People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Sandro Miller’s “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich”

Homage to Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), © Sandro Miller 2014

Homage to Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), © Sandro Miller 2014

Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters

This has been doing the rounds online for the last couple days, and rightly so. The photographer Sandro Miller has collaborated with his friend, actor John Malkovich, to produce a series of homages to photographs that influenced or otherwise impressed him – all lovingly and accurately recreated with Malkovich as the subject.

And it’s awesome. Playful, respectful, technically admirable, joyful, surprising – it’s just damn near perfect.

I hope it’s acceptable to reproduce one of the images here – to see the rest you should go to the gallery’s own site.

My favourite photo project, ever

I know I only saw it two days ago but every time I see a link – no, every time I even think about it now – it makes me smile. It’s already my favourite photo project. (I choose my words carefully: I don’t say “the best” or anything trying to sound authoritative; I’m singly expressing my personal opinion, and no-one can tell me it’s not my favourite…)

There are a lot of photo projects that I appreciate, I admire. Robert Frank’s The Americans, Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, Tony Ray-Jones’ A Day Off, more recent works by young and contemporary photographers such as Robin Maddock’s III, Mark Neville’s Deeds Not Words – these are all great works for many different reasons, and I consider them all part of my photographic education and inspiration.

But this is the first photo project that I can honestly say that I love. Like you love a great novel or a classic album.

What’s so great about it? Lots of things. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s a project

I love a good photo project; whilst overall I guess my favourite photographer is Elliott Erwitt, I don’t consider that he does projects per se, he shoots what he likes the look of and then curates into collections after the fact. This is cool, I love his stuff, I love the way he sees the world. But a big part of what I like in photography is the tenacity and focus of a project. There’s something I like about the creative mind deciding to do something that hasn’t been done before and painstakingly working within whatever constraints they’ve set themselves to realise their vision. Maybe the fact that I work in project management as my day job has something to do with this? I personally like to have a coherent focus for a body of work (whether a degree assignment or a personal project), and increasingly see this as something I admire in others.

And I particularly love a simple concept, done brilliantly. Which this is.

It’s inherently about photography

I reckon photo geeks must be magnetically attracted to this project – this is unashamedly photographers’ photography. It’s the equivalent of a fantastic covers album. Recognising the works, seeing Miller’s obvious love and respect for his influences coming through – it’s the rare collection that I look at and think “I wish I had done that!“. Also, I’m currently in the thinking phase of my next degree assignment, and I’m working on it being a portrait series of some sort. This has sparked some inspiration. Indirectly, but inspiration nonetheless.

So I love it cos I’m a photo geek.

It’s technically excellent

Follow-on from above point. Now, I don’t normally obsess over technical quality in photos, I prefer the emotion/message/intent/vision to come across, that’s what makes a great image. As Ansel Adams apparently said: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”… but in this case, where recreation is the whole point, one can’t help but be impressed by the mastery of his art that Miller shows here. He’s like a master art forger! His attention to detail – in lighting, in props, in composition, in colouring – is superb throughout. At first glance at a few of the images I thought the whole thing was a Photoshop stunt (maybe done without Malkovich’s consent!?) but once I read the accompanying story I realised the work that had gone into this – from both of them – and was suitably blown away.

It’s just very satisfying to see someone who has mastered their craft (as long as they apply it to concepts that are interesting).

It’s John Malkovich!

I can’t imagine this whole thing working with anyone else. I’m a massive fan of the film Being John Malkovich, and the very premise (and title) of the collection clearly harks back to that insane film. I love that Charlie Kaufman wrote such a crazy story, I love that Spike Jonze brought it to the screen, but most of all I love that Malkovich starred in the thing! Prior to that film I saw him as a brilliant but very serious ac-TOR and his willingness to play around with notions of his own identity in that film was thrilling to watch. It seems to be with the same spirit that he threw himself into this project.

Add to this that he’s such a great actor that he can bring his skills to these unmoving images – his Einstein, his Dali and his Monroe (!) are exceptionally good as visual impressions, not because he particularly resembles them, but because he somehow manages to embody them.

It looks like it was a ton of fun to shoot

OK, I’m guessing here but it doesn’t look like it was a laborious, grumpy experience for either of them – they look like they were having a ball. The fun is kind of infectious. It’s just so… I keep coming back to the word playful. So many photo projects are very po-faced. This is like a breath of fresh air.

So there we have it. My favourite photo project. I just hope they bring out a book.

