The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

Portrait or Product? - and Episode 78 of Understanding Photography with Kim Ayres

My plan this morning was to write a blog post about "The Kippford Mermaid" photo shoot I talked about in last night's podcast, however, I've decided I'll do that in a separate post.

Partly this is because it really falls into the "Tales From the Shutter" category, but it's also to do with the response I gave to Russ about baby photography, which has been going round in my head ever since.

One of the wonderful things about teaching, is you learn so much by doing it.

Basically you think you already know something, and you kind of do, but if you have to explain it to an audience that doesn't have your level of background knowledge and experience, you have to structure your information in a different way. And by doing this it's not uncommon to suddenly gain an entirely new insight into something you'd previously taken for granted.

And so it was when Russ put up his very well taken, standard-issue baby photo, for Critique. Although Russ knows his way around a camera as well as any professional, he is far more experienced with shooting cars and motorbikes hurtling around rally tracks than he is photographing cute babies, so was looking for advice in case he'd missed a trick.

Shot on a pale quilt with a white background and soft, bright light, the smiling baby was the kind of shot any doting parent would be happy with. Was there anything that could be technically improved? Not really.

Perhaps he could have gone down another popular baby-photo route, where the infant is wrapped in a crocheted blanket and placed in a willow nest, or is wearing some kind of cute outfit, as an alternative approach.

And yet, the more I thought about it the more I realised there was a deeper, more conceptual problem.

It wasn't Russ's fault – he had admirably responded to the requests and expectations of the commissioning parents – rather it was a fault of the whole baby-photo industry.

In essence, it was a product shot.

In the same approach to photographing a mug, torch, washing machine or any other item you might want to sell, the baby-photo industry is all about presenting the object in the a good light and polished up, so you have the best looking version of it.

It's not really about the baby, beyond creating a recognisable likeness.

But if we stop and think about it for a moment, the most important thing to any parent about their baby is not what s/he looks like, but about their relationship the new child.

This incredible, beautiful, amazing, bundle of life that somehow has magically appeared after months of growing inside the mother's belly.

It doesn't matter how much we know the facts about cell division and growth patterns, every parent stares at their new-born, emotionally wondering how the hell did that happen? Where did this magical creature come from?

And every parent is torn between feeling utterly committed to ensuring the child's survival while simultaneously feeling hopelessly inadequate and unprepared for the task.

It is this incredible closeness, this relationship with the baby that is the all-important, all-consuming narrative that really needs to be captured.

Rather than having a baby placed on a plinth to be admired, we need to see the bond between parent and child. We need to see the infant in the arms, nose to nose, cheek to cheek, skin to skin, flesh to flesh.

The next generation is something we have been creating since the first collections of cells found ways to reproduce, hundreds of millions of years ago.

If we can reveal this bond in our photos, it will provoke the primal emotional responses in the deepest parts of the viewer's brain.

But this common practice of seeing people as products, I realised could be taken a step further when, following on from my comments in the podcast, Russ posted some other photos from his shoot, where Mum, Dad and baby Louie were all smiling into the camera.

Dad's got a clean t-shirt on and Mum has done her hair and make-up, but look carefully and we can see a tension in her smile I've noticed a thousand times over the years of doing portraits.

As soon as we have to look into the camera, on some level we are aware we are being seen as a product. And just as we rifle through the cauliflowers in the grocers, judging and comparing, so we know that viewers could be doing the same thing with our image.

The fear and desperation to present the best possible version of ourselves creates intolerable levels of stress, which are almost impossible to hide.

Getting people to genuinely relax in front of the camera takes a lot of time, skill, and building of trust. Most of my photo shoots take several hours, precisely because I'm taking this into consideration.

If I want them to be more natural in front of the camera, then I have to take the time to build that relationship with them.

In the case of the new-family-member shoot, the quick, easy, and powerful solution is quite simply to get them to focus on the baby, rather than on the camera. The moment they look at their child, the connection becomes apparent, and this is what we need to capture.

The right lighting, composition and camera settings will help us enhance the intensity and beauty of the photos, but unless we capture that parental relationship with the baby, then no amount of technical correctness is going to give us a good image.

Because in the end, the photo is about people, not products.

Meanwhile, enjoy Episode 78 where I talk about The Kippford Mermaid photo shoot and the amazing team of people that helped make it happen.

And if you decide to click through and view it directly on YouTube (rather than here on the blog), then you can watch the Live Chat Replay and see the comments people are writing in real time as the podcast progresses.


2:00 - Welcome, what's coming up, greetings and comments
08:10 - Introduction to The Kippford Mermaid book
11:30 - Creating a promotional photo shoot for the book launch.
22:32 - Stages of the editing process for the main photo
33:43 - Stages of the editing process for the individual mermaid photo
49:20 - Introduction to the Critique Section
52:40 - Ben has now written a blog post to explain his coloured shadows photo
54:44 - Jim - Correcting exposure, and being aware red objects grab the attention
1:00:39 - Robert - adjusting colour and light levels
1:08:16 - Roy - the problem of gaps becoming exaggerated
1:14:18 - Garry - selectively lightening
1:19:02 - Michele - if you don't like the background but can't change it
1:24:55 - Russ - baby portraits - moving away from a product photography approach
1:37:38 - Coming up next week
1:39:42 - End

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Ben Craven said...

The "product or person" distinction that you draw is really interesting. Now you've alerted me to it, I see it all over the place, eg in people posing for holiday snaps.

But it seems to me that "product" photographs are so universal and persistent that they must they must be meeting a need for the people involved. In the case of many of them (baby photographs and studio family portraits are examples) there's a documentary or occasion-marking function. You see quite a lot of paintings in art galleries doing a similar job.

There's a studio photo of my grandmother and her 6 children in existence. None of them are smiling. This may just reflect the need for a long exposure in the 1930s, but maybe it was a conscious style. I've just googled "famous portrait photographs" - almost no smiles there either.

In contrast, we all have occasional unposed photographs of people that, by chance, catch a fleeting expression that encapsulates that person perfectly, even if the photo is technically bad. Here, the expression is often a smile.

This makes me wonder if the issue with many of the studio "product" photographs is not that they are "product" photographs per se, but that they are trying to be two things at once - a documentary picture and a here's-happy-me picture - and the strained smiles required by the latter are spoiling the former.

So might the "product" parents & baby pictures work better if people presented themselves as a different kind of product, and didn't smile?

As well as thinking what story a photo is/should be telling, should we also be thinking about what job(s) the photo is doing for the people involved? Which might include whoever finds it in the bottom of a drawer 50 years later.


Kim Ayres said...

Ben - there are certain shots I am asked to create for authors, actors, staff etc, where a warm, relaxed smile is an absolutely crucial part of the photo. They have to appear friendly and welcoming. As such, the lion's share of the time in any such photo shoot is not taking the photos, but using all sorts of ways to get them to relax in front of the camera so their smiles appear genuine and not forced.
However, in the case of a private shoot, or for someone where warm, welcoming friendliness is not the overriding concern, I will immediately do away with smiles and work with a thousand other possibilities.
These photos are always much more interesting to look at and fun to take :)

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