The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

Portrait Photography

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.


Carole said...

You are so good with the faces. And I agree that I wouldn't really want a picture of someone I know hainging on the wall of my home. But it would be nice if the pictures I do have of family and friends captured truth, beauty, sadness, pain, fun,and realism like your photos-- instead of them all looking like the studio photographer was alseep at the wheel, snapping portrait number 10,091 of his boring day.

mapstew said...

That's the kind of portrait I'd like, especially the 'dark' ones. I love the gentleman with the glass. Not 'nice' at all!! :¬)

Katie Roberts said...

Kim, I reckon you're latest images are great, very clear and intense.

I dont think I completely agree with you about what people look at when they appreciate an image. I think atmosphere and mood count for a lot. Its just the darker feeling is not what they are expecting with commercial portraiture.

But then if you look at the work of Diane Arbus and others you see there is a different set of expectations and way of appreciating some photos, from a fine art perspective.

I dont think you need to worry about the norms of portrait photography. What you're doing is truly deeper, stranger and more poignant.

As I have been saying yours is fine art photography, (that people can access for a portraiture price1)

LegalMist said...

The ones of the woman with the coffee mug and the man in the rocker scratching his bald head are artistic enough, and have enough happening in them, that I can see hanging them on a wall even without knowing the folks personally. The others are also artistic and beautifully done, but there is something so ... personal ... about hanging just a head shot of someone on your wall. You are right that I probably wouldn't, if I didn't know the folks personally. But I love the photos themselves. They certainly capture a lot of personality and depth. Much better than the typical studio photos of people smiling blandly at the camera. And I love the technique and "process" you bring to the photos. I love the lighting in the first one, with the earrings seeming to glisten and glow, and the eyes reflecting light... amazing. I could make similarly nice comments about the rest of them, but this comment is almost as long as your blog post, so I'll stop here. Great work. :)

Katie Roberts said...

Or it could just be portraiture for those who want to show a darker, edger reality...

but some of its definitely fine art in its own right. People view, buy and appreciate that regardless of who its of.

Aoife.Troxel said...

I agree with you. It is much easier to admire, say, a painter's skill even if the subject is not one you like, than a photographer's. But that is exactly why good photographers stand out. Your photographs certainly draw the eye, and, I think, capture the subject's personality.

Carrie said...

Wow! I don't know much about photography at all, but these are amazing! :) Well done.

emma said...

I don't know how photographers do it, but I love it when faces have texture if you know what I mean. These portraits have so much texture and depth, there is something to keep you looking. I would love for someone to make me a portrait like one of these.

Midnitefyrfly said...

I don't have the skill, the experience, or the equipment to consider myself a "photographer," but I have often been told I have a photographer's eye. I have never really understood what that meant.

In consideration of your explanation of the interpretation of a photograph, some understanding is taking shape in my mind.

I have always seen pictures as a reflection of a moment in time and recognized the ability for one to capture that moment. I have felt it was a fault to not recognize my feelings towards the object or subject of said photo.

Gives me some things to think on.

I love how your perspective invites me to consider my own. Your photography, likewise, invites me to consider much more than how I feel about your subjects or objects, and invokes a lot of appreciation and emotion.

Helen said...

Hey Bearded One - wondering if you could possibly (ahem) pass my phone number on to portrait no.4.
Oh yeah, great photos by the way. Hahahahaha.....
Seriously, not NICE photos at all!!

Eryl Shields said...

You are definitely making art now. The almost disembodied heads are fantastic, and if I had a huge room with floor to ceiling windows I would want them on my walls.

I began a blog post this morning on much this subject – our kitchen table chat last week – but got side tracked by a goose and haven't finished it yet.

hope said...

I think you've nicely captured how a mood effects our viewing. First photo I thought, "Interesting" and yet the 2nd one made me think, "Run!!" :)

Gee, photo #4 seems to be getting alot of attention: I was drawn to it due to that air of mystery that B&W photos often give.

My favorite? Our blogger friend. :)

Pat said...

