Creating Authentic Portraits
Every year, I spend a week taking (at least) one non-commercial portrait a day as an exercise in observation and connection. I think about taking people’s portraits a lot, so trying to get out of my own way on this topic and see things in a new light is a bit like trying to learn a different way to walk. But the fact that it is so close to my most instinctive self is arguably the exact reason I have to shake things up.
So I post a note on my personal Facebook page and invite folks to take a slot, first come, first serve. One a day. Filling the week takes about 45 minutes. Beyond that, the rules are simple. We agree on a place. The subject brings themselves in whatever manner they choose, and I shoot.
It gets kinda complex from there.
There’s seeing, and then there’s seeing. The second one, the trickier one requires patience and, well, flow. A key element of great portraiture is being able to quiet the ‘pictures are being taken!’ energy and tune instead into the deep essence of the subject. To see the person in front of you, and then create the image. That’s challenging work that you simply cannot phone in. Silences happen. Awkward silences happen. Shots don’t work and your subject can tell. In the midst of trying to keep the energy good, you may accidentally stomp all over it. The camera can intimidate instead of inspire. The list of ways to de-rail is endless. But so are the ways back in. And my job is to be awake and aware of the person in front of me so that I can continually bring us back to their individual spirit.
Anyway, the interesting thing about that, or at least the thing that I wanted to share with you – is that I while do spend time thinking about the technical aspects of the shot (where, how, with what lights and clothes and stuff), I also spend a lot of time thinking about the person. Actually, I spend more time on that than any other part of the process. Which may sound weird, but hear me out in the form of a question: What is the one thing that is unique in a portrait? Is it all the technical aspects? Well, honestly, no, not really. There are certain portrait photography techniques that really work well, and most great photographers use them in some way. Is it the clothes someone wears or how their hair is styled? That can help with expressing individuality, but the ingredients listed above are nothing without the binding substance – the one truly unique thing that can never be recreated or replaced – the person, present in the moment the image is made.
So really, everything else is just window dressing. The person I’m going to see truthfully as we shoot – that magical, complex ball of carbon, soul and spirit – is the most important thing to consider, respect and celebrate. After the appropriate considerations are made, the rest falls into place. Every time.