Train Your Gaze – Musing about Portrait Photography

Our Gal

So far in my pursuit of photography, I’ve spent much more time shooting images of landscapes, architecture, buildings, etc. than I have taken portraits. Oh sure, I’ve taken lots of family photos along the way – snapshots – but not much serious portrait work. Well, then there’s Lily – portrait above!

As I wrote in my summary of my learning about photography in 2011:

I began, for the first time, to try to learn more about portraiture. I’m still a relative novice at it – there’s a lot of difference between shooting a landscape and a person – but I’m beginning to appreciate and try to apply those differences. Portraiture is definitely an area I want to continue to focus on in 2012!

One of my learnings came from a portraiture class taught by Neal Menschel at Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. Neal’s a great photographer and his approach to critique and instruction helped me make some early progress. As so often happens, we learned a lot from each other in that class – as we were each progressing week to week. Definitely a valuable experience!

Of course, there’s really nothing better to build skills than to practice – but that’s been more difficult for me. Part of it is my social skills – not being much of a “chatter” (!) – along with my other pursuits. I’m sure it’ll come – as I get more comfortable with it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working my way through Roswell Angier‘s “Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography” (aff link) – a seriously wonderful book about photographing human subjects “in many different ways and from a number of different perspectives.”

Each of the twelve chapters in the book includes three elements: a discussion of one aspect of portrait photography, example photographs illustrating that aspect and a shooting assignment to pursue. I’m reading through the book now – and plan to go through it a second time to work through the assignments.

Here’s an example assignment – from the first chapter “About Looking”. You put the camera on a tripod, and find a willing subject able to spend an hour. The goal is to use the full hour and take a “36 exposure roll of film” of that person over the full hour – not in the first five minutes. Angier’s using this technique to highlight Richard Avedon’s approach to stillness. Turns out that Angier’s got my concerns about banter with the subject in mind:

First and foremost, the photographer must be quiet, thereby relinquishing the responsibility to keep the subject amused with reassuring banter. This is markedly different from the chatty masquerade that characterizes commercial portrait studios… The process may be uncomfortable or it may not be. It may seem like a quiet struggle or it may feel like a seduction. The end result will be witness to the process. Whatever quality the result may have, it will not feel like a picture that has been caught on the fly.”

Earlier this week, at the Google+ Photographer’s Conference, Peter Hurley – master of the head shot – spoke. Hurley’s technique is effectively the opposite of this – he talks A LOT to his subjects – continuously from the way he described it. And he gets some great head shots.

So, what to learn from these two approaches? Hurley’s certainly more of production “machine” – being paid by his subjects for his work. Avedon, for much of his work, didn’t want any personal connection with his subjects. Different strokes – both producing strong images.

Like most things in life, this feels very situational – for me to apply, it depends on the situation. If I was shooting senior portraits, a Hurley-like chatty approach makes sense. If I was shooting, for example, strangers – the dispassionate, disconnected Avedon approach would likely capture them at their most realistic. Bottom line for me: spend more time doing portrait work and try to find my technique.

By the way, here’s a great review of the book on the Luminous Light blog. It includes notes on each chapter and links to related content.

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