trucks, buses, people in reflections – always some veil or barrier between the camera and the subject. Even in his fashion work he had a fascination with concealing his subjects’ faces – maybe he was self-conscious about shooting people head-on? Or he liked the mysterious aspect of the end result.

I went through the photos in the book quickly writing down short notes per image. The recurring words that came to mind were:

geometry – contrast – colour block – shape – simplicity – framing – secondary point of interest – impressionistic – mist – reflection – unusual focus – sense of mystery – abstract

This is quite an intriguing set of words bearing in mind that they are virtually all street scenes. It’s hard to think of another photographer who could have woven a comparable set images from the same material.

Summary

My respect for the man and his work have only increased as I find out more about him and see more of his output. I’ve said this before about other photographers that I admire, but it bears repeating as it most definitely applies to Leiter: I like the way he saw the world.

Without wishing to be derivative, there are some key aspects of Leiter’s work that I can see working as elements of my own developing style: his compositional (geometrical) decisions are impeccable; his confidence in using swathes of colour as a primary component of the image; his use of windows, reflections and other types of ‘veil’ that the viewer/camera sees through – these are all techniques that fascinate me.

  1. Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag


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Photographer: Craig Semetko

I discovered Craig Semetko through an interview on my favourite photography podcast ‘The Candid Frame’ [1]. An audio podcast might seem a strange way to discover new photographers, as you spend about an hour listening to them talking about their work before you see any of their pictures! But actually in many cases (this one included) my reaction on listening was a good indication of whether I liked the photographer’s work. He came across as very likeable, affable, humble, curious and very interested in people and in the world around him. One particular aspect of his story that resonated with me was that he picked up photography quite late in life – late 30s / early 40s I think – after a successful career as a writer and comedian. An inspiration to all us late starters!

Unposed

Most of my knowledge of his work is through his debut collection ‘Unposed’ [1], shot between 2000 and 2010. As the title suggests, his milieu is very much street photography. He quotes his biggest inspirations as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt – and he even got the stamp of approval from Erwitt who wrote the introduction to Unposed.

In his style and subject matter he is closest to Erwitt by far. He shares a sense of humour and an ability to spot the absurdities of life unfolding in front of his camera. And as Elliott Erwitt is most likely my favourite photographer, I was hoping very much that I’d like Semetko’s work as well.

There is a danger of dismissing Semetko as derivative, kind of an Erwitt tribute act. But he has enough of his own ‘eye’ that this isn’t the case. There’s one aspect of Semetko’s work in particular that stands out to me – he is a master of juxtaposition. Many great photos work so well because of the incongruity of the elements brought together, and he knows this (or does it instinctively). Sometimes the elements are of equal prominence, like the cleaner and the chained angel, and the effect is of a clear allegory. Other times, like the Vietnam shot of the couples looking over the lake and the single men behind them, the balance is so perfect that it helps to convey a whole narrative in a split-second.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Another common type of Semetko juxtaposition is what you might call the double-take shot; the ones where there’s a primary point of interest that would, in itself, constitute an interesting shot… then you spot something else in the background, or in the corner, and the image takes on a new meaning. Or sometimes, raises new questions – for example, there is a great character portrait of a smiling woman in a fringed bikini swinging an SLR camera, then after a few seconds your eye moves to the background… wait, what’s that man doing up the ladder…?

Probably my favourite such double-take shot is this one of the fountain monument in Paris… at first glance you think maybe it’s all a part of there sculpture, but then you realise what the lads are doing up there. It’s a great visual punchline.

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

There are numerous other examples of great juxtapositions, both serious and frivolous, in the book. He has a real eye for these moments. I like the way he sees the world.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  2. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues


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Book: Foto/Industria

As noted in my Assignment 3 write-up, I found it a little difficult to get into the Buildings & Spaces section of the course, particularly due to a lack of guiding inspiration from existing photographic sources – a problem that didn’t occur at all with People Aware and People Unaware.

Compared to the flood of examples of portraiture and street photography, there is a relative drought of photographic works that depict buildings and spaces in use. There is a lot of inspiration around if you’re looking for purely architectural or aesthetic imagery of buildings, but that’s not what I was looking for here; I was searching for examples of photography that effectively showed how a space is used by people – in my view this was at the heart of the assignment.

Foto/Industria

Foto/Industria

The one source I found that broke me out of my ‘photographer’s block’ was Foto/Industria [1]. It’s a boxed set of small booklets (bigger than pamphlets but not quite books) to accompany a curated series of 17 exhibitions in Bologna, Italy, of the same name – all themed around business and industrial photography.

