Portrait Photography and the Subtle moment of Truth

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Photo by Imani Clovis on Unsplash

“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
— Alfred Stieglitz

To capture the image of another human being is a difficult task, touching the soul of that person, using conversations and learning about their inner-world gives the photographer the ability, at least, to see something real in the person that they themselves and others don’t always bring to the surface.

Telling Moments and Beautiful Gestures

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Photo by Spencer Dahl on Unsplash

Those telling gestures, flinches, nods of the head, the way a subject moves their hands, all these are indications of an inner world that is not spoken. Gestures are not speech, the movement of the lips as we speak can tell the listener whether the speaker is being serious, sarcastic or jovial.

The way a person holds themself as they relate a story about their life, their views on a subject or an opinion about Brexit, will tell a photographer something about their true attitude and beliefs to themselves and life.

Alfred Stieglitz’s idea that a photograph gives us something that is more than reality is a truth, as far as we can agree.

A portrait is about the subject. The objective of the photographer is to find as much information about the portrait sitter as possible then capture those moments as they are brought together in one gesture, or set of gestures.

Like the storyteller, the photographer must be aware that human beings have an inner world which often conflicts with the outer world. A person will always hide what they value, a photographer must try and gain enough trust to allow the portrait sitter to reveal their real self, to risk being vulnerable to the photographer and their intentions.

The camera only captures a fraction of time, a tiny flash of life that is offered to another person, the photographer, who must focus with his or her mind to an extent where they are listening and watching with empathy.

It’s not about the Machine

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Photo by Sergiu Nista on Unsplash

Taking a photograph and assuming that the machine will give you an image, an impression of a portraited person, is a foolish thought.

The technology that we have today is confusing photographers into believing that the task is easy. ‘Point and shoot, just make sure that you’re using the best equipment and you’ll get the best results.’

A single photo does not give us a narrative. It does allow us to see a telling gesture that the photographer has brought to the surface in the portrait sitter.

The gesture is a powerful expression of that much deeper emotion that reveals an inner world. Looking at a portrait, seeing something special in it, gives us food for thought about a person and their feelings. We tend to fill in the gaps ourselves and create a narrative train of thought that may or may not be true.

If a portrait photographer goes in to meet a client, telling them they have one hour to get the job done, setting up lights according to a system well practised, and posing the client according to the set up, then no portrait of that particular person can be achieved. The whole procedure would be about the photographer trying to photograph an object under certain conditions to achieve certain effects that are pleasing to whoever might see the end result. Many head-shots for companies are done in this manner. And they are pleasing to their clients and customers. They are not personal portraits, they are head shots which serve to give a friendly and open feeling to potential customers.

Photo of Sean Patrick Durham, Berlin 2018.
Photo of Sean Patrick Durham, Berlin 2018.

A portrait is a hard thing to achieve and it requires skills and practice to see that little moment in time that shows an expression that might just sum-up a strong characteristic about a person. To capture that moment takes the upmost vigilance from the photographer. The machine won’t do it for you.

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Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Look for the Clues, not the Psychology

We want to see who a person is, the photograph can give us many clues to a personality if it is shot with care and attention to the subject. We cannot get into the psychology of a person and photograph that part, as much as we can’t paint or carve a representation of a person’s inner world. We can guess at it, though. As photographers practising portrait photography we can use empathy to feel our way into the important aspects of a person’s character.

All we know is that empathy helps us to understand other people on a deeper level. Psychology tells us that when we express ourselves with empathy, our brain switches off the part of the brain which deals with ourselves, it basically goes into “forget me, listen to her”, mode.

Photographers tend to become emotional about their work because of the need to understand what they are looking at — the subject caught in the lens.

Photographers are by nature empathetic people.

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Photo by Quinn Buffing on Unsplash

Through empathy and a trained eye, an eye that notes the gesture that comes from a deeper place, a portrait photographer will be able to capture something that is deeper than what is normally seen in the everyday gestures of a person. That moment, a flash of insight on behalf of the astute photographer, reveals a subtle expression of character in the portraitee that shows us a reality that our eyes often brush over in everyday life.

To capture the art of it, the portrait that is a moment of reality normally not seen, is the whole point of a portrait. It is the practice of creating a closeness between two strangers, between lovers, an investigation into the personality of a famous celebrity or even a knowledgeable portrait of your cat.

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Photo by Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2019

It is the revelation of a rich reality that we wish for in everyday life, but often have little time to study and enjoy. To freeze that moment and keep it, present it well framed on a wall somewhere, gives us that opportunity to take time to study the moment when a deeper reality was seen.

Photographing Cats

The cat is the most published image on the internet. They are cute, and fluffy and look like fun. In fact, they are none of that, they scratch, are moody and demanding, cats seem to have the super-power of taking over a household and turning the wanna-be-owner into a member of staff.

Try to photograph a cat and it will all depend on the mood of the cat. It will sit and stare at you, turn its head away, refuse to cooperate. Cats generally don’t do portraits, they are too self-involved, and so it is hard to get the empathy going between a cat and photographer.

We can study the gestures of a cat and get an idea of their habits, we can take photos of them expressing themselves with such gestures as preening themselves, sleeping, yawning, playing with a toy, but we will never really know them enough to be able to create a cooperation that is essential to a well done portrait.

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
— Elliott Erwitt

To achieve the living moment of a deeper reality than normally seen, is to delve into the inner world of a person through speech and questions, to get to know the sitter through observation, and to avoid our preconceived notions about them, but to find what we didn’t know was there before.

“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.”
— Anonymous

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Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash

To capture that moment with the right lighting, the camera ready at all times, an atmosphere that enlivens candid conversation and a photographer who has the skill to help the sitter forget that a camera is in the room, is the art of taking a great portrait.

A portrait that a person hangs on their wall for every visitor to see, and the person themselves to be confronted with each day, should always be an image that has caught and frozen that special gesture which shows the world the nobility and dignity that every human being possesses.

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living http://seandurham.eu

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