A few weeks ago my friend Jane stopped by for a portrait session; looking to update some of her web presence it was also time to update her profile photos. Jane arrived in full cycling gear and carried her bike up to my second floor apartment (and makeshift studio) and after a quick change we started to make some frames. Some photographers excel at making people comfortable in their view finders, I have to work at it. This is one of my favourite images from our 90 minutes and is Jane’s response to “Jane, tell me a dirty joke!” She claims she doesn’t know any, but her expression suggests she does. Her spontaneous and unguarded response also suggests that in that instant we broke the ice better than any good handshake or cocktail could
When I googled “How do you relax a portrait subject?” more than 3 million results came back and topping the list on three or four of the sites that I looked at were, engage the subject, relax yourself, no touching and show your work. I like to show my work, but I think I will try asking the subject to tell me a dirty joke a few more times before I rule it out.
Phillipe Halsman (1906-1979) was a master portraitist and had a bag of tools to “unmask” his subjects from their characters or public personae. Photography Critic Owen Edwards, in a 2006 article about Halsman for the Smithsonian Magazine described portraiture as “one of the greatest challenges in photography, because the human face is elusive and often mask-like, with practiced expressions for the standard range of emotions.”
While Halsman was an accomplished photographer and photojournalist with more than 100 Life Magazine covers to his credit, he may be best remembered for asking his subjects to Jump. Starting in 1952 and continuing for six years, Halsman closed his portrait sessions by getting his subjects, including Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to jump and in that moment reveal their true selves. It would be difficult to overstate Halsman’s gift of revealing his subjects, and I can only imaging what a difficult ask it was to make with some of the more conservative or self conscious personalities he photographed. Photographers today owe something to Halsman even if they have never heard of him. We owe him for being innovative and inspiring spontaneity in what could be a rather stayed exercise and I think we could all try a little harder to do the same.
Read Owen Edwards article here:
When I left the house early Friday morning to mark the route of a charity bike ride stretching from Crescent Beach in White Rock to Chiliwack, BC about 100km east of where it began I wasn’t thinking much about making photos. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve left the house with my camera with it never seeing the light of day, but I always remind myself that there is a lot to miss in this world and you never know what or who you are going to run into.
I can’t tell you much about the community of Yarrow expect that it sits in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain Range, has about two dozen businesses on the main street through town, offers a great sandwich at the Yarrow Deli and has been home to Hank and his barber shop since the 1940’s. Hank had a seat in the sun in front of his shop when we pulled into town and the sun seemed to light up his white, starched barber jacket. He was impossible to miss and after our lunch break at the town park, I wandered across the street to introduce myself and ask if I could make his portrait.
“I’m Hank the Barber, guess how long I’ve been here.”
We only had about five minutes with him, and I shot shot a few frames, but this was one of those times where I was grateful to have had my camera in my bag. I love this colour frame of Hank, but as much as it captures a certain light in his eyes, it is a reminder to me that some portraits are more than the face they capture. What’s making me crazy, days later, is how I overlooked including more of his shop in the frame given his shop is such a large component of who he is and his place in his community. Next time I will do better.
It has been a busy week. Last weekend I spent Saturday afternoon with Sam and Alex followed by an early morning in Stanely Park shooting a running event and the week fell away from me from that point on; I know it was a little over a week ago that these images were made, but it feels like a month. A week later I am coming off another busy weekend having shot and edited images of a press conference for The University of British Columbia Midwifery Program with my photos turning up on UBC & BC Government websites and a cycling event in Coquitlam which raised nearly $100,000 for the local Hospital Foundation. These past two weekends were book ends to a week filled with much thought and conversation about photography, personal projects and reasonable rates to charge new clients. This personal work, these pictures of Sam & Alex and the others before them, is a way for me to investigate and explore the relationship between subject and photographer and how I want to approach portraiture in the future. It is a definitely a process to learn when to direct and when to observe and I have always been stronger at observation than direction. It was great to see my friends warm to having a camera present, from an initial unease, to something more relaxed and comfortable.
I am on the lookout for subjects in the Vancouver area, let me know if you’d like to be part of my personal project.
I am returning to some Personal Work that had a false start a few years ago. Until I can decided the on the project’s specific goals or parameters the working title remains The Portrait Project, ok, so not that original or creative, but I’ve always felt that portraiture has been my weak point and something that I need to develop. Yesterday I connected with an old friend, classmate and neighbour, Saskia, and we shot several frames in the back garden of her mother’s house while we spoke about the complexities of photography, returning ‘home’ to Vancouver and the finer points of preparing Sushi. My ambition with this long term work is to both develop my skills, but also to create a volume of stories.