Category: Art


Types of portraits

March 8th, 2012 — 12:55pm

 

Portraits can be broadly classified into two types according the role of the surroundings in the picture:  (1) environmental portraits, in which the surroundings play a critical role in defining the subject’s profession or vocation; and (2) “classic” portraits, where the sitter is the only subject and the background and environment don’t add much to the story. 

Another way of classifying portraits is based on whether the subject is (1) aware and cooperating with the camera, as in a “posed” portrait; or (2) a capture of a candid  moment with the subject being seemingly unaware of the presence of the camera.   Sometimes candid photos can be fabricated, instead of capture – the photographer convincingly shows the subject in an unguarded moment, but the subject is perfectly aware of being photographed.  

 

We can summarize these types of portraits in the following table:

 

Environmental

Classic

Posed

Environmental, posed portraits

Classic, posed portraits

Candid

Environmental candid portraits

Classic candid portraits (uncommon)

 

The boundaries between these types of portraits are fuzzy.  For example, a classic posed portrait may provide a hint of an environment, like a prop, without it being fully environmental.  A good example would be the famous American West portraits Avedon made against a white background.  There is no environment to speak of,  but the clothes and objects the subjects hold give important clues as to their occupation or the location. 

In my photography I am very aware of these distinctions, as they define the techniques required to produce the portrait.  These categories provide the basic decision-making framework for the photographer to work with his or her subject to get a meaningful, compelling portrait.

I see many photographers that favor a type of portrait that has an obvious environment, like a public park, but this environment does not in any meaningful way connect with the subject(s) of the portrait.  It’s just convenient to take pictures in a public park at the golden hour.  While this will often produce pretty pictures, they fall a bit short on the story telling aspects – the location does not provide us with context about the subject – it’s a content-neutral context, as in the classic portrait, but it does contain a lot of information that can distract from the main subject.

In my work I like to do all these types of portraits, and I avoid situations where the environment exists but it’s not meaningful.    Furthermore, I tend to use these styles quite different for portrait commissions and for stock people photography, in the following manner:

 

Environmental

Classic

Posed

Commission, stock

Commission, stock (business)

Candid

Stock

Stock

 

I tend to favor a more posed approach whenever someone commissions a portrait for their wall or photo album.   These portraits tend to show the subject looking at the camera, either in their environment, like home, or doing what they enjoy, or in a formal environment, where the focus is on their physical features and hopefully personality.   While I often use this approach for stock images, I tend to favor a more candid style for stock, so that I can more clearly illustrate human feeling or emotion.

Breaking the rules

Breaking the rules

Like everything in the arts, these categories above are guidelines, but not rigid prescriptive rules for creatives.  In the portrait above I do use a natural setting to help me tell the story - the beauty of late afternoon light,  wild flowers and a young woman echo the beauty of the music she’s playing but we can’t hear.  The environment helps convey the idea of beauty and compensates for what the image cannot do, which is to offer us the music directly.   So it’s an environmental portrait but it’s more conceptual than direct.  It’s posed because I worked with the musician on his position with respect to the lights and the camera, but the viewer hopefully doesn’t see the pose, only the reflective moment in which she connects with her music.

 

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Honesty in portraiture

February 29th, 2012 — 11:40am

Portrait photographers routinely deal with an issue I am going to call “honesty in portraiture” -  it has to do with the answer to the questions “How faiththfully does the image capture the subject’s personality and uniqueness? How true is the portrait?” -  the answer to this question has a couple of angles.

First, the photographer strives to capture expressions and a “persona”  that honestly reflects the person being photographed.  That is, the photographer makes it possible for the subject to be genuine in front of the camera. While this may sound easy and obvious, it is not simple at all.  The reason is that, in general, people behave differently in front of a camera manned by a stranger.  It is the photographer’s job to put his or her subjects at ease in an artificial situation and make it possible for them to show their true selves.

