In your portraits, there is a space between you and the protagonist, space that leaves the place for the connection with the soul, which reveals the intensity of it. I believe this requires a certain skill, a skill to be present but not intrusive, to be guiding but at the same time to let it go... I still struggle with being able to do that, to find this ”space.” It's so complicated to guide the process but still let it be natural. There is so often a stiffness or awkwardness...how do you deal with it?
A reader on my recent post about photographing a young Iraqi refugee asked a question I would like to get into more deeply. She wanted to know how to make a deeper connection with a subject, and how to be present but not intrusive.
First, I would like to discuss the notion of having a connection with a subject. It’s not something I believe is important or subscribe to because within my own practice I have measured the success of my photographs against it. When I feel I have a legitimate affinity with the person I am photographing, often spending hours with them, the portrait can still fail. Photographing family and friends is often harder than photographing strangers, despite a deep connection and shared history. Other times I have made what I consider a successful portrait without much interaction or personal investment at all.
It sounds unromantic to strip my portrait process down to mere methodology, but it's a methodology that serves the photograph. I choose a background; I choose a light source, natural or introduced; I watch and observe and sometimes direct a pose. The final image is the confluence of these intellectual decisions, not a connection with the subject.
There has been a mythology in photography around capturing the soul and seeing the truth of somebody. I don't believe it.
It's of course about the individual I am photographing too. They have to be willing and engaged, but having your image taken is your own journey and it can’t be forced. I don’t see the interaction as a deep connection between photographer and sitter; it’s a process where the photographer facilitates the sitter to find their own space. I try not to think about it as if I am extracting an image, but more like I am cultivating one. I am intently manipulating the environment to create a place for the sitter to find their own space—a moment that is transcendental to their daily life.
But of course, sometimes I fail. And when I do, I have learned from it.
What do you think? How do you push through awkwardness when photographing a subject?
I'm very surprised to read how you work with portraits because the few times we have met you are warm and even a bit shy but maybe that's because I might come on too strong. But as a fan of you and your work I am surprised. I am just the opposite. I want to sit and talk with the people I photograph, whether it is 5 minutes or five days. This is the only way I feel I merit this opportunity. People who allow us to photograph them are giving us a gift by sharing their stories. I want to make portraits that tell stories and to get it right. I have found that by listening---not talking---but listening to their stories and engaging, I make much more interesting portrait than what is basically a headshot. I can make those, too, but part of being a photographer is the pleasure and joy of being with people. Of course each situation is different but I'm really big on making portraits that tell stories and I find that this has been one of the most wonderful and joyful, even when difficult, aspects of my being a photographer. But it's a fascinating and very important discussion. I just find sitting, listening and learning creates a better experience for the subject, for me, and for the portrait. With the great respect, Maggie Steber
I was very interested to read this and for you to share your methodology, how straight forward and in your words "unromantic" it is. I felt in the previous post you seemed to spend time building trust with the uncle if not the child. I tend to fall more in line with Maggie Steber's comments with the acknowledgment she makes that, of course, each portrait is different. I also view my work as storytelling so the broader context is valued. A young female athlete I did portrait work with some years ago said she felt "seen" in a way she had not been before and while the idea of capturing someone's soul seems hyperbole, I do feel there is something to cultivating trust and space so that someone can be authentic... if they are anxious or hesitant. The idea of a subject feeling seen or affirmed is a higher compliment for my work than the image being valued or affirmed. Grateful for your willingness to share and this thread.
Thanks for another engaging read.
You identified a number of points which resonate strongly in my own work as an architectural photographer. I often draw parallels between creating portraits and giving voice to architecture. As you succinctly expressed “ this requires.. a skill to be present but not intrusive, to be guiding but at the same time let it go”. As several of the other responses have discussed, every situation is different. Every context is different (social, multi-family housing vs. corporate headquarters, perhaps). Understanding the story, or for me, listening to the architecture, is an important part of the process. Great architecture has the power to illicit strong emotional responses in the beholder but to objectively tell that story as a photographer, you need to create and maintain some sense of distance, whether real or imagined. There is a nuanced path to walk between serving the commercial needs of the client (most often the architect in my case), the physical reality of the actual building and your own artistic sensibilities. I believe it may have been Ezra Stoller who once quipped that the best place for an architectural photographer was behind the camera, not in front of it.
