Erdal Redjep's Blog

Focus 4: Portraiture

Posted in Uncategorized by erdalredjep on February 21, 2010

I think it can be difficult, and perhaps not very useful, to define what constitutes a portrait. One thing that emerged from our discussion on portraiture was the control element – the photographer (or person making the picture, whatever the medium) directing what the subject does. In this sense, shooting portraits for this week felt like the antithesis of the work we’ve been doing so far, which has involved shooting with nothing posed or staged. That said, a picture made without any posing or staging can still function very strongly as a portrait.

Because I’ve done a fair amount of portraiture over the last couple of years, both with available light and with flashlight, I went into the shooting for this focus feeling fairly comfortable. My inclination at the moment is to shoot portraits with eyes to camera and with the subject in a setting that gives information about them and conveys a sense of their personality. Arnold Newman’s environmental portraits are a good example of this. This week I also started looking at the portrait work of Irving Penn (being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery at the moment), many of which are studio-based. His use of lighting is really creative and, I think, lends itself really well to black and white pictures with the chiaroscuro transition between dark and light tones.

Our shooting for this focus had no technical parameters, but – contrary to what I would’ve thought – I found myself wanting to shoot with the restrictions that we’ve been sticking to over the last few weeks. Perhaps part of this was because my 50mm prime lens is faster and sharper than my zoom lens, but I do think that getting used to a particular technical set-up can lodge itself into your way of working and – to an extent – have an influence on the overall look of your pictures. I actually found myself, on a few occasions, changing back over to my 50mm lens, even though the more conventional focal lengths for standard portrait work (on a 35mm frame) are usually higher. It’s interesting that people have a natural tendency – a reflex, perhaps – to smile for portrait pictures, and that this can be looked upon as making a portrait less journalistically or artistically credible. I’m not sure if I agree with this notion, especially if a smile is an honest sign of the subject’s personality or mood, or of how they feel about the information about them that’s present in the picture. This is different, I think, to a smile that exists just because a picture is being made and for no other reason.

My first portrait idea was to photograph an elderly lady who works as a chemist not far from where I live. She has a look, I’ve always thought, of worldly wisdom, knowledge and trustworthiness, and I thought that going to her place of work could make an interesting environmental portrait. When I approached her and explained what I wanted to do, these qualities seemed to get replaced with uncertainty, inquisition and doubt! This was the first in a sequence of similar responses from many of the other people I’d thought of. Again, this highlights the importance in documentary photography of access and permission, and of having a toolbox of approaches that can be applied to different situations. In the end, my favourite portrait from this week was of a man who I approached completely unplanned in a marketplace. Below are a couple of my pictures…..

I also read two theory essays this week, one by Roland Barthes and the other by Walter Benjamin. While the language and style of expression in these texts seem more complex than the actual meaning and ideas that are put across, I found some of the material useful. Barthes’s discussion of how the context in which an image appears can change the way it is understood was interesting and, I think, very applicable on a practical level to the everyday usage of pictures.

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