The brief for this exercise was:
How would you make a formal portrait of someone, that tells the viewer about that person’s character, life and interests but remains subtle and restrained?
Making a ‘formal’ portrait is a ‘real world’ scenario for most photographers. It’s generally a full-length portrait of a person showing their whole figure deliberately posed to be the main subject of the composition. It won’t include excessive displays of emotion or activity.
A formal portrait demands great care over the composition and the lighting. And you’ll need to make many exposures to capture a meaningful portrait from your subject. Wait for your subject to relax. Be alert to their nuances of facial expression and gesture and try to find a ‘real’ face, not a self-conscious or smiling or ‘this is how I want to be seen’ sort of face.
By juxtaposing significant elements (props, setting, clothes) in the frame, you’re setting up a Vickerkind of ‘dialogue’ between them, in which a resonance should occur, but try to remain subtle.
Before you start, research Thomas Struth’s portraits on the Tate website: www.tate.org.uk/ art/artworks?aid=2339&ws=date&wv=grid and Cecil Beaton’s work.
The link in the course notes didn’t lead to any portraits and so I entered Thomas Struth into the search facility on the Tate website. This came up with a selection of Struth’s work, which I was then able to look through and find four portraits, (Struth, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991). The descriptions that accompany each of the images are very similar, with some details specific to the subjects.
Each image is the result of spending time with the subjects and getting to know them. The location for the photograph and the position of the subjects within the frame were left to them to decide, after Struth had defined some limits.
The photographs of the Shimada, Smith and Murakami families are more typical of Struth’s portrait work, with the figures being shown fully and from a distance. The photograph of Hannah Erdrich-Hartmann and Jana-Maria Hartmann is much more intimate in its nature.
The article associated with the Hartmann’s photograph suggests this is because of the intimacy between mother and daughter, and also trust between the subjects and Struth.
This difference is something that we can use in our photographs in order to provide a sense of intimacy between photographer and subject, even when one doesn’t exist, or a sense of distance when there is a close bond between the two.
Vickers (2014) has produced a book that combines both portraits produced by Beaton of famous people taken throughout his life, as well as his observations on each of his subjects. The portraits within the book are interesting in their own right, but the addition of Cecil Beaton’s thoughts make it a much more interesting read.
Flicking through the images in the book, predominantly tend to be a lot closer to their subject than Struth’s portrait work. Beaton’s subjects are also centred within each photograph indicating that they are the important part of the image.
Beaton’s photographs are impressive because of the people who he has captured on film. So many famous people from across the decades. Royalty, aristocracy, film and music stars, writers and other artists, all were photographed by Beaton.
When it came to actually taking the photos for this exercise I found that I didn’t have the time, so I resorted to using some portrait photos I’d taken of family and friends and using some of those.
Taking formal photos of people is something I struggle with. I find it really difficult instructing people in how and where I want them to stand. I know that this is something that comes with time and practice.
Today I was at Home Farm Festival, a local, charity, music festival. I took a number of photographs of people on stage, all I know directly or indirectly. It was so much easier taking those photos. I also found myself having chats with two guys, one asking me about the lens on my camera as he has just bought a Nikon and only has the kit lens. The other was taking photos of the band a friend sings with. He said he finds weddings hard to photograph. I can totally appreciate that.
Charlotte, Jess and Rhys
Eight years ago, my sister wanted to have some photos taken of my neices and son for our parents. Getting the wrong end of the stick, she meant a proper photoshoot with professional photographers, Rhys and I visited and I took some photos of the youngsters. The twins were quite young at the time and it was a challenge getting them to sit still long enough to get enough shots. In the end letting them watch TV while I carried on photographing them worked.
Amy and Rhys
In 2016, my wife wanted to have some photos of Rhys and his cousin Amy so that she could give them to her Mum as a present. During a visit I took the two of them into the garden and got them to pose. Although I’ve taken photos of the two of them, along with Amy’s older brother before this was the first time I’d actively directed anyone in order to achieve a desired result.
Although there was some lack of interest in posing they both got on with it and we ended up with some images that I was really pleased with. These are also probably the last photos of the two of them before Rhys received his terminal diagnosis.
Back in 2016, I was lucky enough to photograph Tash. We got some nice photos but during the shoot she wanted to try and recreate some iconic Marlene Dietrich photos. At the time we came up with some images that were close but I wasn’t able to achieve the end result, my photo editing skills weren’t up to the task. For this exercise I’ve taken some of those images and used Lightroom to reduce the Blacks and Shadows, and increased the Highlights. I’m hoping she likes the end results.
- Vickers, H (Ed) Cecil Beaton Portraits & Profiles Frances Lincoln Limited 2014 ISBN 978-0-71 12-3559-2
- Struth, T (1991) Kyoko and Tomoharu Murakami, Tokyo 1991 Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-kyoko-and-tomoharu-murakami-tokyo-1991-p77751 [Accessed 13 May 2018]
Struth, T (1987) Hannah Erdrich-Hartmann and Jana-Maria Hartmann, Düsseldorf 1987 Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-hannah-erdrich-hartmann-and-jana-maria-hartmann-dusseldorf-1987-p77747 [Accessed 13 May 2018]
Struth, T (1989) The Smith Family, Fife, Scotland 1989 Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-the-smith-family-fife-scotland-1989-p77750 [Accessed 13 May 2018]
Struth, T (1986) The Shimada Family, Yamaguchi, Japan 1986 Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-the-shimada-family-yamaguchi-japan-1986-p77745 [Accessed 13 May 2018]