Monday, May 22, 2017

Portraiture ~ Art Considerations

Continuing my series on portraiture, we will now turn our attention to art.  Specifically, we will look at the topic of art from the perspective of history and how we might apply art principles to the photography process.  To make this as concrete as possible so we can directly apply concepts to our work, we will consider composition, backgrounds, and viewing (ie: lens) position.

I contend that if we can take at a potentially large, complex subject such as "art" and look at it in smaller, easily manageable pieces that we can begin to understand what we are doing, knowing that our knowledge will fit into the broader context.  If we can take the process of creation and move enough of it out of the realm of "feelings" and "emotions" and put them into the knowable, rational parts of our being, then we can control and perhaps create an even stronger "feeling" and "emotional" response in our viewers.

Before we begin, let's revisit my motivation for doing this (one last time).

Grand Question -  

Looking back 50 years, what would I have liked to have known that would've helped me make better progress swiftly and with more confidence?

This post will attempt to address the "touchy", "feely", "squishy", artistic part of that question. 

Art History - 

I realized it was easy to get all the camera and lighting gear as well as lighting setups "right" and still come away with something that, while pleasing on some level, might not have the impact I was hoping for.  Looking for a way to address this deficit, I found there is a lot we can learn from the Old Masters.  Their paintings are still beautiful, even after, in some cases, 500 years.  I felt it was important to take the time to look at their work and to think about what they did and to try and sort out why the did it.  Then I had to find a way to apply what I learned to my portraiture.

It took me moving to Europe to "see" and experience something that is helpful and important.  Fortunately, the internet provides access to the best paintings.  You don't need to leave the comfort of your own home to consider the things I propose in the following sections.

Subject Composition -

There are many guides to portraiture composition.  You perhaps have heard about the Rule of 1/3rd's.  It proposes a way to determine where to place the subject.  Many cameras come with guide lines laid out in this "rule" as well with perhaps 5 by 4 and square ratio "rules", too.  The Pictorialist, William Mortensen, had a more subtle, but more complex way of compositing his subjects.  Yet, when I looked at certain paintings, things like arms or hands or even portions of the head, in other words things we might consider important in photography were cropped and were lost entirely out of the frame.  So what is "right" and what is "wrong?"

For classic portraiture composition I feel a lot can be learned by looking at Dutch Masters.  Look at images of a single subject and make sure the scene includes the entire canvas out to the frame images.  What do you see?  Where is the subject placed?  How much space around the subject has the artist left?

Whatever answers you come up with, try composing your scene in exactly the same way.  It might take a bit of practice, but your efforts will be rewarded.  In my case, it's taken some 50 years of stumbling and failing, so hang in there, you're sure to get there much quicker than I.

Exercise 1: Go to Google, type in "rembrandt self portrait", and select "Images."  This is a great place to start.  Try composing your subject exactly as the portrait that most appeals to you.  Take a photo and compare it against Rembrandt's.  Study your results and make any changes you feel might be necessary.

Background Choices - 

Classic portrait paintings seem to have something in common.  Their backgrounds tend to be mostly plain and uncluttered.  Some will be dark and some backgrounds will be much lighter.  Some will contain information about the setting the subject is found in.  None of this will dominate the subject.  Your subject will have the feeling of being "brought forward" in the frame.  Nothing will compete with your subject. 

Look at a broad range of portrait paintings.  Do you find the soft hill scene behind la Joconde, Mona Lisa distracting?  Do you like Rembrandt's nearly black backgrounds of his self portraits? Do you like the light backgrounds that Renoir sometimes used?  Do you prefer the muted tones that Vigee Lebrun used behind her royal subjects?  Or do you prefer the kinds of backgrounds that explain where a subject is, such as that found in Manet's "Olympia"?  Think about what appeals to you.  

Exercise 2: Use what you've thought about as important pieces of information and find/create/buy a background that you find pleases you.  Take a photo and see how close you are to what you thought you wanted.  Make changes and try again if things don't match your original ideas.

Viewing Position -

Everything I have presented and the primary reason for sharing these blog entries is to get us to this one single point in the discussion.

Viewing Position is, perhaps, the most important feature of any portrait you will ever make.  What I mean by this is you must make a conscious decision as to exactly where you place the lens with respect to your subject. 

To get a sense of what I'm talking about, go back to Google and type in "Vigee Lebrun" and select "Images."  Study her portraits carefully.  Where was she, the painter, looking from?

Now go back to "Rembrandt self portrait" in Google Images and study his work very carefully.  Where was he looking from?  Is he looking at his subjects from eye level?  Likely not.  Is he looking at his subject's shoulder level, or somewhere else?

Taking a photographic example, search "Joel Grimes" in Google Images.  Don't be distracted by his sometimes very complex backgrounds.  Look only at his subjects.  Study these very very carefully.  Where, exactly, does he place the lens?

Exercise 3: Place the camera's lens exactly where you have learned it should be.  At first you may not know the answer to this puzzle.  So study the problem by raising or lowering the camera and the flash/umbrella (particularly if you are using Light Setup 1), taking photos as you go, studying them, and learn what the effect is.  Compare your results against the works of the Old Masters and fine tune your viewing position (ie: lens position) until it exactly matches the Old Master's. 

Guidance - Keep your camera's sensor plane parallel to your subject  (or, if it's easier to think of it this way, perpendicular to the floor) as you carry out Exercise 3.  Some cameras come with spirit levels (typically used for keeping horizons straight) and if your's is one of them, you might find it useful.  Failure to keep the sensor/subject planes parallel as you carry out this exercise will lead to undesirable image distortions, such as hands that are too big or small, or key-stoning the torso, or making the head too big or small.

Sœur Vampire ~ Paris

Summary - 

I have attempted to present many practical aspects of making a fine portrait.  You should now have all the tools and skills required to make a good portrait.  

Think of it this way; the camera is like an artist's brush.  It's not the brush that counts, it's how you actively, in a practical manner, choose to use it.  These blog entries are my attempt to help you learn how to use your photographic tools as an artist learns how to use a brush.

Earlier in this entry I suggested that "feelings" and "emotions" are built in to an image.  These things are not a product of how a photographer "feels" nor "emotes."  Nor are these things the product of how your subject "feels" nor "emotes" at the time their photograph is made.  Rather, what a viewer of your work "feels" will be a result of the rational, cognitive choices you make throughout the photographic process, using your imaging tools as a painter uses his brushes.

Good portrait photography is, to my way of thinking, a result of making a series of well understood, well executed choices.

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