Each booklet accompanies and summarises an exhibition that took place as part of the first Foto/Industria in October 2013. Most focus on one particular photographer, and some more specifically on one of their projects, but the unifying theme is that they are all concerned with the workplace:

  • Many focus on the people in the businesses depicted, and fall more into the portraiture or candid photography genres
  • Others are much more purely architectural and display the grandeur and scale of massive industrial constructions
  • The most interesting ones in the context of my research for this assignment were the ones that showed how the workers and the workplace interacted

Of the 17 collections, there were a handful that caught my attention. They fall into a mix of the second and third categories above – those that focus on the buildings themselves and those that cover how people use the buildings in their work.

Gabriele Basilico

Loro Piana, Quarona, 1991 – Gabriele Basilico

Loro Piana, Quarona, 1991 – Gabriele Basilico

Originally an architect, Basilico’s work is typified by strong geometric shapes, lines and in many cases, repetition. He brings out the corporeal nature of industrial buildings by often focusing on their networks of pipes, wires and ducts that move the necessary solids, liquids and gases around the structure.

Some examples of his work give the impression of a factory as a living, breathing entity – robotic or alien perhaps, but sentient nonetheless. Aesthetically, his work is what you might call traditional industrial style: mono, high contrast, gritty.

Last year I visited an exhibition of David Lynch’s industrial photography and I can see parallels – albeit Lynch’s work focused more on disused and decaying industrial buildings.

Harry Gruyaert

Technip Angra Dos Reis, Brazil, 2008 – Harry Gruyaert

Technip Angra Dos Reis, Brazil, 2008 – Harry Gruyaert

In comparison, Gruyaert has taken a very different aesthetic approach. He is lauded as one of the pioneers of colour photography, and his industrial images are, in comparison to those of Basilico, bright and colourful. His pictures really pick out the colours prevalent in certain industrial environments. Sometimes the colours are very strong and saturated, sometimes more pastel-toned, but often surprising the viewer who might expect industrial environments to be grey and oppressive.

More than the others featured here, he gets beyond the spaces and introduces the people, showing how they interact. Again he plays close attention to colour, often theming a picture around a particular colour such as the green overalled man in the green-painted Cogema plant, or the blue uniforms of the Niger workers against the pale blue backdrop.

Massimo Siragusa

Agusta Westland assembly line, Vergiate, Italy, 2011 – Massimo Siragusa

Agusta Westland assembly line, Vergiate, Italy, 2011 – Massimo Siragusa

Like Gruyaert, this photographer caught my eye due to the way he seems to have developed a unique way of seeing industrial environments. His distinctive vision is based on a kind of ‘hyper-real’ high-key luminosity that renders his subjects pale, pastel-hued and often somewhat ethereal. Again, like Gruyaert he subverts the notion that industrial environments are dark, dingy, grimy and grey.

In some photos the juxtaposition of heavy industry and the almost dreamlike lighting style is quite beguiling – as a viewer you find yourself staring at them, trying to decipher: is this a real industrial workspace, or a stylised set? One does wonder how accurate a depiction it is – either he shoots photographs in sanitised environments (before they’re actually used?) or there’s a bit of post-processing going on. Either way, the end result is that through his eyes you see industrial complexes in a very different way than you do with more traditional executions.

Mark Power

Saint Nazaire. France, March 2004 – Mark Power

Saint Nazaire. France, March 2004 – Mark Power

This is an example of a very focused project, the building of the Airbus A380 superliner. Power does an excellent job of depicting the scale of the activity as the component parts of the place are manufactured in plants in various countries before being assembled.

Again I was attracted partly because of the aesthetic: he finds some interesting, borderline abstract, compositions that lift these images above factory-floor snapshots, and his use of strong blocks of colour are visually striking.

Many of the images seem to be concerned with demonstrating the epic size of the end product; a person here, a propped-up bicycle there, a lorry cab dwarfed by a section of cabin – all give a strong sense of scale. 

Mirelle Thijsen (ed.)

Renato Padovan et al., IGNIS 25, (Rizzoli Editore), Milan, 1969

Renato Padovan et al., IGNIS 25, (Rizzoli Editore), Milan, 1969

The last of the booklets to be worthy of mentioning here is a compilation of images from ‘company photobooks’ that businesses used to produce to promote themselves and/or give to staff and visitors as mementos. Some are more posed and portrait-like in appearance, but the more interesting ones are those that depict (seemingly unposed) examples of people at work.

