Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Portraiture ~ Art Logic

I debated writing more about the art of portraiture.  In the back of my mind there was something that begged to be said, so here are a few additional thoughts on the topic.

In the original blog entry on Artistic Considerations I said "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. "

I found that over my 50 years of taking pictures of people that I completely ignored the importance of making a conscious decision as to exactly where to place the lens with respect to my subject.  Simply said, I would stand in front of my subject and snap the shutter.  Where the lens was placed was quite often at eye level.  That is, the lens was placed at the level of my eyes and I would frame the subject from this point of reference.

There are a couple problems with taking this approach.  One of the more obvious problems is that to take a photo from the subject's waist to the top of their head, the lens needed to be pointed down.  This causes what we call keystone distortion.  The waist of the subject is narrower than if you looked at the subject from a position that does not introduce image distortions.

A second, perhaps more subtle, problem is that the power of the subject photographed at eye level never matches the power of the portraits of the Old Masters.  Where the artist views his subject from (ie: at which height) is a key difference between a painting (or photograph) and the thing we call art.  It's an effect of psychology and if you are a serious artist or craftsperson you need to be fully aware of it. 

The prior paragraph is a complex one and is filled with important truths.  It might take time to work out exactly what I mean.  It took me 50 years, so don't worry.  Here are three ways illustrations that might help.

"Selfies", at one extreme, tend to be filled with image distortions which are direct consequences of where the lens is placed in relation to the subject.  Cell phones tend to be placed at or above the subject's eye level and the torso and waistline are heavily keystoned.   If the lens is too close to the subject, features such as the nose and lips take on a certain distorting prominence. 

Fashion photography is another extreme example.  I remember reading an interview with Francesco Scavullo where he said he loved photographing models full length at floor level, or sometimes from inside an orchestra pit as a means of making their legs appear longer than they are in real life.  Optical distortions, for him, were a stock and trade item.

One more example of what I'm referring to when I say it's important to consciously place the lens with respect to your subject can be seen in Hollywood movie posters.  Action films, in particular, try to convey as sense of motion, purpose, and power.  Photographs of actors and actresses in these kinds of posters and promotional materials are seemingly never photographed at eye level nor from the position an Old Master would have chosen.  Comic book or graphic novel based movies tend to photograph their subjects at near fashion points of view.

Once recognized and understood you can now quickly sort through images (painting or photographs, it doesn't matter) and recognize Masterworks by where the subject was viewed from at the time the artifact was created.  This shouldn't be confused with where a portrait is placed on the wall (painting or print) or on display.  What I'm talking about is where the artist or craftsperson (at which height) viewed the subject.

There are two photographers who have photographed from an Old Masters points of view.  The first photographer might not have intentionally placed his lens where he did.  He might have stumbled onto this effect by using cameras that he looked down into the viewfinder (such as Rolleiflex or Hasselblad).  Still, Robert Mapplethorpe's portraiture is well known and well received.  Look carefully at what height he placed the lens.

The second photographer who I feel embodies the spirit of the Old Masters is Joel Grimes.  In at least one of his YouTube videos he very briefly talks about why he places the lens where he does.  He is the first photographer I've listened to who consciously places his objective exactly where he wants it.  It's not a haphazard "artistic", "feeling", "emotional" decision.  Yet his work can invoke strong emotional responses.

Understanding what we do as artists and applying appropriate solutions is, to me, always the preferable starting point.  If you want to make beautiful portraits or if you want to be an iconoclast and "break the rules" of art in pursuit of your own fame and fortune, perhaps it would help to fully understand what the rules are.

I hope this series of blog entries on portraiture has been helpful.

Sœur Vampire ~ Paris

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