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Thread: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

  1. #1

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    Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    The endlessly rich subject of composition can always be explored afresh. Depending on whom you ask, it can present itself as a bewildering domain or one strictly governed by a rigid and limited set of rules; a realm of Classical thought, Romantic drama, or anarchic disregard, to suggest just a few outlines. Some view Classicism only through specific geometrical forms or divisions of the frame, or, too often, attempt to convince others that successful images always fit these patterns, even when the plain evidence of their own examples leaves the proposition highly doubtful. I open with these remarks in hopes of eluding discussion, in this particular thread, of what are often called rules of composition.

    No less an influence in photography than Henri Cartier-Bresson was intrigued (not imprisoned) by geometry, as he, himself, discussed, and a stickler on composition, as reported by a number of his colleagues at the Magnum photo agency he founded. In the book Magnum Contact Sheets, which I recently got my hands on (Aside: Interlibrary loan, if you haven't used it, is a vast and marvelous resource for those of us shy on investment resources), several mentioned his unfailingly studying incoming photographs by turning them upside-down and on their sides. He was not alone among artists of many media doing this, and we large format photographers are hardly unfamiliar with studying images upside down.

    I just finished another book, Arnold Newman, Masterclass. As an aspiring portraitist who has also left the studio behind and prefers natural light, I am drawn to his work. Like Cartier-Bresson, a trail-blazer. Initially a student of painting, his compositional eye is exceptional. Like Strand, another master of composition, he preferred the large format camera, though their approach and work is starkly different.

    I mention them because their work continues to find its way into my continuing studies, and because neither they nor anyone else I have read, as much as I can recall (major caveat!) have discussed an aspect of composition that seems essential to portraits in particular, as well as to some other images. This aspect is the priority of attention that we naturally give to the human face in an image. Perhaps they did speak and/or write about it; perhaps it seemed too obvious.

    I've spent considerable time exploring the proposition, testing it out. Granted, I am only one viewer, with my own outlook and underlying emotional peculiarities. In my view, while turning an image upside down is frequently a good test of composition—that is, of the formal internal organization of the rectangle (this assumes, I think, that we consider composition as a unity of sorts, as far as that may go, including visual ironies of various sorts); and while a portrait may continue to exhibit formal strength, even brilliance, in this manner, we do not read the face as we do when it is right-side-up, hence the compositional dynamic really becomes something entirely different, whereas an image without a person's face in it may (though not always) be submitted to this test without such a marked difference.

    I'm not saying that a landscape, still life, or what have you is the same upside down. Rather, a portrait tends to draw our eye into the image on a path that it wouldn't necessarily travel if the person, especially the face, were replaced by an object of similar tonal characteristics. We look to the person in the image for meaning, for an emotional connection, in some way. Because of this, when turned upside-down, which tends to prevent us from reading the face emotionally as we would otherwise, the composition tends to read very differently. Other areas of the image can assume a far greater visual command. I find this to be strongly true in Newman's portraits, which holds its own irony, since he frequently portrayed artists in Modernist sorts of composition, in which form is paramount.

    I say that we look for meaning, recognizing that it is not always there. A head in profile, for instance, close-up, can become a study in line or sculptural qualities, as Ansel Adams recounted derogatory comments of his early studio portrait of Caroline Anspacher (https://americanhistory.si.edu/colle...ct/nmah_993420, or see his Forty Examples book). In such images, the formal reclaims its role. We find the same in certain drawings and other works of fine portraitists such as John Singer Sargent.

    Of course, the question may be raised: how, then, does one compose a portrait with the image upside on the ground glass? It's an interesting question, and much may be profited from dialogue. Here, portrait has been used generically, and the variety in portraiture, including how much of the frame is occupied by the face, is hardly limited. Generally, however, I would answer that we take it into account somehow. For those of us who have no compunctions about cropping, there is also a means of potentially improving the composition in the print.

    For me, the subject remains in mind as I feel my way forward in this field. I welcome your thoughts.
    Philip Ulanowsky

    Sine scientia ars nihil est. (Without science/knowledge, art is nothing.)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156933346@N07/

  2. #2

    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    I agree with your observation on the way we entertain portraits. In response to your interesting question, I would like to suggest that the most important aspects of composition, namely balance and inclusion or exclusion, should be and usually are decided to a great degree before we see the subject on the ground glass. Refinements performed on the glass are made chiefly to confirm we have chosen the right lens (e.g., 135 vs. 150), and complete those movements necessary to assure the subject is rendered as imagined (i.e., that the camera is pointed to cover what we intended to include and exclude when we decided to take the picture, and that the lens is positioned and set to obtain the desired sharpness and other optical effects). In other words, I am suggesting that the matter of composition is settled early on, much in the same way that zone system values are visualized before exposure, except that the former, which for me always occurs before an exposure decision is made, is more intuitive. Beyond that, I believe a successful portrait depends entirely on the photographer’s ability to capture the subject at just the right moment, as Karsh did with Churchill, or as Sander and Polk did with virtually everyone they photographed.

    N. Riley
    http://normanrileyphotography.com

  3. #3
    Tin Can's Avatar
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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    I think portraiture may be formalized

    But the decisive moment is what we want

    and found only face to face

    Karsh
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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    Generally (if possible), camera should be set-up beforehand using an assistant to sit in the spot so framing/focusing is about complete, lights are in position, flash or light meter readings are done, and other calculations are made... That way, subject can ease into shooting set and you can ease in because the tech part is behind you... So not a lot of time required to start rapport with eased sitter...

    Short of that, any pre-prep for set up you can do beforehand will be very helpful...

    If you are struggling/sweating, sitter will notice and might get tense/nervous... The best people shooters at the session are as smooth as glass... Like it's no big deal and you know what you are doing... :-)

    Steve K

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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    Thanks for the comments.