A great collection: lovely naughty Eryl, a dishy young man and a wrinkled man with the sort of face you only normally see in Greece.
I found them all well worth a study and particularly loved the woman at the kitchen table who has the art of being perfectly natural in front of the camera while looking like the sort of person you'd like to get to know. Are we allowed to know who they are?

Fay's Too said...

So very, very cool. I wish you could do my portrait. I think.

Thrup'ny bits said...

I like Katie's comments and would add honesty. Frank honesty of subjects who are obviously relaxed and trust you, Kim.


Kim Ayres said...

Carole - I think in order to do interesting portraits, you have to like people, enjoy engaging with them and be fascinated by faces. Unfortunately, many portrait photographers don't really like people much, but do it because it brings in the money. It's a job rather than a passion, and that's reflected in the kind of images that get produced

Mapstew - so, how are we going to get me over to Ireland then?

Katie - I feel like I should be grabbing some of these lines for marketing quotes - "deeper, stranger and more poignant" and "Fine art photography for portraiture prices!" :)

LegalMist - don't feel you have to stop early - I have a cavernous ego that's can take all the praise thrown at it :) The thing is, I'm not particularly bothered about selling prints to hang on walls - in fact, I give clients a disc so they can print as many as they want themeselves, The enjoyment is in the intereaction, the taking of the photos and the processing afterwards.

Katie - maybe a coffee table book one day :)

Aoife Troxel - the thing is, I would say none of these images gives a true impression of the people in them. For one thing, seconds earlier, or later you would see smiles on their faces and laughter. A lot of the fun is not in "capturing reality", but in constructing it :)

Carrie - thank you :)

Emma - if you can get a few friends to chip in a few euros to fly me and the family out to Greece for a holiday for a couple of weeks, then I could do a few photography sessions in return, and show you some of the post-processing techniques to make the images leap out of the screen :)

Midnitefyrfly - I think a photographer's eye is purely about looking beyond the idea of a snapshot. To be able to create or capture an image which gives a feeling or mood beyond just a visual representation of the scene, is what takes a photograph up to the next level. You are an intense, thoughtful and creative person, and I'm sure if you developed your photography this would begin to emerge :)

Helen - Number 3 and 4 are both the same guy - spoken for, I'm afraid.

Eryl - our conversations always get my mind ticking and that last one has been responsible for this spate of posts :)

Hope - It's the same guy in pics 1 & 2. Pic 4 was fun because I noticed his window had blinds and the sun was shining through. I've been wanting to do film noir style shots for quite some time so this was too good an opportunity to miss :) As for Eryl, she's a wonderful model - not only does she have her beautiful bone structure, she's always up for playing with ideas - absolutely wonderful :)

Kim Ayres said...

Pat - Simon is the guy in the first 2 images - among other things, he's into "living history" reenactments, so is as comfortable being dressed as a viking as he is in a leather jacket.

Kevin, in photos 3 & 4 is a talented young fiddle player I met at the folk sessions I go along to.

Eryl, of course, you know already, although in this image that's a wedding dress she's wearing, when we took several photos of her wearing it in a burned out, ruined old hotel.

Greg is a professional storyteller and doesn't usually look like he's been 6 rounds in a bareknuckle fight

Eva is a muscian and music tutor who I also met at the folk sessions. She and her husband (in the background) are both Dutch but have lived here for about 5 years. Before that they lived in Ireland - lovely people

Ivan is Canadian, although he was born in the Ukraine. A singer, although an operation for throat cancer left him with no saliva glands, so he has to constantly drink water to keep his throat moist

Anne is Ivan's wife and she was round the other day picking up a DVD of images I'd been helping her with. I liked the texture of her fur hat so took a few photos of her pulling various expressions. This one was crying out for fangs to be added - although that might have been because she'd just been telling me about a tiny 2 roomed cottage she'd just bought in Transylvania, Romania :)

Kim Ayres said...

Fay - See my reply to Emma above - we'll happily holiday anywhere in the world if it can be paid for by my photography :)

Alan - as I mentioned to Aoife, above, most of these images are constructed, although the trust side of things is crucial if someone is to be relaxed enough to play :)

Katie Roberts said...

brilliant Kim! thanks for the descriptions (stories) of everyone, seems to add the 'other half' to the images. Yes! definitely coffee table book here - real local people - can be more interesting than the 'exotic'.

thanks alan. Kim you're welcome to use the quotes (just credit moi!) Glad I did them justice with in typing, you being a word smith and all.