Some of the working situations are quite distinctive to a particular sector or even company, and it was these that I found most interesting in the context of assignment research – the images that really showed how a workplace was used by the workers. Seeing these examples was where the assignment started to fall into place for me.

 

I didn’t seek to directly emulate any of the techniques I saw in the exhibition booklets in the final assignment – I only included one actual working space (the coach renovation workshop) and one former working space (the converted iron foundry). However, the overall effect of the set of booklets was to open my mind somewhat to the opportunities for taking pictures of spaces designed for a particular purpose, and for that much-needed general inspiration I’m very grateful!


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Book: On Being A Photographer, David Hurn & Bill Jay

This is widely regarded as a seminal text for photographers, and garners high praise in both critic and reader reviews. Unfortunately I must be in the minority as I failed to see what the fuss was about!

Style

On Being A Photographer

On Being A Photographer

Part of the problem for me is in the writing style. It’s mostly based on transcribed conversations between the two authors, which strikes me as an incredibly lazy way to write a ‘book’. I put ‘book’ in inverted commas as it reads more like a long magazine interview, albeit one between two close friends who are so unchallenging with one another that it comes across like eavesdropping on two old mates having a chat. Some may like this (literally) conversational style but I found it quite maddening, and wished one of them (or an editor) had insisted on structuring the whole thing a little more like a traditional book.

Content

Getting beyond style and into content: unlike most readers I found little in these pages that was new or inspiring. Maybe I’ve already read too many books on photography and a form of diminishing returns kicks in. Much of the book is, if not wholly instructional, at least advisory on some of the how-to aspects of photography, admittedly covering areas that other books neglect – e.g. generating ideas for, planning and executing photo projects. But even these sections, as enlightening as they were, left me frustrated as they are written (spoken!) as though they describe The Only Way – and in my view there are a number of ways of ‘being a photographer’.

For example, for a photo essay Hurn suggests a highly structured approach where you write down keyword headings of the ideas you’d like to get across and then proceed to take photos until you’ve ticked off everything on the list. Now, for OCA assignments I actually do work in a similar way to this, as I find the structure helps up to a point – but for personal projects I find such an approach severely limiting. To suggest that this checklist approach is the only, or even the best, way to work is to disregard the magnificent works of the likes of an Elliott Erwitt or a Garry Winogrand, who famously shot whatever they saw that was interesting and only later curated their archives into coherent collections.

What I’ve learned

Although I may have had a bit of a downer on the book, it’s not entirely without merit. Some nuggets did stand out and get the highlighter treatment. There’s one particular idea that really resonated with me:

“… one of their characteristics [bad photographers] is that they look at their contacts in order to discover which is the best picture, whereas a good photographer examines each frame on a contact sheet and asks: why is this one not a good picture?

This triggered something of a change in my mindset. It’s been a gradual process that started when I was studying Art of Photography and my tutor at the time suggested getting a copy of Magnum Contacts, as I wasn’t shooting enough variants per image and was assuming that I could get it right in the camera more often than not; the tutor’s advice and the book itself opened my eyes enormously to the truth that even great photographers generate multiple ‘outtakes’ for every successful photo. The insight above takes my thinking on contact sheets one stage further: I need to start using them as a self-analysis / self-education tool. It’s important, I realise, to understand why the near misses, the not-quites and the outright rejects happened, and to learn from what I discover.

So – not a total waste of time! (but I’m glad it was only a few quid on Kindle…)

Maybe I’ll re-read it at some point and I may be more kindly disposed towards it…

  1. Hurn, D; Jay, B. (1996) On being a photographer. USA: Lenswork
  2. Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson


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Book: Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs

I’ve taken to reading a few more books on photography (not photobooks) recently, having reconnected with my long-neglected Kindle. They range from simple how-to guides on particular topics (light, black & white) to examinations of genres (street photography) to more general musings and insights into what it means to be a photographer. This is probably the simplest and shortest book I’ve read on photography but in a way one of the very best.

Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs

Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs

You have to admire the audacity of someone who titles a book “Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs” [1] but that’s exactly what Henry Carroll did. It’s just a great no-nonsense, plain-speaking guide to photography. Over the years I’ve read more ‘photography for beginners’ books than I care to remember and so I wasn’t even sure why I downloaded it when it was recommended by Amazon. Probably just the audacity thing.

The book deconstructs the basics of photography in an amazingly simple way. Short chapters, one photo to illustrate each concept, plain English. Where it impressed me most is that it goes beyond the usual ‘basics’ – exposure triangle, composition, light – and moves into more creative (artistic?) ideas yet addresses them in the same jargon-free way.