I agree that relying on a practised methodology is a pragmatic and reliable way to navigate that path. Granted, much less romantic sounding than “bathing in the ethereal essence" of a particular space, but the best approach to a consistent outcome over time, independent of the individual sitter. Starting with a clear understanding of the context within which the subject sits, a defined intent for the outcome and a confidence in the technical machinations, an architectural photographer sets the scene for the building to express itself. My role is essentially to pay attention and having created the opportunity, be ready to respond when (if) that moment happens. However, applying a methodical approach in this manner is not to suggest that there is no room for spontaneity. Indeed, I often like to unsettle a client in a pre-shoot meeting by suggesting that I really have no idea of what we’ll actually get on the day. As you describe, manipulating the environment to cultivate an image sometime produces unexpected wonders. But being in the right spot at the right time is rarely a matter a luck.
Also really appreciated your desired intention of capturing a moment that is transcendental to the subject's daily life. "Creating a fiction that points to a truth" is a lovely description. This is definitely an outcome I aim for with my work. In this way, I strive to create images that are less “of” the architecture and more “about” the architecture.
Thanks again for the great discussions. There is much in them that are universal to our roles as photographers, irrespective of where we direct our gaze.
HI Adam. I like the honesty in your writings and that they are informative indeed. I imagine for portraiture, as for any work, the intent dictates the method employed. For example if the portrait is commissioned by the sitter, then some sitter satisfaction is required. For the most part this work can follow well worn troupes from centuries of art. If your intention is to manufacture an art object, then the sitter's wishes can be regulated to value added status. However if your intention is the making of historic documents, then unapologetically your understanding of the subject and the context in which that subject exists is of paramount importance as is the documentist's honesty. Your audience is the future. Newman's image of Krupp, Karsh's image of Churchill, Bellocq storyville (although this is contentious) Avedon's outwest series (again contentious) are but a few examples of images that fell on the right side of history. I suspect that in this form of portraiture there exist, like any good story, conflict, tension, protagonist/antagonist, within the structure Thanks for the chance to comment. Cheers
Thanks for sharing this insight into your process Adam. I find that every situation is different. I have made lovely connected portraits in fleeting moments and others that have taken time to get to know the subject. I guess it’s all about how comfortable we are able to make them in that moment and that’s what I love about photography. Even though there are ‘rules’ and guidelines as to best practice, it’s often when they are broken down that we succeed.
This makes total sense. Behind the Boko Haram portraits and the others is a strong idea - it's not just showing up to click the shutter at the 'decisive moment.' I've had the same experience of beautiful shots coming out of 30 second interactions and poor images of people I've known forever. So far interpersonal skills seem less important than lighting skills, planning, and recognizing the split second when a subject opens up so their truth shines through the eyes or a gesture. My biggest frustration is not yet knowing how to arrange for these 'moments of truth' to happen consistently, and the nagging feeling that my best shots are luck. Another thing I'd love a post on - since you mentioned it - is backgrounds. They terrify me. I'm moving away from the comforts of Savage White and not so subtly ripping off (sorry, making homages to) Avedon's In the American West, with mixed results. Could just be my OCD and a desperate need for order, but I would love any thoughts and pointers specifically on handling backgrounds in environmental portraiture.
This is a very interesting discussion. I feel that a studio sitting evolves. Often there is a bit of nervousness at the start, which I welcome. After those initial few frames, the sitter often warms up and that changes the feel of the images. I really like that process, when you can spend more than a few minutes with a subject.
Love the honesty, it's refreshing and extremely helpful. No BS, just useful info!
With what you said. In the case of your last post I still believe one listens to the story told and then instinctively comes up with a portrait that not only shows the child but also your understanding and compassion for the child and his uncle. With the young boys case, empathy is everything which I believe you were. Your not a one eyed button pusher. The photograph shows you were invested in the boy's story and you created a compassionate touching photograph based on your years of experience as a photographer. You made a compassionate portrait of the boy because you listened to the boy's story. Yes, it mechanical process but not formulaic, I can't help but to think a good photographer's role is to create something revealing about the importance of a situation. When I was a photojournalist, I would try to be understanding of a situation or story then through my life's experience and my photographic experience I would try to reveal a portrait the supports the persons story. I believe you do the same weather you know it or not.