    Steve, yes, but with caveats for certain types of situation. I have certainly done it that way and achieved results with which I was happy, for instance, the portrait of Amelia Boynton Robinson, made when she came for dinner one night, in my Flickr portraits gallery. I have made more casual ones with the same prep. However, in portraits made on location, of the type I want to make now, set-up ahead is not always possible, and I may want to pose my subject in two or more places, and/or with changes of clothing, depending on the setting and the subject. What you say about rapport is certainly essential, but the most successful portraitists whose writings I have read, have spoken of doing whatever it takes to loosen up stiff sitters or get behind the mask, so to speak.

    There's a funny anecdote in the Newman Masterclass book in which he appeared so utterly inept at the beginning of a session that his friend-assistant began to wonder about him. But it was all a ruse that made the sitter change to a natural position and adopt a relaxed expression—click! (I was reminded of Robert Falk as the detective in the Columbo TV show years ago.)

    After years of studio work, I relish the challenges of location/natural light work now, whether I succeed in tackling them or not.
    Philip Ulanowsky

    Sine scientia ars nihil est. (Without science/knowledge, art is nothing.)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156933346@N07/

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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    Yea, I had heard that about Newman from a fotog who was on some shoots with him... He could be a little aloof, and sitters could even have a little sympathy for him and try to make it easier for him, then click/click/click...

    I guess I mean about set-up is to decide the scale of set-up you want to do... Some photogs I worked with would bring a truckload of gear to a shoot, but I often had to work with bare minimums for photojournalism portraits I had to shoot on-the-fly and got comfortable using available light with maybe a on camera flash for fill, or a single light or strobe... I had been watching a bunch of films shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe, where in his later films, there was a van with 4 guys and a Lowell kit, and an entire film was shot with that (I think a good example was "Seconds" I think the title)...

    I might have to shoot for $$$ again (dam it) to do environmental portraits, going to places where the subjects work or dwell, and shooting them engaged in their environments, and hoping I can get away with available key lights, and my (new to me) Norman 200b battery strobe for fill... I figure the smartest thing I could do is to keep it simple so the subject and I are at maximum ease...

    I like it when the environment the sitter is in reflects what is in their mind...

    Steve K

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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    "I like it when the environment the sitter is in reflects what is in their mind..."

    Yes, exactly. The interior natural light LF portrait can run into very long shutter speeds just where the environment is best. I had to resort to boosting light from one direction with diffused lamp just over a year ago in order to get the composition I wanted. I had brought lights, because I knew the room would be pretty dark, and I ended up having to shoot MF anyway.

    Travelling light is good. I've hauled a suitcase of three buff White Lightnings around plus stands, etc.; it's a load. Decades ago, before I learned much about portrait lighting, I went to photograph a third-party presidential candidate at his apartment, arriving with three 6' PIC stands and several 250-W bulbs with Bakelite sockets in aluminum reflectors —an awkward jumble. Just after I arrived, a photographer from U.S. News & World Report arrived and was given precedence; I was happy to watch. He was carrying a small camera bag and another bag about the size of an arrow quiver slung over his shoulder. Out came a light stand on which he deftly mounted a light I didn’t know existed (and couldn’t have afforded anyway)—a Tota-light with a 1000-W lamp (before Lowell reduced max to 750), which he bounced off a side wall-ceiling, filling the small room with soft light. With an Leica rangefinder, he wound off a roll of shots about as fast as winding went, with the candidate seated at his desk. Then he turned off the Tota to cool while they went to the next room, the candidate sat down, and this time it was a shoe-mounted strobe pointed straight up while he wound off a new series from low to high angle. Done, all in about 10 minutes.

    Of course, that's not what I'm after now.
    Philip Ulanowsky

    Sine scientia ars nihil est. (Without science/knowledge, art is nothing.)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156933346@N07/

  8. #8
    Tin Can's Avatar
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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    Some sitters are experienced

    They know what they want, perhaps an executive knows their best side, angle and how to push their head forward, to hide a neck

    Others will chafe at any suggestion

    A littler 'patter' before shooting may help both sitter and shooter

    I am never fond of hair and makeup helpers, they can wear everybody out far too soon, seems the more they fiddle, the more they justify their paid work

    Here is an example, a paid model, paid by first shooter, I got to shoot last, everybody was worn, 4 hours+

    Her face is tight, the frock silly, I shot LF very quickly, the first shooter shot lots of digi

    Hair and makeup for 3 sitters was 3 hours...

    Polaroid Piano Lady by TIN CAN COLLEGE, on Flickr
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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    The person I learned the most from for portraiture was Monte Zucker. He was my mentor and coach and he believed in a classical style of making portraits that produced lifelike and pleasing results that many people like.
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails 46B6C797-2295-4F17-9289-766209BB45F0.jpeg  

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    Re: Thoughts on composition in portraiture

    wclark, yes, he was among those whose work I pored over and whose articles in PPA mag I read and saved, years back. I used some of it in my commercial portraiture for about a decade, though I won't say I mastered it. I just ordered a book on creating busts in sculpture (clay), Portrait Sculpting: Anatomy & Expressions in Clay; I'll be interested to see what I can learn from it, too.

    I enjoyed the commercial side of my work, which required studying on my own and applying the principles on the job; I learned a lot that way. Ultimately, however, my heart was always pulling in a different direction. My new venture in portraiture -- when I feel safe to restart it again -- is a path away from the kinds of posing I did commercially and presents a number of additional challenges to which I am looking forward.
    Philip Ulanowsky

    Sine scientia ars nihil est. (Without science/knowledge, art is nothing.)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156933346@N07/

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