Developing the Theme
Assignment 1 is intended to challenge the student, taking them outside of their comfort zone, and that was indeed the case for me. I approached Assignment 1 initially during the early stages of lockdown but avoiding the temptation to find an alternative interpretation that avoided the confrontation, I chose to wait until lockdown was over.
Within the context of my research (see below), taking the broad alignment of external shots and framing, my portraits are on the street and close-up. There is enough of the background to make it clear that they are taken in a town, but not enough that the location is providing a narrative.
In the end I chose to face head on the challenge of taking an “intimate” portrait of total strangers.
I selected a focal length equivalent to 78mm full frame, which is close to typical for “natural” portraiture. The aperture was as open as is possible for my lens (around f5.6), to blur the background a little. All shots were handheld.
Body of Work
The first two strangers were father and daughter. He lives in Oxford, he in Truro; Hungerford was a convenient mid-point. They were the first people I approached and found it very easy to begin a comfortable conversation. They had no discomfort about having their portrait taken.
The third portrait was of a workman. While he agreed to have his picture taken, he insisted on carrying on working. He avoided my gaze at all times, and would not speak.
The final couple were husband and wife who were waiting to go into the Coop behind me. We picked up a dialogue about queueing and I took the opportunity to ask them about taking their picture. He was comfortable, but she seemed as uncomfortable as I, and she was happy to hide partially. One can see that her eyes are lowered; she is not looking at the camera or me. I imagine that if she doesn’t look, she can pretend it never happened.
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills
(Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills)
I am comfortable with my compositional skills; I consider it one of my technical skills, albeit subjective in its perception. There is little of demand in terms of technique, but I used the equipment I had to produce the desired sharpness, exposure and contrast.
I cannot particularly commend my observational skills as this challenge did not allow for close and extended study of the individuals, but nor is it a snapshot. They posed naturally, I framed my shot, I waited a little to get a reasonable expression and pressed the shutter. Had I chosen to take studio based photographs, the opportunities and the result would have been very different.
Quality of Outcome
(Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, with discernment)
I would argue that my images are consistent with one theme, though there is one side profile and four front profile shots. However, these portraits are reflective of their level of comfort and the position is entirely their preference.
Demonstration of Creativity
(Imagination, experimentation, invention, personal voice)
I make no claim as to the level of my imagination, invention or personal voice. Here my one success was to be able to create while being extremely uncomfortable with what I was doing.
(Reflection & Research)
My first artistic cue is an image of a woman and her new-born baby wrapped in cloth, taken by Bresson in Mexico City. I have chosen to take the subject head on as in this case, did he. Unlike some of his later work, this image appears to be consensual. There are differences of course; I am not on my travels, my framing excludes the lower part of the body, and the background. In the case of the background though the similarity is more striking – the background is anonymous and not of interest.
My second artistic cue is “Woman with Veil” by Lisette Model. I have selected this as further context for my chosen framing. According to Eskildsen (Eskildsen, 2009) this is a satirical portrait of a fading bourgeoisie, and it is likely that this aspect is what Model was trying to capture. My portraits are not intended to carry a narrative.
The final image I have selected to demonstrate the context in which my images have been taken, is an image by Diane Arbus, coincidentally also a woman in a veil. Close-ups became more prominent in her work at the time (Eskildsen, 2009). Perhaps the clothing again is meant a to tell a narrative, in this case presumably of current wealth and not past glory, but I have selected it for its framing and focus on the subject. Unlike Arbus, however, I was using APS-C (not medium format) and natural light (instead of strobe lighting).
On reflection, and looking forward to a time where portraiture is not deeply uncomfortable for me, I would like to develop more narrative in my portraits, perhaps in the sub-genre of environmental portraits.
I observe that I could also have been stricter in my typology, by replacing the workman with another image of some stranger visiting the town, or at least on leisure.
Eskildsen, U. (2009). Street and Studio – An Urban History of Photography. London: Tate Publishing.