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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


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Assignment 1: Portraits of Ann

Brief:

Drawing together your experiences in completing the projects so far, take one person as a subject and create between five and seven different portraits. These should differ in type and style, and each be from a separate photographic session (there is no need to attempt this set all in one day, and indeed it will be more useful as an assignment if you take some time over it).

In your learning log:

  • Critically assess your finished work. Consider each portrait individually
  • Identify what has worked well and what has been less successful and analyse the reasons for this
  • Consider where you need to strengthen your own skills and understanding and explain how you hope to achieve this

Submissions:

UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENT: tutor report and my response are now available to view.

Larger images and contact sheet are available as a downloadable zip file.

The images are viewable individually in slideshow format below – click a thumbnail to start the slideshow.

I’ll briefly explain my overall approach, then I’ll comment on each image individually, including a self-critique.

Approach

My wife Ann kindly agreed to be my subject. As recommended, I took the pictures over a series of sessions, keeping in mind that they should be sufficiently different in style. I thought in advance about various facets of Ann’s character – not particularly for this to come through strongly to the viewer, but as a framework to inspire me on different treatments. I initially planned the whole series to be in black and white, but switched this after the first couple of shooting sessions as I felt the early shots worked better in colour, and I wanted to keep the same overall colour aesthetic across the set.

1. Face

To start: a simple headshot, straight on, eye contact with the camera. Window light to the (viewer’s) left and a reflector card to the right helped to give reasonably even lighting, although brighter to the left. A shallow depth of field (f/1.4) focused on the eyes kept the main features sharp while allowing the extremities to be de-emphasised. She has a friendly expression, a slight rather than a full smile.

Face

1. Face

Though I’m generally pleased with this one, with hindsight the aperture was too wide. If I shot this again I would have tried f/2.8 or f/4. Also, the light is a touch too bright on the left, so I would have moved Ann further away from the window.

2. River

As Ann loves to be outdoors, I planned to get at least one shot taken in the open. On a walk down the North Tyne I took a series of shots, of which I felt this was the best, with the glow of the golden hour sun falling on the hair and the side of the face. Colour-wise, the water and the skin-tone work well together, while the hair and the coat are closely matched and not detracting from the other colours in the image. I chose a shot where she wasn’t looking straight at the camera, and gave the image the space to the right for her gaze to fall into. I find this quite a calming image.

River

2. River

I almost didn’t include this as I thought it was – good lighting apart – a little… unremarkable? It’s better than a snapshot (I think) but it doesn’t show much creativity.

3. Laughing

The starting point here was the light falling through the window, that I thought would provide a ‘bleached-out’ backdrop if exposed in a certain way – I used spot metering for this session. I took several torso-length shots, just asking her to ‘throw shapes’ while I clicked away. I knew on shooting this one that it was a keeper – it shows her playful side. I was drawn to the motion implicit in her pose, like it’s just a frozen slice of an ongoing moment – not formally posed at all.

Laughing

3. Laughing

I like the final result, but I did have to crop it down from a larger original; I should have used a longer focal length lens and shot from further away to have framed it better in camera – as going in closer with the 35mm lens could have introduced noticeable distortion.

4. Hood

This was an example of an idea starting in one place and ending up in another. When I saw Ann had a parka-style coat with the fur-lined hood, my first idea was an ‘homage’ to the classic Bailey shot of Mick Jagger – b/w, plain white background. However, while shooting I managed to get a closely framed shot of a very calm facial expression with one eye staring at the lens and one obscured by the hood. It’s a cooler, more serious expression than I’d originally been looking for but we both agreed that it was the strongest image from that session.

Hood

4. Hood

I actually really like this one and find it hard to say what I’d have done differently, other than I wish I’d had the imagination to have pre-visualised it rather than it being a happy accident.

5. Bath

One of the ideas that I had from the start of planning was a profile shot of Ann relaxing in the bath. The irony is that she doesn’t find relaxing very easy and we have a sign in the bathroom to remind her to take it easy… The lighting here was a little remaining evening sunlight through windows behind and to the right, plus a little ‘mood lighting’ from candles.

Bath

5. Bath

While I was pleased with the lighting and overall aesthetic, I wasn’t happy with the composition. The shelves and the sign are too close to the head. Also, only one of the candles is visible and it would have looked more balanced with two. I actually tried to reshoot the whole thing on a different night, but while I could improve the composition, the lighting wasn’t as good. So I went back to version 1.