For example, it has chapters on ‘seeing’ that get beyond the technicalities and into the area of photography that fascinates me most – what people see and how they capture it.

Highlights

Here are a few choice quotes that I highlighted as I read:-

“If you want to take great pictures, ones that really stand out from the crowd, you need to stop looking and start seeing.”

“See with your eyes, not the camera.”

“It’s far better to capture the right moment with the wrong settings than the wrong moment with the right settings.”

“Average photographers imitate beauty. Great photographers create their own.”

“The magic of photography, the bit that can’t quite be explained, is you.”

Summary

Did I learn anything new in reading this book? No, not really. But it’s the best articulation of the fundamentals of good photography that I’ve ever read.

  • It’s the book I wish I’d read when I first got into photography
  • It’s a book that I’ll go back to now and again just to strip away all the accumulated nonsense in my brain and remind myself of the basics
  • It’s the book I’ll recommend to anyone expressing an interest in getting started

  1. Carroll, H. (2014) Read this if you want to take great photographs. London: Laurence King


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Photographer: Elliott Erwitt

Ways of seeing

It took me a few readings of Susan Sontag’s On Photography  [1] before I really started thinking differently about photography, but the single biggest revelation for me was this: Sontag points out that when you admire the work of a particular photographer, you’re admiring the way they see the world, and the photos themselves are simply the physical manifestation of that way of seeing.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

The photographer whose ‘way of seeing’ I have come to admire the most in recent months – in particular since starting on People & Place – is Elliott Erwitt. Although I was aware of one or two of his most famous images, my interest was actually piqued earlier this year when in a short space of time I read some of his comments on photography that accompanied a project he did on Scotland [2] and then heard an interview with him on my favourite podcast, The Candid Frame [3]. Some of the things he said struck a chord with me, and in the audio interview he came across as very modest, affable and an all-round nice guy. These things made me curious to see more of his work – hoping his personality and viewpoint would translate into his photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed at all.

‘Snaps’

Elliott Erwitt, 'Snaps'

Elliott Erwitt, ‘Snaps’

After a little research I bought ‘Snaps’ [4], a 500+ page retrospective of Erwitt’s work, mostly his personal rather than professional photography. It’s probably the best £22 I’ve spent since I got into photography – it’s amazing value for the quality and the quantity of photographs.

As a career-spanning retrospective there is always the risk that there is a lack of cohesion – it’s the Greatest Hits, not that one Classic Album. It spans several decades and is rather loosely organised into single-word verb titles – Read, Rest, Touch, Move, Tell, Point, Stand, Look, Play – making it seem very eclectic, disjointed even, on first reading. But looking at a chapter at a time you do start to see the connections, the rhythms in what he sees and how he sees it. My understanding of Erwitt’s personal work is that he doesn’t work to self-imposed projects, he just shoots what he sees that will make a good photo. His themed collections are in fact the results of his poring over his ‘inventory’ after the event, often many years after.

While his style remains distinctive, one of the lasting observations is of the sheer variety of his subjects; there are a handful of what you might consider classic (or cliché) ‘city street photography’ shots but they are outnumbered massively by a bewildering variety of subjects that he has managed to not just point his camera at, but make a great photo out of.

He’s rightly well-known for the humour in his work; the most common response I had as a pored over the images was a smile, occasionally an out-loud laugh. He has a knack of isolating the absurd moments that permeate life, and does so without judgement but with warmth and empathy. He spots visual puns, moments of interaction between people, gestures and stances of blissfully unaware individuals – and positions himself perfectly to frame the moment.

The other admirable skill of his is the ability to imply a whole narrative with a single shot. In his best storytelling shots you can see the past and the future, all embedded in the one frozen moment. The best example of both the humour and the storytelling – and probably my favourite photo in the book – is of the wedding party in Bratsk, Siberia in 1967. The self-satisfied contemplation of the bad lad on the left, the leaning-away stance of the hapless-looking groom, the daggers in the eyes of the furious bride, the concerned friend leaning in… it’s easy to imagine the whole story that wraps around this one picture.

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

There’s only one discordant note in the whole book – a few pages of commissioned portraits: white background, Avedon/Bailey-style. While Erwitt does excellent portraits, his best ones are natural, environmental portraits with a real informal quality to them. The posed portrait series sticks out like a sore thumb and serves to remind how his naturalistic style is what’s great about him and rightly dominates 99% of the book.

