“I’m a natural light photographer, and I don’t really like to take portraits or shoot people…” is what I told myself when I first started my journey as a professional photographer almost two years ago. It turns out, portraits and lighting are precisely what I enjoy the most lately. Don’t get me wrong, I love street photography. I love the accessibility, and I love the habit of seeing that it hones, I like that it forces you to react and doesn’t lend itself to overplanning. I love that the only preparation is to keep the battery charged and walk out the door. I owe my control over my camera and understanding of manual settings to the thousands of frames (74K last year) I shot under constantly changing lighting and composition conditions.
While I’ve enjoyed doing street photography, I often avoided asking people to take their portraits for a long time. I think because of the expectations that come with asking someone to take their picture:
- I need to create a stunning, thoughtful image of the person straight out of the camera, every time or look like a fraud
- Receiving suspicious looks for a guy with a camera asking to photograph you
- or worse the full on rejection of no.
But, the more I have done it, the more I enjoy it, and the more I discover my passion for it. Over time, the passion for street portraits with natural light has moved even further into studio portraits, which is something I never anticipated when I originally took up my camera for work.
As I reflect on how I came to enjoy portraits after having convinced myself for so long that it wasn’t for me, It occurred to me that having a well-developed photo habit has a similar social effect to having a smoking habit. It is its own strange form of social interaction that happens when you slow down with no purpose but to complete a simple task, slowly. When you linger around people (not in the weird creepy way), it’s interesting the conversations and opportunities that can present themselves.
Having my camera during these interactions has opened up a personal insight into my own personality and inclinations. I’m an intuitive person, I’ve always been aware of people’s energy, and I use my own energy to either supplement or withdraw to balance the interaction. I tend to see people at their best or what they want to be at their best. It took time to notice that, because, well, It’s always just been “me” here alone in my head. I never understood it until I married an introvert who also understands peoples energy, but doesn’t feel the need to adjust her energy regardless of the interaction with people. Plus she is detail oriented with an insane memory (I have a horrible memory), so while I see potential and what people aspire to, she sees past and present, leaving the future out of the equation, tbd. She and I often end up in the same place, but we come at it from entirely different perspectives and after 11 years of marriage we have a roughly even number of “I told you so’s” in each of our respective argument quivers.
Because of the contrast with my wife, I realize that I build stories around people and I love little things about people that are imperfect or are unique to them, and I can easily enjoy a trait that’s perceived as “different.” I’m not overly concerned with perfection and overt beauty, because the story of an imperfection is much more beautiful to me than a perfect coif, skin or credentials.
The more I photograph people, the more this stands out to me as a passion and a strength. There are certain people that I feel a pull to photograph and the interest of it builds in my imagination sometimes to the point that it’s just better if I go ahead and ask for the picture than to keep thinking about it. I became aware of this on a recent photo workshop, and as my relationship with the other photographers grew, portraits began developing in my mind along with them. A little gesture, or a look or a way they hold their camera, just sticks and it feels like them, like a kernel of truth about their personality.
In the studio, I find that downtime is essential when developing a shoot with a client. Many times, I will use a naturally occurring issue like a light adjustment or lens change or whatever, to stall and see what gesture, look, words or movements the person makes and sometimes bam! I see a glimpse and then I know I have to circle back to that thing at some point in the shoot.
The first example that comes to mind is the portrait I created of Chris Knight during his workshop. You could tell how much he loved presenting and discussing ideas and the confidence in the way he stood while in front of the projector with his own images shining onto his face was so powerful. It would not leave my head. I knew that I had to take the photo or I would regret it, and it would have bothered the hell out of me for a long time!
The same thing happened with Jean, who I saw waiting on some steps in Paris and his profile was so beautiful I noticed it from across the plaza. I was waiting to build the courage to walk over and ask him to take his portrait, but I stalled, and he got up and began to walk away, and my stomach sank! I was pissed at myself until he suddenly turned and started walking in my direction, and I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity again.
Again the same with my friend Dirk, whom I met during a workshop, we talked a lot about photography and color vs. monochrome we were both struggling with our inclinations for each, and he made a comment about being a radiologist and that he looked at BW images all day and wanted to have some color. That idea was stuck in my mind the rest of the weekend, and as I watched him shoot with a particular way of holding his Fuji camera, I had to take his portrait with his camera in a very high key format like an Xray.
The opposite can also be true, there are some people that I have almost no energy with and I struggle and my imagination can feel murky. While I have the skill and knowledge to light, I can’t seem to get an image of them that I like to save my life. I don’t know exactly why this happens, and I am working to develop my skills around this as well, but it’s profound that the creativity and that calling to create can be absent one time and a prominent another. To be fair to myself, the person or the client wouldn’t necessarily know, but I know that the extra something is missing from the image.
It’s a funny feeling to sit and write about the development of this insight, because a year ago I didn't have the insight to pinpoint this. But the repetition and experimentation has given way to a passion and is evolving into a style for me. It’s still in the incipient stages, but certain things speak very strongly to me now, and I can see the next step much clearer than I could even 6 months ago. And when I read this quote by Annie Leibovitz:
“A thing that you will see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people” — Annie Leibovitz
it struck me as a fundamental truth for me as a photographer, for a moment there is a fantastic, ephemeral connection, and I see what someone has to offer, and they let me in just a little bit and we create something powerful…as one of my mentors, Peter Hurley, said “my only goal is to give them the best photo of themselves they have ever had….” and the only way to do that is to see them, to fall in love a little bit and show them an image of themselves that they too will fall in love with either again or for some of them they can fall in love with themselves for the first time.