6. Book

Another one I pre-visualised in advance. I remember Ann reading this book a few years ago and how whenever she held it up to her face it resembled a half-mask. The proportions of the eye on the book are quite close to her own features, so the illusion works reasonably well. In terms of the background, while this might not mean anything to the casual viewer, I was interested in getting at least one shot in the summer house in our garden, as it’s the only place she ever really relaxes… so the background is part of the story, albeit in a way that is only relevant if you know the subject.

Book

6. Book

I did struggle a little bit on making the composition visually interesting, beyond the eye illusion. I fell back on the cliché of the ‘jaunty angle’ to make it a little less static. With hindsight maybe I should have pulled back more to include more of the background, to give the shot more location context.

7. Pale

I was inspired by the book ‘Train Your Gaze’ [1] in as much as I wanted to have at least one portrait that wasn’t overly ‘traditional’ in form, i.e. not necessarily showing the whole face, or the eyes, or being in focus. I was also drawn to the visual aesthetic of pale, almost ghostly skin against an equally pale background, so the viewer has to work just a tiny bit harder to recognize it as a face. I had in mind that the picture should have a primary focal point that was in sharp focus but wasn’t a part of the face, to further delay the viewer’s identification of the face… to achieve the effect of the face ‘emerging’ from the image as a secondary point of interest rather than being front and centre. I also wanted to have a portrait that included reference to the fact that Ann likes to dress up and has a few nice bits of jewelry for special occasions. It was her idea to focus on the earring.

Pale

7. Pale

Whilst I did decide to include it in my submission, it’s probably the one that I’m least sure of. It only partly achieves what I had pre-visualised – not quite ‘ghostly’ enough, not fading into the background enough. Also, while I used flash to get the highlights sparkling off the earring, if you pixel-peek you’ll see a few unsightly artifacts around the edges. I do however like the geometry of the image, and the depth of field, so maybe I’ll consider it either a qualified success or a noble failure.

Self-evaluation:

Not being a natural portrait photographer, I did have to put a certain amount of thought and preparation into this assignment to be happy with it. The exercises in the projects leading up to the assignment certainly helped, as did my reading and research. I am generally pleased with the outcome, although I do recognise the weaknesses I still have with regard to portraiture. It helped enormously to use a subject that was patient and understanding, as I still feel that if I had to do a portrait session with someone that I knew less well, I would struggle a little more to get the images as I wanted them.

In the exercises as well as the assignment I identified a few recurring improvement areas:

  • Settings: getting the basic exposure settings most suited to portraiture nailed before shooting starts
  • Rushing: I still have a tendency to rush through photo sessions as I must feel guilty about taking up the time of the sitter! Sometimes reviewing the images afterwards I wish I’d slowed down, reviewed progress occasionally
  • Compositional elements: particularly backgrounds – deciding whether they should be de-emphasised to focus on the sitter, or be part of the story of the image… I think I got better on this as time went on

