People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

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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