Exercise 1.2 Background as context

Posing people for portraits has always been a stumbling block for me and so this entire chapter is proving to be challenging, not to mention the upcoming Assignment.  August Sander posed his subjects against plain backgrounds or included objects that would be relevant to their profession.  When studying the images made by him, it was interesting trying to guess the jobs or lives that his subjects lived, some were more obvious than others – The Pastry Cook (1928, printed 1999) leaves little to doubt as he stands there with his mixing bowl, against a kitchen backdrop while dressed in chef’s whites.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 12.27.03

I was intrigued by this one of The Washerwoman (c1930) as there is so much more to look at in the frame, with the buckets at her feet, washing twined around the water pump and her neutral expression.  This appears to be an urban setting – there is fencing on the background and the outline of buildings, and she stands on cobbles with a drain to one side ready to catch the water from the pump.  Yet there are no other people in the frame and it is solely this woman washing garments or linens out in the street.  Her position at the forefront of the frame does make the viewer look into the photograph to explore the whole image not just the woman herself.

The facial expressions were also noticeable in that most of them looked at the camera, particularly if they were single person portraits and none were smiling.  It was relatively rare for the single person to be looking away from the camera.  This was reserved for groups of people or couples, although there were one or two who were ‘doing things’ and so gave them a purpose to be looking away, such as scientists or intellectuals.  Groups were tightly framed and there was little space around them.  The backgrounds could be plain white, or interiors or outside with the countryside stretching out behind, or street scenes.  Each one grounds the subject once you know who they are and what they did.

And so to the portrait that I had to do on my own.  I spent a couple of hours with my friend who has a recording studio and is a musician, and he was recording an artist putting vocals onto tracks for a new album coming out in the Autumn.  During a break, we went outside and I chatted to him about a photo of him, and we talked about what was important to be in the background for him particularly.  Being a musician, it was important to have his guitar and appear to be playing.  He loves his camper van as he first got it when he got married and they have had several family holidays in it. It is a big part of his lifestyle, he’s what I suppose you would call a Mod but there is a hippy part of him (isn’t there in all of us?) that loves the freedom of camping and the open road.  The sun was shining on the first days of proper warm weather and the clematis was in full bloom, and they fitted in with the flowers on the roof and dashboard of the campervan.

I’m not certain that I posed him too much, it was more of a collaboration between us as we moved round the garden but I did move and choose the angle so that it had the flowers, the van, the archway and him in front of it, troubador style.  In some ways, it was easier than I thought because I took the photographs with my phone camera and that released the tension of choosing aperture, getting the exposure right – it’s just point, focus it and press the shutter button.  I often go all thumbs when faced with someone in front of me waiting to have their photo taken, and using a phone means that I can use one of those thumbs constructively.   I often use the Retrica app to capture images and this one is one of those.  The vignette is quite apparent but not intrusive, although the bottom left hand corner is over dark – this is exactly how it came off the phone.  Generally though I like it and it works as it is brightly lit, it’s in focus and the highlights are not too bright.  I can see the blue sky and clouds reflected in the glass, and I like him standing casually with one foot up on the bumper.  The square frame works in this case as there is some balance with the person just off the central line and the van on the other side.  His guitar provides the horizontal line that crosses the two central lines, although there are other horizontal lines in the edges of the van, the bricks in the wall and the dark opening behind him.  The bent leg also balances up the lines.  I confess that I don’t look enough or plan exactly where everything will go, but I change things slightly or move my position to fit or balance the image.  To me and my eye, it works and I like it, but that is very subjective.

PPArnold @ Steve's 12
Steve Cradock, Devon, May 2017

The problem that I encounter when considering portraits is the time factor.  I tend to rush it as I feel that the sitter is waiting and I am not ready.  It is important to slow down, think, consider and look more intently at what is going on around the area.  Maybe it is the modern phenomenon of simple, quick ways of taking photos that appear instantly on your screen that makes me feel that I need to go quicker when in reality there is no rush, I can take my time and try to get it right.  I am aware that this may be a problem when compiling work for the Assignment as I just know that my instinct will be to grab one or two shots and run.  It will require some work, but plucking up courage to ask complete strangers to have their photo taken will probably take over from the technical issues of trying to frame, focus, pose, shoot and then see if it might come out.



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