Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Complete portrait lesson in 72 words

"Disfarmer was just a small-town portraitist, yet he avoided the usual portrait studio artifice, popular elsewhere, which turned each subject into a mask of smiling sameness. He developed a strong, personal style, a style perhaps best characterized by its artlessness... Disfrarmer did a minimum of arranging and posing of his subjects, and obviously never tried to coax a smile or gesture. He pressed the shutter when his presence was least intrusive."

--Julia Scully, from her introduction to Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946


Anonymous said...

Hi Blake, this guy is getting a lot of run these days. It is interesting to look at for me because it is pre information era. The sitters weren't informed of image through TV and photo mag saturation and neither was the photographer. So in that way it is more real than anything possible today. Being part of a farming family from Kansas, first generation born and raised in town, I have spent a lot of time with dirt farmers and they were a pretty down to earth sort. You get a lot of talk about the wheat crop and the hogs.

Contrast that guy's life with my recent studio portrait session. Shooting two kids almost teenage. I like to put people out in front of the background and just have them stand there and be themselves. Both these kids (brother and sister) went straight into posing. The boy doing police gun holding poses and fake fighter looks and the girl going straight into fashion model poses. Both doing stupid fake smiles. I tried to tell them to just realx and they didn't have to smile like that. Just be themselves. They didn't even know what I was talking about being themselves. When I told them to just relax and not smile they started giving me fake evil looks. I got irritated and turned to tell the mom that I couldn't work like this with them acting like that and she was eompletely enjoying the photo session. So I figured screw it and just finished shooting them acting however stupid they wanted. Point being that that is truth and reality today. That is who those kids were and shooting them that way was the same as shooting some old farmer sitting blankly thinking about getting back to work.

Hope it is ok if I weighed in on your blog

Blake Andrews said...

Hi Dennis,

Shooting them with poses and fake smiles is perfect because that really is who they are. Disfarmer may have had an advantage in that photography was much less of a known quantity for his sitters. Still, he gets credit for wading through to the core. In the present day the chore is much tougher but it is still there, and in fact for portraitists that is THE challenge: How to get folks to act candidly in what is by nature a noncandid setting. What about Klein's photo of the kid pointing a gun at him. Would you consider that a good portrait? Presumably Klein didn't prompt the kid, and the pose revealed something about the kid. Still the kid is reacting to Klein so in that sense it's impure. But similar to your situation maybe.

Anonymous said...

I think I know the shot you mean. The street scene with kids? Anyway that is a powerful photo but is it a portrait? Is every picture showing a person a portrait?

The problem of portraiture is complicated. It is probably best not to think about it. As soon as you try to photograph a person who has brain activity and animation or any kind of action you have to choose the moment to stop the image. That frozen image is the photographer's idea of the best image to stop. Then is the issue of best according to who and for what.

If it is pure art it is probably partly an aesthetic experiment for the photographer who doesn't take into consideration making the sitter happy. I like to work that way and try to talk people into being my subject for free and then I have no pressure to be successful. But that isn't entirely true either because I want people to be interested in my work.

Disfarmer seems to have found a way to reduce his sitters to inactivity of any kind and then eliminate the need to choose an image to be more real or revealing than another. In a way reducing his subjects to a bag of bones and clothing for textural study. Even so the choice of that section of society has a certain look and people's personality and animation are to degree etched in their faces. Compare it to Avedon's photos of people in the West.

A portrait photographer trying to make a living in the persent environment of image saturated people and working on commission or hope of print sale has to induce something from the sitter that will make him like the picture rather than reduce the sitter to non expression in name of truth or art.

I did four studio portraits in the last two weeks. Two were people hiring and paying and two were give away's. With the paying costumer you don't want to have to re shoot and you want them to be happy and tell their friends and hang the pictures on their walls. The give aways are still the same only the payment is different and there cannot be claims of responsiblity for a re shoot. I do occassionally shoot a portrait where I don't feel obligated to even show it to the person. But for the most part portraits have to be liked by the sitter to be successful. That changes the art from one of impressing or interesting myself to one of creating a positive impact on the person who you just froze an image of. Maybe a sitter will like whatever self motivated image I make of him but I can't take that into consideration or it goes right into being a commercial portrait.

Any kind of commercial thinking is just work and not something I would personally choose to do except that I haven't won the lottery yet. Disfarmers work is interesting and fun to look at but partly because it is another world and it doesn't include a bunch of elements that we have become annoyed with.
Didn't mean to ramble so,

Blake Andrews said...

I don't think the person in the photo needs to like his/her portrait for it to be considered successful. E.g., Churchill didn't like his Karsh portrait but that doesn't mean it's not a good one. The only relevant judge is the person who made the portrait.

I have been shooting a lot of portraits lately but not for hire. All for "give away" mode, although I rarely get info from sitters and have no way to track them down later. Reshooting is impossible. Usually it's just one or two exposures to see if I can nail it before they get bored. I have no idea what my motivation is for pursuing this, only that the photos interest me and that I am currently in the steep part of the learning curve which tends to be an exciting time in all activities.