In Search of the Uncommon Portrait
© 2005 Jim Brady
OK... if the truth be told, I can't stand the typical "professional" portrait. You know the shot I mean: the shy girl sitting awkwardly on a stool, with her hand unnaturally supporting her cheek, and with a pasted-on insincere smile. It seems I've always hated that look, ever since the first year I picked up a camera. It was in my freshman year in college, working for the college yearbook. My revulsion started there. I couldn't stand the "formal" portraits that filled the pages of every yearbook I'd ever seen. So...I talked the editor into doing "informal" senior portraits. We let the students pick the location for their portrait, what props they wanted included in their shot, and what clothes they wanted to wear. In the 60's this was pretty avant garde. But what a great yearbook. The point is that subjects who were comfortable, who took part in the decision-making process, who had an investment in their portrait...made GREAT subjects. They allowed a portion of their soul...their personality to enter the image. The same principle can be applied to portraits of you family and friends...or, in model portraiture.
I've tried to improve upon that principle for 40 years. Maybe I hate the formal portrait because I just can't do it very well. My heart's not in it because I don't consider it very creative. Classical portrait photographers will spend lots of energy making sure the head is tilted just so, that the lighting softens the features of female subjects or accentuates the features of male subjects, that the hands are positioned just right. But the final product is a rubber-stamp portrait...each one just like the one before it. These images don't accomplishes what I think a portrait should accomplish. I feel that a portrait should expose some essence of the subject's personality. Maybe it's sweet, maybe it's sexy...but it definitely isn't bland. It isn't easy accomplishing this. Most subjects, even professional models (maybe ESPECIALLY professional models) will attempt to give you "the look" that is the expression found on most of today's models in fashion magazines. Instead, what I'm really after is a piece of the subject's soul.
To accomplish this I try hard (too hard in most cases) to create unusual circumstances or settings or use unusual props. We've even gone to the trouble and expense of buying an old-fashioned window, painting the frame with a special antiquing paint, suspending it in the studio, adding a bouquet of flowers, spraying water on the window, and throwing up a black background. What I've created in this portrait is a moody, somewhat pleasing image that tells a story. But, for me, as a portrait this image fails miserably. NONE of the subject's personality is coming across. The subject isn't interacting with the camera or with me. What would improve this photo? Some action by the subject that stripped away pretenses and bared a portion of her soul. The trick is figuring out how to accomplish this. Sometimes it can be done by literally stripping the subject of clothing. Ideally this results in conveying a tender vulnerability. But usually, it just creates an self-conscious subject. Once in a while you can find a subject who is so completely comfortable being nude that it opens all kinds of possibilities for a passionate image. Another technique that can open the subject for you is to ask her about herself, her family, her interests. If you do this skillfully and you are sincere in your interest, you'll usually find that the subject will open up and give your images more soul.
Another technique that's been successful for me is to put the subject in an unusual circumstance. Amber is a terrific model, with tons of experience and a great personality. Still...most of my photos of her are "the look" - that pouty-lip expression that's supposed to pass for the sultry, sophisticated model. Usually, it just makes the model look bitchy. Here, I've surrounded Amber in a field of bubbles. These are just simple bubbles from those bottles with the little wand in them that we used to play with when we were kids. We held the wand above a fan and, after numerous trials and errors, developed a method where the bubbles would rise up and "frame" the model. Would this image score well in competition? Probably not...depends on the judge. But it's a portrait of Amber that I really like. Why? Just look at the expression on her face. It's natural, alive, real...it's sexy as anything because it's exposing Amber's soul.
But if all these tricks, tips, and techniques don't do the trick for you, I've got a sure-fire way to take VERY unusual portraits. And this technique goes well with the upcoming October 31 holiday. How would you like to go Trick-or-Treating with THIS beauty?
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