Monday, February 02, 2009

Pictures of People

IF I WERE to photograph people, I'd do classical portraiture.

As it so happens, my photos of people are terrible. Just horrible. So I don't show them here. There are several reasons for this, and I often resort to the absolute worst excuse of blaming my equipment, although good lighting equipment is very important, as is a fast-focusing, large-aperture lens, all of which I lack. Also consider that people, unlike buildings, have egos, and so I worry about how subjects would respond to their photos. Also, buildings normally stand completely still for as many hours as I need to take a photo, unlike people who may be impatient or in a hurry. I'm not much of a people person either, which makes things more difficult. Finally, I just don't know how to photograph people well.

Up until a number of years ago, I thought that the electronics in a digital camera ought to make good quality photos appear magically, even though my long experience with film cameras and wet chemical darkrooms should have told me otherwise. Photoshop is the digital tool of choice which replaces the darkroom, but it was a useless expensive purchase for me until I learned some basic theory of human vision and color representation. Likewise, photographing people is an art form in itself: mere experience and experimentation is largely fruitless unless you know some theory behind it.

Contemporary portrait photography seems to be excessively ego-driven, with the main players all attempting to create their own distinctive 'look'. Worse, the subjects of these styles of photography often look rather odd, lacking in dignity. Now this may be a good marketing strategy — consider clothing retailers who change styles frequently in the attempt to drive sales, or youth-oriented religious programs that strive to always be relevant — but the results quickly look dated and eventually comical. This does not serve the common good in the long run.

Contemporary portraiture emphasizes the body, clothing, gestures, and environment: mainly transient things, which may not have much to say about the interior life of the person portrayed. Or worse, a contemporary portrait can portray what the photographer wants us to believe about the subject. Glamour photography is this style taken to an extreme, which creates a fantasy which never existed, for the end result is often as strongly conditioned by creations in Photoshop as by the subject originally photographed.

Classical portraiture instead attempts to portray the person as he is, and at its best, portrays a person's innate and ontological dignity. A classical portrait emphasizes a person's face and especially the eyes: this makes sense, especially if you consider that a significant percentage of our mental capacity is used to recognize and analyze faces. By showing a face clearly, we are able to use these innate abilities. Does the person have subtle laugh lines, or frown lines? Have they suffered from years of worry, or joy? Showing the eyes clearly is of great importance: Our Lord implies this on the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:22-23). The eyes are the window to the soul. This emphasis on the face and eyes is made stronger by photographing the subject in a studio with a muted backdrop, which provides little distraction from what is important.

Worthy of study is this tutorial: The Zeltsman Approach to Traditional Classic Portraiture, by master portrait photographer Joseph Zeltsman, who passed to his reward on December 15th, 2008, at the age of 100 years. This study is dated, with scans of photographs dating from the 1970s, but these portraits have a timeless quality once we get past the fashions of hair and clothing of that era. His advice is quite timeless.

According to Zeltsman:
The remaining category, the pure traditional classic approach to portraiture, is indeed, aimed specifically toward a portrayal showing the subject’s face from an attractive angle, supported by an effectively arranged body pose. The total effect, as the viewer sees it, should appear natural, comfortable looking, and unaffected. Regardless of how much of the subject’s body is showing, the clothing, props, background, or any other item included in the picture, must remain subdued. Only the face and expression should stand out as the dominant point of interest to a beholder.
I already mentioned the importance of emphasizing the face, but notice how Zeltsman says that the pose must appear “natural, comfortable looking, and unaffected” — this is critical, and strongly distinguishes the tradition from much contemporary practice, which can often be unnatural and quite affected.

The elites of the Victorian Era can be rightly criticized for reducing both morality and art to sets of rules, while forgetting the underlying theories of moral theology and the virtue of art. The avant-garde reacted by rejecting all rules, and we suffer from this chaos to our present day. Zeltsman reminds us of what is important, and any rules he gives merely facilitate this higher goal.


  1. Mark -- the sheer length of this entry almost precludes commenting (was that subconsciously intentional?). But I'm going to try.

    Not having seen any of your people pictures, I can't really know whether your estimate is false modesty. However, your architectural photos are so good I suspect people make you uncomfortable.

    Be that as it may, the problem certainly is not your equipment. Consider that in the last century, excellent portraits were done by some professional photographers who stuck with pin-hole cameras or Brownies throughout their entire careers.

    Consider the portraits of Eric Salomon, whose best work was done with an early Leica f 3.5 50 mm, before interchangable lenses were available for it, with film no faster than ASA 32, and with no artificial lighting equipment.

    Speaking of Leica, consider that one of the best portrait lenses ever made was the pre-WWII Thambar, with its deliberately calculated aberrations (unfortunately, I never could afford one -- they bring astronomical prices now).

    Try Photoshop lite -- it is all that you need for people photos until you become very experienced.

    Forget theory -- other than the maxim to get close to your subject and fill the frame with the head (I'll bet that makes you uncomfortable -- right?).

    Likewise, forget the contemporary styles -- you are not selling clothing.

    You are quite correct about the goal of "classical" portraiture. Yes, the eyes are the window of the soul. Therefore, when you photograph people, photograph the eyes -- and never in a studio, Karsh died in 2002.

    Your quote from Zeltsman is almost equivalent, but it is pedantic and long-winded. The eyes, the eyes, the eyes, (almost) always the eyes -- technology is merely a matter of your personal convenience/preference, any camera can capture the soul.

    That being said, digital technology _is_ more convenient than a wet lab.

  2. True, I'm not much of a people person. But then longer lenses are often used for portraits for the comfort of the subject as much as to reduce distortion.

    I mentioned the equipment because the old masters typically used medium-format film with a high aperture lens, which gave a very shallow depth of field. I can't quite duplicate that with my equipment. Otherwise I am very happy with digital.

  3. Long lenses -- the ideal lens for portraiture is whatever has a focal length equivalent to 85-90mm for 35 mm format. Longer than that flattens the face, shorter makes the nose too big.

    Old masters -- do you mean Hill & Adamson, Julia Cameron, Photosecession, Genthe, Salomon, Dorothea Lange, WeeGee, who? Their work had short depth of field because they all were forced to use high-aperture lenses (relative to the past 50 years) due to the insensitivity of the emulsions they had to work with.

    Obviously, if shallow depth of field is what you are after, you can duplicate their results by dialing down the sensitivity of your digital camera to the minimum, and if necessary, using a neutral density filter over the lens (but be careful, filters can introduce some unplanned aberrations) to get the lens to open up all the way. And/or you could Photoshop the file. Or you could find a cardboard box and make a pinhole camera, scan, and Photoshop (at least that's cheap). Or you could load a 35mm camera with High Contrast Copy, expose it at ASA 3, process in an extremely compensating developer (I used to use Rodinal at very high dilutions), then scan and Photoshop the results (too much work for me, I did that 50 years ago).

    But to repeat: it's not the technology, it's the eyes, the eyes, the eyes.

    For proof, consider one of the most famous portraits of all time, one you must know well, NOT by an old master:

  4. My comments were just that, comments. It wouldn't be wise to misinterpret them as advice.

    In the end, people pictures will depend upon your ability to desensitize your aversion to getting close to them and staring into their eyes.

    But by all means keep up your church photos. You have a wonderful gift for them.