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Overall, I am happy with the execution of the images and the techniques that I adopted
    • I paid attention to the relationship between the background and the foreground – the quote from ‘Train Your Gaze’ about the two elements as “two equal parties to a visual conversation” came to mind
    • After selecting the images I realised that only two of seven were in the classic ‘portrait’ (vertical) format, and my preference in the others was for the more horizontal ratio – but I stand by this choice as being right for the images in question
    • I put a lot of thought into pre-visualisation – and for the first time, sketching out shots on paper – but the final images only matched the pre-visualisation in a few cases (1, 5, 6, 7 to a degree)… in some instances the images just plain didn’t work (the yoga pose idea) and in others I found a better shot through experimentation
    • I’m glad I made the decision to stick with either all b/w or all colour – the subject and the colour style together help the set to hang together (see more below)
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am happy with the quality of the overall outcome in terms of individual images shot and selected, and in terms of how the presented set works together as a coherent whole, despite the variety in settings and styles
    • In both the planning and editing stages I worked on referring back to the exercises to ensure I was applying the knowledge learned so far (less so while I was actually shooting, when I am too ‘in the zone’ to think too consciously about these things – which is why I feel the need to plan so much in advance)
    • The communication of ideas/moods through the images was in my mind as I planned and shot each session, as I wanted to focus on different aspects of Ann’s personality – playful, serious, bookish, glamorous etc – but I recognise that this is something personal to me and don’t necessarily expect these messages to resonate with an uninformed viewer
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • I’m pleased with the variety of styles I managed to achieve with the same subject – having looked at other students’ work I felt a major determinant to a successful set was the balance of the variety of the style with the ‘grounding’ of the consistency of subject… this was the axis along which I intended to work
    • I’m not sure that the set demonstrates a very high degree of experimentation, with only images 6 and 7 really pushing away from traditional portraiture and in relatively small ways; I toyed with the idea of a non-face portrait but this ended up being watered down to the blurry no. 7
    • In terms of development of a personal voice, from my experience, preferences and feedback during Art of Photography I believe I’m moving towards a quite geometrically-led approach, in that I like to find the lines, shapes, patterns and rhythms in front of me and capture them – and I find this inherently more difficult with portraiture; it’s been good to get outside of my comfort zone, and very insightful, but I believe this assignment represents a deliberate step outside my developing style rather than a continuation of it
  • Context:
    • As previously noted, portraiture isn’t my natural photographic preference, so I’ve made myself get out of my comfort zone – including trying a ‘100 Strangers‘ photographic challenge, which I am finding interesting
    • The one exhibition I’ve managed to get to during this section of the course was Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery – interesting, fun but fairly one-sided in the context of photographic portraiture
    • Photographers whose work I’ve come to appreciate more over this section of the course: David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Mary-Ellen Mark, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman, August Sander
    • I got a huge amount of inspiration and insight from Roswell Angier’s ‘Train Your Gaze’, which manages to be very accessible in covering some potentially quite obscure facets of portraiture… it made me think of portraits in many different ways over my reading of the book
    • I revisited relevant chapters in a few of the books I’d read for Art of Photography – Graham Clarke’s ‘The Photograph’ [2] and John Berger’s ‘Understanding a Photograph’ [3] in particular – and their insights made more sense in my new-found context of shooting portraits
    • I found the experiences and outputs of other students on this assignment to be invaluable in helping me feel more able to tackle the challenge, and to inspire me to do as well as, or in some cases better than, what has gone before me

To summarise: I believe I’ve acquitted myself to the best of my ability on an assignment that isn’t in a photographic genre that I’m naturally drawn towards. I did kind of enjoy it, but am really looking forward to getting cracking on the remaining sections of the course!

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA
  2. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  3. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics


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Photographing Strangers, Lessons Learned

Unrelated to the People & Place course, I made a new year’s resolution to complete a photographic challenge known as ‘100 Strangers‘. The idea is self-explanatory and more detail is on the linked page, but the important thing about the challenge is that it is a learning project – to help people develop their photographic and social skills by shooting portraits of strangers – rather than a race to collect 100 faces.

I’m currently way behind my own target to finish it this year so I guess it will continue in 2015. I decided when I started the People Aware section of P&P that I should summarise what I’ve learned so far on the challenge, and had in my head that I’d do that at 10 Strangers, a nice round number. Well, I’m approaching the end of People Aware and stuck on 9, so I’ll have to ignore my OCD tendencies and write about the first 9% of my progress :-/

Part of the challenge is about developing the social skills i.e. the bravery to ask people if you can take their photograph! I’m still developing on that score, and won’t write about it here. Instead I want to concentrate more on the photographic lessons that I have learned so far.

Strangers 1-9

Self-critique

  1. Settings all wrong! ISO too high for the light, focal length too wide, aperture too narrow (f/9) so background not blurred out enough
  2. Background way too messy, I should have moved, or asked her to move slightly
  3. I actually really like this one and find it difficult to come up with what I should have done differently… definitely my favourite so far
  4. Indoors so I really should have used the popup flash… instead I soldiered on with high ISO and tried to keep a steady hand… this was the only salvageable shot and the composition isn’t what I’d have preferred
  5. I liked the light on this, but if I had to change anything it would be (as in 2) the background… could have come up with a backdrop that was either plainer / less distracting or more deliberately attractive
  6. Once again I could have positioned myself or her better re the background; other than that, I wish I’d rattled off a few more shots to give me a greater choice of final image (burst mode!)
  7. Again (familiar refrain) I didn’t check my settings first, and should have opened up the aperture wider to defocus the background more; also, completely wrong lens and focal length choice – too wide, distorted features
  8. I didn’t think one was too bad… my social skills were lacking in this one, as I incorrectly identified him as Australian (he’s from Essex) so my banter was a little awkward after that!
  9. I shot this in midday sunlight, and it didn’t occur to me at the time that I should totally have used fill-in flash!

