Moodboard: Edgy Portraits

Here are a few portraits that caught my eye last week. I hope you enjoy the picks.

Ryan McGehee delivered this exceptional portrait. Brave crop, lighting that engages and mystifies and an absolutely charming face.

Ryan McGehee's portrait inspired by the work of Sarah Moon

Ryan McGehee’s portrait inspired by the work of Sarah Moon

Kine Meijer showed this unique portrait and knocked me out.

Kine Meijer was also inspired by Sarah Moon, but delivers her own amazing take.

Kine Meijer was also inspired by Sarah Moon, but delivers her own amazing take.

Gabriella Wright’s dancer is captivating.

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Gabriella Wright added movement and mystery to her portrait of a young girl.

Hiram Chee created this stunning fashion shot.

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Hiram Chee, based in Santa Cruz, shot this beautiful fashion portrait.

Rob Davidson chose a 4×5 Speed Graphic and Ektar Film for this moody portrait.

Rob Davidson and a 4x5 Graphlex / Ektar Film

Rob Davidson and a 4×5 Graphlex / Ektar Film

Jeff Carson captured a very strange and engaging portrait of a young woman and a mask.

Jeff Carson and a masked subject create a mystical and intriguing portrait.

Jeff Carson and a masked subject create a mystical and intriguing portrait.

I will share the entire class portfolio later this week… it is incredible.

“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.”

–Peter Lindbergh

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Ten Beliefs That Suck the Life out of Photographers

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What if I told you it was not the industry, the bad economy, where you live, what camera you shoot with, how many lights you have or how small your Facebook following is that is holding you back. None of those are truly capable of stopping you, they are only challenges for you to meet.

The same challenges everyone who creates art or starts a business has to meet and beat.

The things that are truly holding you back are your own beliefs. Belief that it IS one of those reasons above. Believing that it is a geography thing that keeps you from excelling, or what gear you use or how many lights you take with you is more damaging than any REAL challenge you will ever have to meet.

Because they have no substance, these limiting beliefs can grow to fit any size needed to keep you from moving forward.

If it was simply a wall in front of you, there would be many different ways to move on. Scale it, go around it, blow it up… all sorts of ways to get it done.

But if the wall is a creation inside your mind, there is no way around it, it will grow higher than any ladder you have and it becomes impervious to any and all attempts to blow it up. It does this insidiousness because we want it to. We control its size and power.

So lets look at ten beliefs and maybe offer a suggestion on how they may be more in our heads than in our reality.

  1. We must have professional level gear to be a pro.
    No. We may need it at some point, but before we get to that point we need to make a gazillion images with the gear we have. And if we cannot make images that people want to pay us for with what we have, chances are they will still not want to buy them when they are made with pro gear. A crappy image is a crappy image no matter how many pixels there are.
  2. We have to live in a big city.
    No. You may have to have access to a big city, but then you do have Internet, FedEx, the USPS, and a phone. There are many photographers who are working for major clients while living in the rural town of their choice. They simply wanted to live there more than the big city, and they found the ways to do it.
  3. We must have a portfolio equal to Avedon or McCurry to even be considered.
    No. We must have a portfolio of course. And it must have wonderful images in it, but everyone starts somewhere, and clients know that. You may not get picked up by Vogue for a shoot with a small portfolio, but there are indeed other magazines that will hire you, and pay you, and help you build your work to be worthy of Vogue.
  4. We have to have thousands of hours experience.
    No… mostly. We DO need experience. We DO need to have some work under our belts in order to get the big gigs. But we need to do a lot of small gigs to build a book that will get us the bigger gigs… and then the really big gigs. It is a process, one that starts small and grows.
  5. We must never work for free.
    No. Working for free is sometimes the ONLY way to get the experience, credibility and inroads that allow us to work for pay. NEVER be exploited by working for free, but learn to recognize opportunity as a huge currency that is many times worth more than the paltry fees the gig may pay. (Note: If you are not sure which is which, you may NOT be ready… so keep working on learning the business.)
  6. We must have a huge internet following to be considered.
    No. In fact most working photographers have only a portfolio and simple blog. Some do indeed have a big following on some social platforms, but the majority do not. Instead they have a following of clients that they work hard for, and couldn’t care less about social media fame. The working world still has not caught up to the interwebs, and although I do think that building a solid online brand is important, it will mean less than diddly when you are pitching a real client for a real gig.
  7. We obviously suck because the pros do it so easily.
    No. The pros simply have more experience, more hours setting up lights, a ton of history in doing that same thing… and they are still busting their ass to make it more perfect, more special than last time. They do make it LOOK easy, but take it from me – they are still sweating bullets – they are better at hiding it than you are.
  8. “All we need is…”
    No. We call that the magic bullet syndrome. All we need is “one good job” or “that new lens” or “a bigger studio” or… NO. There is no magic bullet, no shortcut, no “easy” button or challenge buster that can be purchased. There is only a commitment to the struggle, and a focus on the outcome.
  9. Professional photographers are special, with special talents and special lives.
    No. They are just like everyone else. They didn’t get there by luck, or anointment – they worked hard and long and with focus to get to that point. Yes, some have incredible ways of seeing the world, but then they have worked at that as well. You see, they take a lot of photographs… a heck of a lot of photographs to develop that vision
  10. No one is able to make a living in this business anymore.
    No. That is horse apples. There are thousands of working commercial photographers. And they are going to be shooting tomorrow. Some you may know, and most you will not have heard of – or from. Not every photographer is on Facebook whining about how bad it is out there… only the ones for whom it is bad out there. And I can assure you for every photographer that is complaining or whining about it, there is one doing it. Making the images, doing the marketing, creating their vision and always ALWAYS holding that picture of what will be in front of their eyes.

