Make it candid
Oct 31 1985
Picture the humble portrait photographer on assignment.
He is a fussy, worried-looking man with a permanent squint and a list to starboard caused by lugging 20 kg of equipment.
His pictures are technically perfect, which is why public relations department of Monolith Corp has asked him to photograph their newly-appinted vice president.
When he gets inside the broadloomed office he’ll draw more high-tech equipment from his bag than a physican would need to perform open heart surgery.
With the efficiency of long experience he will place tripod, lights and camera around the room while various functionaries look on.
The subject will pat his hair “Do I look alright? ”
“Yeah, you look fine,” our man will say as he consults his light meter. He’ll have to hurry to avoid a parking ticket.
He will manipulate his subject like a mannequin, raising his chin a centimeter, batting down a stray lock of hair and straightening his tie.
Then comes the moment of truth: “Well now,” he will say with manufactured cheer. A LITTLE SMILE!”
The hearts of assembled functionaries will flutter as the vice presidential mustache twitches. The photographer will press the shutter. His superb equipment will respond with an eye-searing flash. Two more flashes will follow as the photographer brackets his shots. The session will be over.
Later, the photographer or is assistant will make crisp, grainless prints of the vice presidential face as it looked at the moment of most opportune mustache-twitching.
So here, at last, is the point. All the equipment in the world won’t help you make a good portrait if all you can think of to do is ask your subject to smile.
Photographers have figured out all kinds of gimmicks to get rid of the deathly grimace that usually results on such occasions. I once read of a studio photographer who read poetry to his models. He said it made them look intrigued.
I asked a company director to recite the first poem he’d ever learned. He looked like an eight-year-old as he recalled the lines to a silly ditty about electricity. It was a good pic.
More thoughts on the manufacturing of pictorial spontaneity:
• Give our subject something to think about. I’ve asked people to perform mental tasks like counting backwards by 9s from 100 with varied results.
One young office girl looked sexy as she posed for a company head shot and revealed a suprising facility with numbers. Another stuck out her tongue.
• Give them something to sing about. People can look surporisingly angelic. One of my best-ever shots involved a lady welder who posed with her equipment and sang God Save The Queen.
• Get them to cock their heads. One of my most difficult subjects, a police chief, told me I had 30 seconds, then folded his arms and stared straight at the wall. I asked him to tilt his head about 20 degrees to the left and look directly into the lens. The manufactured quizzical expression made him look like a probing tough-minded cop.
• Pay attention to posture. I often tell subjects to keep their feet in one place and follow me with their eyes as I move around them. The subtle twisting of their bodies make the photo more dynamic.
• Hide behind your camera. Your nervousness vanishes as you look through the viewfinder concentrating on purely technical matters like lighting, depth of field and composition. When you see what you like, click.
• And here’s the best trick of all: stop playing tricks. Set up your camera, look over the top of it and smile at your subject. They’ll smile right back.