This image below of a father with his boy, which I created just a few days ago, does convey a sense of authentic and genuine closeness.  I used a white background to eliminate all distractions and added the bright colors to help convey a sense of upbeat energy.  I worked on making the boy and the Dad comfortable, and I believe the images does show them as they are:

A father and his son

The other important aspect of honesty has to do with digital manipulation.   We photographers are expected to make our subjects look their best, within the parameters of an honest, genuine portrait.  But “making our subjects look good” becomes a very open-ended task with the many digital manipulation techniques we have available today.  Not only is it possible to remove skin blemishes but also change bone structure and change skin texture.   While these techniques make it possible to make anyone look younger and healthier,  they also move against the spirit of genuine honesty that a good portrait should have.   My personal reference is to use light to accentuate or “hide” my subject’s body features, and to use digital manipulation in a very limited manner, so as to maintain my subject’s genuiness.

Of course, it’s possible to  move from making a portrait of a specific individual to making an illustration of an idea.  This illustrative approach removes all the constraints and replaces genuine honesty with an idealized depiction of the person.   I tend to use this approach when the image is no longer presented as or expected to be a portrait of an individual - for example stock imagery.

Here below is an example of a photo illustration that uses heavy use of postprocessing to convey the image of beauty over 30:

Beauty over 30

Beauty over 30

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Telling stories with images

February 21st, 2012 — 11:04pm

As a people photographer I need to worry about lots of different things when I am creating images.  On the technical side I need to make sure that the exposure is correct, the lights are properly placed to create the desired effect, all the settings on my camera are what I want, and  the relative intensity of multiple lights are all within spec for what I need.  On the creative side I need to worry about composition, perspective, shapes, lines, foreground and background - also need to make sure that the color palette used makes sense, and that there are no elements distracting or not contributing to the work.  Furthermore, I need to be concerned with my subject’s expression, making sure I am engaging him or her and there is genuine emotion and human interest in the image.

As if all these considerations were not enough, the photographer has to really worry about the story telling aspects of the image.  Story telling is not something that requires a sequence of images - although traditional photo essays do use a layout of multiple images to tell a story about something.   It’s also important to apply the term “story telling”  to a single image.   And what I mean by this is the answer to the question “what is this image about?”  - for example, consider this photo of my daughter doing her geometry homework:

What is this image about?

The answer to the question “What is this image of” is simple and factual - it’s a photo of a girl, about nine years old, sitting at the table and working with paper, pencil and a compass, with a fireplace in the background.  The girl is not looking at the camera.    This answer doesn’t tell us what the image is about.

Story telling has to do with the universal feelings, emotions or intellectual responses to an image.  It has to do with how we connect personally with what the image represents.   We can say that the image above is about education and learning, about healthy children doing their work, about the importance of mathematics for children, including girls.  The story is what we conclude looking at the work - hopefully what we conclude is what the photographer expected us to conclude - this is what I call targeted story telling - there is a message and the viewer gets it.  Sometimes the story in an image is open ended and ambiguous, open to interpretation, requiring the viewer to fill in his or her interpretation based on his or her own experiences and backgrounds.  For example, this image below, named “Polyphemus”  contains a story, but the story is neither obvious nor the same for everyone:

What is this image about?

What is this image about?

Does an image of a person, a portrait, have to contain a story? Does it have to be about something?  My answer to that question is most definitely yes.  A portrait must communicate something about the subject beyond his physical appearance.  A capture of facial features is what we expect from a passport photo.  A real portrait must be about the subject in a very personal and unique way.  Next time you look at an image, or you are the subject of an image, ask yourself - what is this image about?  And hopefully there is an answer, or more, available to you.

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The human body

September 8th, 2009 — 2:53pm

Marshana has an absolutely perfect figure, slender and tall.  We decided to get together to do some nudes of her.  My initial idea was to do a version of Velazquez’s Venus of the Mirror, which we ended up doing.  But I am much happier with the other shots I created using a backlight approach on a white background.  The images have a more commercial appeal without being unartistic.  I am posting two here from the series.

Torso

Torso

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Miguel, shiny wheel vendor

June 30th, 2009 — 12:59pm

I am doing this project on Forest Lane in Garland and I find myself doing impromptu visits to shops. There is plenty of auto-related business, pawn shops, bail bond offices, used RV sales, and many other kinds of small businesses. Sometimes I stop by just to explain my project and ask if it would be ok to come back later. Some of these places are really ugly. I stopped at First Cash Pawn, and this is a pretty unphotogenic place. The manager wasn’t in, so I’ll have to come back tomorrow. I spend some time thinking (normally while driving) about how I could create an interesting picture inside an ugly place, like a pawn shop. Then I let go and my brain continues to work the problem in the background.