Yes, there are a lot of other challenges that must be met. It is a different world than it was a dozen or two years ago, but it is still an occupation that has growth and possibilities. They youngsters know it. One couple turned weekend trips into free image giveaways that is now making them a a tidy living while starting to accept assignments. Another photographer who shoots for major corporations lives in a tiny town in West Texas. I know a product shooter who lives in Portland, and is marketing all over his region – and nationally.

I am not a Pollyanna, but I am a positive person when it comes to people and their capabilities. You may have to give up some things in order to do other things – we call that “duh” – but that is still in YOUR control. Watch less TV, spend more time making pictures, capture a weekend a month for project work, and make building your photography business a priority.

Whether you want to go into business or simply make better photographs, the power to do that lies within you. What you listen to, what you agree with, and the people that influence you all have a big measure of influence on how you see yourself and this world of images.

You can control that measure of influence. It is YOUR life, and I would suggest you stop participating in the pity parties and the “oh whoa is us” crowd and make images. Obviously it didn’t work out for them, and now their main goal is to stop you from making it a go. What would it mean to them if you succeeded where they failed.

Far easier to blame the world for their failures than to watch someone else actually win. And even if that is not reality, it can BECOME their reality if they believe it strong enough.

Before you believe everything question everything. When someone says “nobody can make a living in this anymore” look around for someone who is, and find out what they are doing. If something sounds improbable, it may be. Research it. Nail it down.

There is a simple way to work around these challenges. Make more images. Make images that compel others to view them. Making images is the best possible thing that photographers can do to advance their work and their business. So put this computer away and go out into the world… click, baby, click!

New Portrait Class (Enrolling)

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We just wrapped up the first group in our 8 Week Portrait Class. The results are incredible.

The idea is to immerse oneself in the work of a master portrait photographer (you can see the list of photographers here) and begin to understand what, how and most importantly why they do what they do.

The idea is not to copy, or become faux-togs of the original masters, but to learn from them and be inspired to develop our own vision.

Clark Terry, jazz master once said; “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.” No one could say it better. LEARN what the masters do. Incorporate it into your work, and INNOVATE your own stylistic approaches as you develop a wider kit of possibilities.

The second set of eight photographers is up next… and the class has only ten openings as of this morning. It is a bit different as we are taking it a little slower with a longer lead time between classes.

For more information on our Portrait Class 102, see this page.

A few shots from our students in the first class.

How Can A Single Photograph Tell a Story?

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Recently Stefan Sagmeister posted a video in which he excoriates designers for using the word “story” in their descriptions of what they do. Whether you agree or disagree, it is a compelling video. Personally, I am not 100% on board with his statements. There are some merit, but it all seems a bit pedantic to me.

You can see the video here.

I will note that he was not talking to photographers, but the design community. However some photographers thought that he was referring to the growing cliche of photographer storytellers.