 Learning summary

The first 8 of the 9 pre-date my People & Place studies, so I hope you’ll forgive my technical blunders. The main takeaways from analysing this lot are:

  • Check exposure settings! ISO and aperture in particular
  • The right lens for the job wherever possible
  • Check the background and recompose when needed
  • Fill-in flash for sunny days

Onwards and upwards to the next 91…!

 


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Assignment 1: shooting starts, plans change…

Over the last four days I’ve tried a few different portrait setups with Ann my wife/subject, and in the course of doing so I realised that a plan is sometimes just the thing for deviating from… 😉

B/w vs colour

First of all, my original idea to shoot them all in b/w may have fallen by the wayside already… most of the contender images from the weekend look better to me in colour. So now my plan is to make them all colour – I still think mixing colour and b/w is too distracting, so will stick with one or the other. Definitely leaning towards colour though. For now.

Pre-visualisation vs reality

Also, I discovered that some of my planned shots in the shooting list really didn’t match up to my pre-visualisations… possibly (probably) due to lack of expertise/patience on my part, but I couldn’t get the poses, backgrounds and lighting to converge on what I saw in my head. For example, the yoga pose shot I envisaged falls into this category. Another example, this one related to my first point on colour vs b/w, is that my proposed white background (Bailey/Avedon-esque, or fashion shoot style) full body portrait really only works in my mind if I did stick with b/w throughout… it just doesn’t seem to fit in colour.

Fresh ideas through experimenting

On a more positive note, I’ve come up with a few ideas (and actual shots) that weren’t on the planned shot list, but came about whilst I was experimenting around the original ideas. One of these, a range of shots I did outside whilst Ann was wearing a furry hooded coat, came out pretty well and gave me a couple of potential images that I hadn’t planned. Similarly, during a series of shots using window light I cranked up the exposure of the sunlight background and came up with a few images with lighting conditions that I hadn’t planned but came out quite interesting, I think. I still want to try a few more setups over the long weekend, as I don’t think I’ve yet got the full set of 5-7 that I want. I have however got a few good candidate images. Below are a few of the shortlist so far.


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Assignment 1: preparation starts

As I’m fortunate enough to be taking a break from work for a couple of months, I’ve managed to get through the exercises on the People Aware section of P&P reasonably quickly but without overly rushing them. So I’m already onto the assignment planning.

I decided early on that I’d use my wife Ann for the assignment, and for that reason I didn’t bother her too many times during the exercises…! On reading and digesting the assignment brief, and in particular the advice to take the portraits over several shooting sessions, it became apparent that I would have to spread the shooting over a couple of weekends. So my plan is to do a couple of shots this weekend and the rest over the long easter weekend, giving me the final weekend in April to add in any remaining shots and write up the whole thing.

Much of my preparation so far has been to think about the various criteria / characteristics of portraits that I want to include in the set of images, to make them sufficiently different to each other.

Consistency

I have made one key decision: all the portraits will be in black and white. I am generally steering more towards b/w for portraits as my personal preference, and after an email chat with my tutor on whether to mix up b/w with colour, I’ve finally landed on keeping the colour aesthetic consistent and bring in the variations by way of framing, lighting, props, location and so on. In this way, there are two constants (the subject and the b/w aesthetic) that help the set hang together as a coherent whole, but hopefully the other factors will still demonstrate variety in style.

EDIT: now I’ve started, I might just completely change that round and do them all in colour! I think I’ve got one, maybe two, keepers from today, and they’re both much better in colour. I still want to be consistent though. Let’s see what the next few look like. Decisions, decisions…!

Variations

I went back through the notes and exercises so far and brainstormed some of the factors that can be used to introduce variety:

  • Formal (posed) vs informal (more natural, candid)
    • related: sitting, standing, lying down, other pose
  • Traditional vs more experimental
    • e.g. non-face, shot through translucent material / through a hole in something, in a mirror etc
  • Locations:
    • indoor vs outdoor
    • plain / blurred-out background vs interesting background
  • Lighting:
    • natural vs artificial
    • time of day
    • flash / other photographic lighting accessories (e.g. reflectors)
  • Framing:
    • close crop to face, head and shoulders, profile, torso, full body
  • Props (based on her likes / personality / character):
    • gardening / flowers
    • books
    • our dog (NB potentially dilutes the subject too much?)
    • accessories (e.g. she loves posh handbags…)
  • Clothing:
    • consider colours: dark or light, solid colours – for better contrast in b/w

I need to take the above into consideration – and combinations of them together – when planning the actual shots I will take.

