Provacative Portraiture

The title is the same as a workshop I hosted last summer. A short conceptual workshop intended to demonstrate quickly in a room full of photographers something I noticed a long time ago that at the time was an epiphany. Given it was my first time out attempting to demonstrate something very subtle I didn’t completely fail but next time there are a lot of things I’ll change.

Going through a group of images I made in extremely short succession with a subject I’ve never worked with before re-re-reconfirmed the crux of what I was trying to demonstrate in suboptimal circumstances last summer. I thought it might be of interest to a few of you so I’ll see if it can be explained and illustrated briefly. Like most things it’s far easier to see when you experience up close and personally I’ll give it a shot anyway.

No matter if it’s portraits, fashion, lifestyle-ish advertising, conceptual fine art, or even documentary what I’m attempting to demonstrate holds true in my experience. What is that? Everything, absolutely everything influences human subjects in front of your camera. You, your mood, the camera you use, how much or little gear you bring to the table, other people in the room, what your subject is wearing, their shoots, the environment you’re in, maybe even your shoes. Get the idea?

All of these things can be choices. Some of them are easily manipulatable by you the photographer, others may be fixed in certain situations. What’s my point? You as the photographer have far more control that you might think you have. Human subjects will react to everything in varying degrees from subtle to explicit. Even if they try not to. You can see it in their body language, expressions or micro-expressions, gesture, attitude, the way they move — or not.

Let’s try to demonstrate that with a couple of pictures I made very quickly. You’ll have to trust me in how little direction I gave P. almost none. Of course I was chit-chatting, I can’t shut up. Forget any particular bias you might have to the particulars here and generalize the specifics to see the concept of the matter. At the top we have a 50’s inspired dress and a pair of shoes P. chose. I made that while testing exposure.

Above is a grab of “in-between” moments — I do that a lot. Most of my own selects for the last two decades are of that in-between kind of stuff. My own personal style is to provoke those in-between moments. That’s what I’m looking for. In this circumstance we weren’t yet shooting for real.

Let’s change up the footwear. How about the first shot after that…

In a similar circumstance to that previous in-between thing. See the difference? A couple of more shots…

See it now? I certainly do but then again I was there. Night and day in terms of attitude, expression, gesture, body language and feel. You might be thinking well of course those boots are completely different than the first shoes — attributing all of the other feel differences to some visual difference in the footwear. Obviously that as some effect but that’s not what I’m talking about. Did I have to include them in the frame? No. Would all the other really important changes be there if I didn’t? Yes they would.

How about a couple of props…

First three shots right in succession. See the difference now? Just a prop which obviously itself influences the feel of things but more importantly see what it did with the attitude and all the rest. If you’re asking yourself “what else did you say/do/whatever” the answer is just about nothing. Sure I probably influenced things. I mentioned everything influences what’s going on in terms of shooting dynamic but in terms of explicit influence — nada, nothing. That’s not to say I never influence or provoke — of course I do. It’s my job as a photographer. Why didn’t I do much here? This is the first fifteen minutes of making pictures with P. I wanted to experiment and get a feel for how she moved and reacted etc.

Maybe this exposure test and the next few shots two minutes later will illustrate?

Some context might help a little bit. P. is not a “pro model”, nor was there a plan. She’s a fitness trainer that does a lot of fitness/exercise promotional photos. Running shoes, bikes, etc. I was bored while baby-sitting the Atomic Canary Space a week ago or so and we bumped into each other via FB. She was in the mood to just mess around with wardrobe and props for a hour or two — so we did. We did exactly opposite of everything else she’s done. I suggested a dress or other piece of wardrobe, she picked a prop or shoes or whatever from the big pile of crap I have laying around, I suggested a change up that played off that. We did five or six complete wardrobe changes in four different locations around the building.

I hope you can see influences and changes in the subject based on these changes but for those not tuned into the subtle where the sequence has gone in the same direction maybe a complete reversal of feel will help. Three shots in a row…

See it now? Yes, I know these are a bit over the top. Trust me the same applies with far more subtle application of the general concept. Ever work with someone that’s awkward with their hands when in front of a camera? I have more often than not. Give their hands something to do. Something to hold. Even if their hands are not in the frame that awkward hands thing somehow translates through the entire feel of the subject. What you put in their hands will also have a huge influence even if not in the frame directly contributing to story, composition, etc. A gun, a knife, how about a flower? See what I mean? Try it. With female subjects specifically change up the shoes, even in a headshot you won’t believe the difference.

More later, especially on that in-between kinda thing.


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