Other times I just get the ok on the spot and have less time to think about the possibilities. This is what happened today. I stopped at Miguel’s shop and he agreed to be photographed. But as soon as I got the camera and stuff out of the car, three cars pulled in, he looked at me shaking his head indicating that he wasn’t going to be able to pose. I asked for just a few minutes and that’s what I got. It really helps me to have sample images to show - Miguel was pretty excited about getting an 8×10 portrait, like the ones I showed him.

Miguel has a small shop where he sells and installs those shiny chrome wheels you see some tricked up cars with. He only had 5 minutes for a portrait, so I set up a chrome wheel to serve as a halo and another for him to rest on and took a single picture because he had to go help a customer.

I dont like the squinting, but the sun was not on his face, he’s just a squinty kind of guy. I did some creative postprocessing to bring some saturation and intensity to the colors. This image reminds me of “chicano art” where the Virgen of Guadalupe is depicted with gaudy colors and shiny stuff.

I am not too crazy about the image because I didn’t really have time to think it thru, and the squint is not ideal - although the squint gives him a certain type of expression.

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Why do I make photographs?

June 29th, 2009 — 3:40pm

This weekend we went to a friend’s house in Princeton, TX for dinner.  It’s a house in the country with a small pond and some nice prairie around it.  Our friends have some chickens and a vegetable garden.   They also have some grape vines and a few fruit trees. After dinner we took the kids to the pond to fish for a while.    The first picture below is the pond at sunset with children and adults fishing and having a good time.  I took this image because I wanted to express a feeling or emotion at the time - peaceful, calm enjoyment with those we love.

What compelled me to create this image was the need to express a feeling of beauty and peace in our daily lives.  The second image, below, is one of the sunset sun back lighting some grapes on the vine.  The scene didn’t really look like this at all - this image is a creation, a fantasy, made possible by photographic equipment such as long telezoom lenses and a exposure that left the sun way underexposed.  Why did I take this particular picture.  Because I saw reality through the eyes of a photographer - I knew I could take a thin slice of reality, stop it, concentrate it and present it as a new reality.   Here I was not expressing a feeling as much as a I was creating one thru the symbols and techniques of photography.  But why?  Because I am compelled to communicate my feelings and to create - both images are the result of a creative process, as the real scene was not what I depicted.   I think these are the reasons that make photography so exciting and compelling to me - it is an outlet for both my expressive needs and my creative needs.

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Forest Lane project

June 20th, 2009 — 11:19pm

Today I started working on a project for myself, very different from the technically measured studio images I have done for a while.   I have been thinking about it for a couple of weeks and today finally got the gear in the car and got it going with the first couple of images.   It’s a documentary of people you might find along Forest Lane in the older areas of Garland in Texas, a working class neighborhood in the Dallas area. Why this place? Because it seems interesting and not too far from my work, so that I can add images to the project without much driving or complications.

My intention is to do documentary photography, but I also want to pay attention to aesthetics, I want to control the light and create environmental portraits that say something about the people in an interesting way. Today I started visiting a barbarshop and this used tire shop. My plan is to create about 20 images for a documentary portfolio on this street. The project is just for me, no commercial value. I do plan to give an 8×10 print to Cleveland, the barber and any other person I photograph on this street. I’d like to get it completed and printed by the end of the summer.

The reason I want to work on this project is that I find it more inspiring and rewarding to me than photographing beautiful people. I find great satisfaction in finding the human spirit in less than ideal conditions, and beauty among everyday people. I want to apply my skills and knowledge to create images that are hopefully genuine and also carefully crafted, not just quick PJ style photos.

You’ll see the project progress as I post my work along the way.   I will be placing images here:

Forest Ln. Project - http://pacoromerophoto.com/galleries/forest

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Stella’s portrait project completed!

May 1st, 2007 — 8:51am

 I have been working on the final project for my Portrait Photography course at the community college.  After changing direction a couple of times, I settled on doing a studio portfolio of my wife Stella.  I had originally planned to do more of a documentary, “lifestyle” collection of images, but we both enjoyed working in the studio and being creative with lights and clothing, so that’s what we ended up doing.   I have attached here a compcard that will take you to the images on my website.  I’d be interested in your feedback, especially your favorite image!

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