Preparation notes

Preparation notes

The following ideas have so far spring to mind. If I can get 5-6 of these to work well, then I will have the assignment done successfully.

  1. In garden, full body, low afternoon sun, holding bouquet of flowers
  2. Holding a book in front of half her face (am thinking of a specific book cover with an eye on it, to form a kind of half-mask), torso frame
  3. Side-on shot of bathtub, shot from low down, with head just visible in profile over lip of bath, eyes closed… on the wall next to our bath is a wall sign saying ‘relax’ in script style, so if I can get this in shot as well so much the better
  4. Classic Bailey/Avedon-style white background, high contrast portrait, torso or full body
  5. Close crop on face, straight on, very calm expression, lit by window light on one side and a reflector on the other
  6. Pseudo-voyeuristic, through keyhole into bedroom
  7. Yoga pose, full body – e.g. standing on one leg, arms together above head
  8. Profile headshot with soft edge lighting through hair

Research

I’ve been avidly poring over magazines (especially Ann’s fashion magazines) to check out the different portrait styles used by different photographers. My eyes are now open to subtleties in pose and style that had previously passed me by. However, I know that fashion photography isn’t representative of portraiture as a whole, so I’ve been supplementing this with re-reading various back issues of the British Journal of Photography and Hotshoe.

I’ve also been reading the very interesting ‘Train Your Gaze’ [1] by Roswell Angier which covers many facets of portraiture and has been inspirational in many ways – a short review of the book will be a separate blog post soon. In addition, I’ve re-read the portrait chapter of Clark’s ‘The Photograph’ [2] and perused the portrait section of ‘Photo Box’ [3].

The other kind of research I’ve found useful is to look back at the many pictures I’ve already taken of Ann over the years. Some of these I think are good enough to be inspirations for contemporary shots for this assignment. I wouldn’t try to directly recreate any of them, more a case of trying to recapture what I felt made it a good picture.

A few key observations on the old pictures selected:

  • A smile always adds something to a photograph, but it needs to be a natural one, not forced
  • Most shots I’ve ever taken of Ann have been similar in framing – head and shoulders… need to vary this more (not just for this assignment, I mean generally)
  • Lighting makes a big difference, especially sunlight
  • I really like the ones where she’s not making eye contact with the camera

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA
  2. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  3. Koch, R (2009) Photo Box. London: Thames & Hudson

 


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Exercise: Varying the pose

Brief

Set up a portrait session, and plan for your subject to adopt in turn at least three different basic positions (sitting, standing, etc.). Within these, suggest, as you shoot, different limb positions. Later, review the results and assess how effective or attractive the variations were.

Results

Subjects: I decided for the first time to use CHILDREN as subjects! These are Ethan and Emily, whose parents Mike and Amanda are good friends of ours. I (correctly) figured that kids would be less self-conscious on posing and ‘throwing shapes’. My original intention was to choose one of them but in the end I got such a good mix of shots that I basically did the exercise twice in parallel.

 Sitting:

There’s quite a variation in these, and I think they’re all reasonably successful. The Ethan shots are more laid back as I don’t think he was quite as into the idea of being photographed as his sister was. ‘Emily Sitting 2’ is probably my weakest in this set: everything is centred and the tops of the fingers are accidentally cropped off. ‘Emily Sitting 3’ is the most innovative – model’s own pose, not photographer’s direction…

Standing:

This was a little harder to find the variation in the poses. I seem to have fallen back on simply asking them to do different things with their hands! ‘Ethan Standing 1’ looks nice and casual/natural while the others look more contrived. ‘Emily Standing 2’ is a little more interesting and effective than the others.

‘Freestyle’:

This is where the more interesting poses came out! Freed from the limitations of sitting or standing, we could use our imaginations a bit more. ‘Emily Freestyle 3’ is probably my favourite shot of the series.

What I’ve learned

It’s interesting just how much variation you can get in the basic types of pose. I suppose I kind of took the easy option in using children as subjects as asking them to throw different shapes seemed easier to me than doing the same to an adult – I think we’d both feel a little self-conscious! But it has taught me that I could be a LOT more innovative in the poses I ask people to adopt when I take their photograph (as long as I’m brave enough to ask…)