I don’t believe he was, but I thought it important to address what he said and defend the idea that a single photograph can tell a ‘story’.

Not a novel, of course. Nor a novella or an article or much of anything that is linear… that would take several photographs usually. We would have a beginning, middle, and end photograph to give that linear flow that stories – complete stories – have.

With one single photograph, we are looking for something that is not as linear, but more of an excerpt. We may have to intuit or create the beginning and imagine the end… or any variation there of, but we definitely see more than the simple flat representation.

I believe the vast majority of images made are not designed to tell a story. They are reportage, representational, pretty, or a form of social proof that one did something. A visual diary of an adventure – big or small – and a fascination with the power of context a frame can give something simple or majestic.

But there are a few images and image makers that work diligently to present images that inspire us to think story… at least snippets of stories. The power of the still image is that it can help us recall emotions and moments of our own lives that may have nothing at all to do with the image before us.

This photograph by Sally Mann is compelling in ways that belong only to the viewer. The image of a young girl with the candy cigarette and very serious face leads the viewer to moments in their own childhood… and what happened before and after this brief sliver of time is up to the viewer to fill in. However it is seen, it certainly is a moving photograph.

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Brian Sokol’s image of a cyclone victim is full of stories. We share context with this man, we share a known set of variables. We may not know the particulars, but we know what has happened. That is story.

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Bert Stern used the context of Buster Keaton’s slapstick humor to make this image connect. Those of you too young to remember Keaton may not see what the image was conveying, but those who share the experience of seeing his off the cuff silliness know. Stern used this to make an image that conveys a message far beyond “drink smirnoff”, and introduced another level of connection between viewer and subject. Story – no matter how brief or different each viewer’s experience is.

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What does it take to make an image that would be considered to tell a story? Wow… that would be almost as difficult as describing what makes a good melody.

Most of it would have to do with context I believe, and shared experiences.

Context is how the photographer frames his subjects, what the subject is doing in the image, and whether or not the viewer can see that relationship between subject and surroundings enough to form a glimpse into possible scenarios. Context is arguably the most powerful part of the image making process.

A flat surrounding may not offer any glimpse at all into the environment, and in that case the subject and how they are reacting to the camera would be the focus of the story. Scenarios that include backgrounds may use them to set cultural equivalencies that help us with our shared experiences.

A large silo on a flat landscape can say midwest, while cactus and canyons signify the west. Old row houses and fog may bring us the shared idea of New England even to those who have never been there. We’ve seen it, we share its characteristics.

We all know what a devasted town looks like. We may not be able to see the tornado, but we knew it was there… and now it is not. A single image reminds us of that fact… town = tornado = destruction = healing. The emotional toll is captured in a single frame, but the shared experience provides a narrative.

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In commercial photography it becomes harder to tell a story if all the client wants to tell in the photograph is that their coffee machine has bigger buttons than the competition.

But there are opportunities to create more compelling and narrative driven images and when given the chance, commercial photographers can use all of their skill at crafting images to help craft the narrative as well.

This photo by my friend Jan Klier shows us something we have probably not seen before. There is a narrative here, something that is driving the women to be in this position at this precise moment in time. However, we have no idea what it is… so we provide our own. I think one could tell an entire short story based on this image… go ahead. Give it a shot.

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A food shot by photographer Sampsel Preston tells a delightful little story of texture and color and design. This is not a novel, but we can see the context of the colors, shapes and textures, and deliver a narrative on what is happening here. Perhaps all we wonder at is the beautiful colors and exotic looking food in the containers. Fine… that wonder is a bit of a story, isn’t it. Not a long one, or one with lots of plot twists, but a very fine little tale that holds our interest.

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I love the still image, and I am constantly amazed at the stories some of them can conjure within the viewer. A few of my favorite photographers adept at telling little stories in their single, still images.

Richard Avedon
Paul Caponigro
Stephen Shore
Helmut Newton
Guy Bourdin
Dorothea Lange
Peggy Sirota
Patrick Demarchelier
Arthur Elgort

There are many more. Many.

I think that the goal of telling even the smallest story in a single image is a tough one to achieve, but it is worth the struggle. Even if we are not totally successful, the image we work to will be more compelling than if we had simply clicked the shutter without a vision of our own.

Because our own vision, and its creation, can be a story in itself.

What do you think? Can a single still image convey a story?