An inherent problem for a photographer looking for some kind of recognition or praise, is most people judge the image on the content rather than the processes. For example, if you look at a picture of, say, a chair, then if you like the chair you will say you like the photograph, but if you don’t like the chair, then you won’t like the photo.
Now a good photographer will use lighting, camera settings, angles, background, context and post-production skills to show the chair in the best possible way, but if you don’t like that chair, none of these things count - except perhaps to other photographers who might appreciate the skill gone into creating the image.
Nowhere is this problem more acute than in portrait photography. Our feelings about the person in the photograph far outweigh our sense of the photographer behind the lens and what he or she might be creating. In wildlife, landscape and action photography many of us will at some point say, “How on earth did they get that shot?” and so become briefly aware of the skill of the photographer. But I think it’s fair to say where portraits are concerned, this question is far rarer.
So when we look at a portrait, once we’ve got past whether the image is in focus or has a thumb sticking halfway across it, it is our feeling towards the person that is all important. What interests us primarily, is if it is someone we know – either a friend or family member, or someone famous. We might hang on our wall a photo of our grandparents, or a poster of a film star, but we wouldn’t be bothered about some stranger about whom we know nothing.
I was challenged about this by my old friend, Branden, in the comments of my post “Nice Photography”. This is unsurprising because Branden is continually taking exceptional photographs of strangers all around the world. His photography is the kind you expect to see in magazines like National Geographic – check out Branden's Blog or his Flikr Photostreams - and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a book of his images even if I didn’t know him personally.
Of course the difference here is the faces are all exotic – quite simply I don’t see Tibetan monks, Egyptian beggars or Japanese street performers around my local town on a daily basis. Branden’s photos transport us to other worlds, far away from the familiar and the everyday.
But perhaps herein lies the key. I’m not that bothered about taking portraits of people that are just documentation; a recognisable likeness. What I really want to do is take images of people that go beyond purely visual representation. I want to take photos that draw the viewer in, or even unsettle them. Comfy-comfy, nicey-nicey, pretty-pretty pictures just don’t do it for me.
There is no “normal”; there are no “ordinary people”. Everyone’s lives are epic, and it is in the finding, or creating, the extraordinary out of the everyday that appeals to me.
My photography website is out of date (updates planned as soon as I can create a design I’m happy with) and doesn’t completely reflect the kinds of portraits I’ve been doing more recently. So to present an idea of the direction I’m trying to go in, here are a few of my favourites from the past few months.
As usual, click on any of them for larger versions, which usually have more impact anyway
Some of you might recognise this blogger in the next photo
And however, the final image comes out, fun is always key element in the process.