Roschelle said...

Love them all! Maybe it's just me...well, I guess I'm the only one that counts in this situation since it's my opinion...LOL.

But back to what I was going to say. I really like black and white pics better...current or aged.

I think it's the fact that with so little color to draw at your're forced to focus on more of the detail of the actual subject.

Probably ridiculous since I know nothing about photography...just my 2 cents

Gillian said...

I love these pics...its through the eyes of the photographer...its how you see things and thats what makes these shots so unique!

Mary Witzl said...

No way would Eryl have put on a lace-trimmed blouse. (Or did she?)

I think I'll got visit her blog now. I want to KNOW!

Falak said...

I know nothing about photography so all I'll say is that I've been coming back to this page and going through these portraits for the tenth time now. It as if each picture is telling a story of it's own.

Tiffin said...

I like when a portrait brings out some inner element of a person's character and almost tells a story from it. Or when the face itself is so arresting (thinking of that photo of the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic a few years ago) that the image just stops you cold and you can only stare.

Whether you are capturing a couple in their kitchen or a seamed face with a glass raised to it, you are telling me a story - that's the most important thing of all for me as a viewer. Who are these people? What are they doing? How human and real they are! Well...except for the teeth in the last one.

Fay's Too said...

You're welcome here any time, of course. How 'bout this girl with the Scots name comes to Scotland to have her portrait done?
Then I could come back and show it off and drum up lots 'o business for you when you come to the states. Of course, I'll pay for my portrait. It's that honesty thing though. Could you go easy on it and make me look beautiful and intelligent and sexy instead?

Kim Ayres said...

Katie - well you just have to become globally famous, and that will add weight to the quotes :)

Roschelle - black and white has always been a powerful medium, precisely for the reasons you mention. When we remove colour,w e are forced to look more closely at light, shape and form. You clearly know more than you're admitting to :)

Gillian - mind you, it's not always how the people being photographed actually want to be seen...

Mary - it was a wedding dress - we did a photoshoot out in a burned out hotel not that far from where you lived

Falak - what lovely words, thank you :)

Tiffin - When I make cosmetic adjustments for people on photos, teeth is one of the most requested alterations. Admittedly it's usually to straighten and whiten them rather than add fangs...

Fay - absolutely I can make you look beautiful, intelligent and sexy. In fact I suspect you already have all the elements in place. And if you do want to come to Scotland for your portrait, that sounds like it would make a fun series of blog entries :)

Anonymous said...

I love the portraiture! I find particularly engaging the portraiture with background action, six and seven from the top. The storytelling aspect. Right?

Anonymous said...

Didn't realize I became anonymous since changing WordPress. Anyway "Allen Capoferri"left you the comment above.

Sayre said...

I love pictures of real people. They're the ones that really speak to you - in a way that no glamour shot could possibly speak to "regular" people. I really like the woman at the table with her coffee mug. And the disarray behind her on the counter and the just starting her day look where she's not sure if she wants to start or go back to bed.

Actually, I love all of them, but I love faces - all of them - and find them fascinating. The deep wrinkles on the man with the glass mug are beautiful!

hope said...

Seems I left a sentence out of my post! :0 I meant that I knew it was the same gentleman in photos 1 & 2 but your photos made me have such opposite reactions.

There. Clear as mud. ;)

Lisa Page Rosenberg said...

I feel like I can not only see them but hear them.

Jennifer said...

Number 1 & Number 8...they move me.

Kim Ayres said...

Allen - It's true, context makes for a different story. Often much harder to get right, I find

Sayre - I think in this age of botoxed, plastic, computer generated beauty, I find myself wanting to kick against it. The extraodinary is in the every day, not smoothed out "perfection"

Hope - this echos the point I've made several times before - that a single image cannot sum up a multi-faceted, complex person any more than a single note can sum up a piece of music. I love being able to get vastly different images from the same person :)

Lisa - Just be glad you can't smell them... ;)

Jennifer - thank you :)

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