The assignment requires a short series (6 – 10) of environmental portraits of people in places that provide the context for us to understand them. The brief observes that pose and details are important, recommending a review of examples from the history of photography as well as the contemporary practitioners.
Understanding through a photograph
Can we ‘understand’ a person through a photograph? There is no dialogue or direct interaction with that person through a photograph, and even when we have the possibility of such interaction, it often remains difficult to understand a person. Moreover, a photo is confined to a moment in time and place, so what can we understand of a person from that? It is polysemous, so we read and interpret a photo through our own filters, but do we ‘understand’ the person shown in the photo?
Psychology Today features an article by body-language expert and former FBI agent Joe Navarro (https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/spycatcher/201405/what-can-you-learn-about-someone-just-photo) on the question on what we can learn on about something from a photo. He sums up with these words of caution:
Remember: When we see a photograph we are witnessing a moment in time that may or may not reflect the reality of that moment. We may be seeing reactions by individuals to their environment, what has transpired in the recent past, what may await them when the picture taking is over, or who is present in the room, as well as how they feel emotionally at the moment—but even then it is difficult to discern the true cause. So, we have to be careful with any analysis of a mere photograph and not go beyond what we can logically say.
I think we might make a photo that is a rich text to allow a viewer to read and interpret the photo. For example by including contextual background, rather than a darkened background. But to allow the viewer to understand the person? I don’t think so, but happy to be convinced otherwise. [I’ve put this out to the Discuss Forum]
Until now, the importance of posing a subject as a process or art is something that has passed me by as not particularly relevant to my practice – thinking of my documentary-style preference as letting things unfold or making candid images; and something that doesn’t occur to any great extent in landscape photography and is down to chance in street photography. Perhaps something I’d associate more with fashion photography or traditional portraiture. Even as something denoting artifice. Perhaps something conceptually at odds with my own masculinity and not fussing over appearances.
However, since seriously engaging with portraits of people, my view has changed. When someone asks, ‘how do you want me to stand?’ a general response of ‘just do what you feels natural’ seems inadequate when one thinks about it. It is simply not a natural thing for most of us to sit for our photograph and we become self-conscious; how can we be natural when we are hyper-conscious of how we might appear in a photo?
Helping or directing a person’s pose is taking some control and responsibility for the detail of their form within the overall form of the photo. Both the aesthetic and body language of pose will significantly affect the reading of a photograph and how we perceive the person in the photograph. Leaving the pose to chance is not so different to pointing haphazardly into a landscape and hope to get a good shot!
I’ve just finished a carefully selected book on photographic posing, which I’ll blog on separately. I found it very useful, even if I’ve no intention of ever entering the world of boudoir photography!
Photographers of influence?
Kay Lynn Deveney’s ‘a day to day life of Albert Hastings’ was referenced in one of the earlier OCA course and the book is available to download from the UCA library.
There is an intimacy in these images as he goes about his day. They are often dimly lit – suggesting the natural light of home and have the look of unposed images. The book also includes images of Albert’s possessions – a portrait of him through material objects.
The context looks British (South Wales). I suppose we deduct this from the way of dressing, the clothes, the size of the space in the house, and the objects within it. I take similar cues of American (specifically the south) from the work of William Eggleston although I have never been there. I suspect we read these signs subconsciously and arrive at conclusions, feeling ‘we just know’. However, when the signs are not there, we lose our ability to contextualise. Of course, we can still engage with a portrait against a black backdrop, but it is a more intimate experience – it is just us and the person. Neither is better, it just depends what we want to show.
It is difficult for me to envisage photographing subject matter to which I have no affinity or interest in. I don’t believe that I need to be an insider, but I need to be able be empathetic and aware of my own filters in subject areas that are beyond my direct experience.
For example, Larry Clark’s controversial and voyeuristic images from his works ‘teenage lust’ and ‘tulsa’ is work that is way outside of my interest or the circles in which I move. For me to make such images other than as part of a commissioned social documentary with a cause, would seem ethically dubious. Similarly, Nan Goldin’s work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (I have a copy of the book) is an intimate portrait of herself and those around her, without concern for privacy. A photographic soap opera or reality show? These things sit far without my own identity.
What I can take from work that contains alien subject matter is how they work as visual forms. There is a ‘snapshot’ aesthetic – which I see as achieved by showing people and things in the state they are found, amongst the chaos of life, with grit and grime in place. It does not however mean that subjects are unposed. The shots are often with a wide lens and close up, giving a heightened sense of perspective and a feeling of being in the scene as a viewer. This approach to the photography gives a strong sense of intimacy, sometimes to the extent of being uncomfortable.
Tina Barney’s work deals with a different part of society; the American well-to-do of New Jersey. Similarly to Nana Golding, she photographs as an insider but with a very different aesthetic. In a YouTube video, Barney talks about her approach to gestures and figures in space (available:https://youtu.be/Uv6HXKIYGtc) and how her practice has evolved to using a large format camera (4×5) and from leaving objects in situ towards adjusting the scene so the details add to the overall composition and form of the image. The images are clean and detailed, almost echoing the surface of the places in which they are made. In the example photo shown, and in others, it is apparent that a longer lens is used and some context removed from the frame, allowing us to focus on people over context. Barney talks about the gaze, explaining that she mostly prefers subject not to look as the camera, unless they ‘can look through’ the camera. This adds to a sense of distance when compared with a snapshot aesthetic, when subjects look intensely at the camera (an hence at the viewer).
Susan Meiselas is a photographer whose work I find interesting (http://www.susanmeiselas.com). In some of her projects she describes how she consciously approaches communities as an outsider and reflects upon her perspective of that experience,
sometimes thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here’. So as the person in a photograph that is mostly unseen (the photographer themselves). Many of the images have a strong sense of the photographer being an outsider, from the gaze of the subjects. Perhaps this is a look that has a use? To show the viewer is intruding? The example image is from a project about a women’s refuge (she was invited to complete), in which people were mostly absent or photographed to hide their identity. Again, she made this work as an outsider. However, in her work as an outsider, Meiselas seems to have an interest in her subjects and discovering something about them and her own response. This feels very different to photo-tourism. Understanding the world through photography?
Larry Sultan’s work feels like it helps what is already happening in the everyday by adding some posing. I find this adds visual interest to the work and in some cases a degree of surrealism. In the family photo above there is ambiguity – is the father disinterested and refusing to participate in a traditional family photo, or is this staged to create a sense of tension?
My own subject matter
For exercise 1.3, I found volunteers who played musical instruments to sit for portraits of people who I feels some sense of affinity towards (I play guitar and talking music seems to be a great leveler). The exercise would focus on intimate portraits with the sitters and their instruments. However, I’ve decided to extend it into an assignment by taking environmental portraits in the place where each person practices or performs – this will mostly be in their own homes.
For the environmental portraits, the instrument itself will be an object set apart from the subject so there is not an obvious connection. My intention is to raise the question in the view, ‘what is this about’, rather than it be a clear representation of a musician. I do not know what I will find in advance of the shoots, so will need to respond to the environment as I find it. I will work through some of the details of the shoot preparations in my next post.