The wisdom of Elliott Erwitt

A few of the things he’s said that have really resonated with me, and sum up pretty well why I like the way he sees:-

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

“You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

“The work I care about is terribly simple. I observe. I try to entertain. But above all I want my pictures to be emotional. Little else interests me in photography.”

“All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.”

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

“I don’t believe that photography can change the world, but it can show the world changing.”

“It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.”

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin
  2. Masters of Photography. http://www.themastersofphotography.com/the-project/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  3. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  4. Erwitt, E. (2010) Snaps. London: Phaidon


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Book: Train Your Gaze, Roswell Angier

Train Your Gaze

Train Your Gaze

The big question that this book made me (still makes me) think about is: What is a portrait? (spoiler: I’m still not sure).

I was originally going to write about this book when I was doing the People Aware action of the course, as it is a book about portraiture – indeed, its full title is ‘Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography’ [1]. However, on thinking about it after reading, and once I’d started on People Unaware, it became more apparent to me that a lot of the new insights I gained from this book weren’t just about (what I consider to be the core definition of) portraiture per se – namely the genre of photography concerned with images of people that are aware they are being photographed – but more generally to images of people. This in turn led me to check my own understanding on the meaning of the word ‘portrait’! And the true definition of the word merely means a depiction or likeness of a person, and does not specifically signify that the person is aware of, or posing for, the likeness to be recorded.

However, the book does muddy the waters somewhat by first of all referring to a portrait as “the result of a consensual process… [that] depends on the subject’s agreement to be photographed” (fitting my pre-existing understanding), then going on to include a chapter on voyeurism and a discussion of what most people would call ‘street photography’. So it’s not wholly clear on where ‘portraiture’ ends and ‘taking pictures of people’ begins.

Before getting into the content, I must say: it’s by far the best-looking book on photography I’ve seen, as a physical artefact: thick paper stock, nice matt finish, clear layout, beautiful graphic design and typography; I’m used to this from photobooks but it made me realise that most photography textbooks are aesthetically quite disappointing in comparison.

For the most part, it’s very well-written and easy to digest, even when dealing with quite esoteric themes underlying portraiture. The author has a knack of simply describing and illustrating the concepts under discussion. The one incongruous element of the book is the content of the exercises included in each chapter, which vary from slightly challenging to qualifying the author to be Mayor of Crazytown. It starts off with an hour-long portrait session in complete silence (strange but achievable) and soon tumbles into ‘take friends with you to recreate a street photograph’ and ‘be a voyeur’ with the helpful hint “You can hide in a closet”!). These seemed to be at the outer edges of what I’d expect most readers to be comfortable with.

Exercises aside, its core content is very enlightening. It starts with an assertion that the portrait isn’t just the result of the sitter being in front of the camera, it’s the outcome of the interaction with the photographer – “the presence of the photographer’s thoughtful regard” as a key ingredient. It talks straight away of “cultivating this presence, this way of looking”, hence the title.

Angier dives straight into challenging norms of portraiture in the second chapter, with its examination of the non-facial portrait. Shadows, reflections, other body parts, covered faces – all of these can form a portrait, albeit a non-traditional one. The following chapter is where the consensual element of portraiture starts to be questioned, as he discusses the street work of Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson, particularly from the point of view of compositional decisions. This expansion of the definition of portraiture continues in the chapter on ‘active portraits’; who would have considered Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Attack” image to be a portrait? By the chapter on voyeurism and surveillance the notion of a portrait of consensual has been discarded. Then in an ironic twist, or going full-circle maybe, the image used for the front cover of the book is explained: one of the ‘Stranger’ series by Shizuka Yokomizo, where the stranger is shot in their window with the photographer hidden from view outside. The twist is that while this uses the techniques of voyeurism, the stranger has agreed to stand in the window for precisely this purpose. So it’s definitely a ‘portrait’ by anyone’s definition.

The later chapters cover portraiture in the context of its relationship with identity – interesting, but veers into the overly contrived end of the genre that normally leaves me cold – and challenging the norms of more technical (or rather technique-driven) aspects of portraits, from blurriness to darkness to the use of flash. The chapter on people in the context of places is something that I will certainly return to as part of the ‘People interacting With Place’ part of this course.

This book widened the subject out and made me aware of the possibilities – the ways of looking, the different perspectives, the opportunities to pick apart, challenge or entirely subvert the generally-held norms of what a good portrait is. It made me think, a lot. I don’t wholly agree with every word, but I think that’s what makes it such a good book – one of the best I’ve read in all my photography studies so far.

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA