Your first assignment is to make five portraits of five different people from your local area who were previously unknown to you. Who you photograph is entirely your choice but don’t give in to the temptation to photograph people you know! You may want to explore the idea of types, thus sticking to a theme. Or the sitters could be very disparate, linked only by the fact that they come from your local area.
Give consideration to this and also how and where you photograph your sitters. Bearing in mind the strategies and techniques discussed in Part One, keep your set of images consistent and choose a technique that complements your conceptual approach. For example, do you want a series of location-based portraits? Do you want the portraits to be situated inside? If so, drawing on your experience in Exercise 1.2, how will you select your backgrounds in order to give context?
The subject of this assignment came about through a process I have outlined in a previous post. As I had already attempted a series on local people I had not previously met, I felt I should try for another angle on the requirements that we were given. I had just arranged to go to the Edinburgh Fringe, where my youngest son had two productions this year, and it seemed sensible to look for a theme that had some connections with both the event and his own part in it. After some consideration, a typology of flyer distributors seemed appropriate, and indeed I encountered my son by chance during my shoot involved in this very activity. I have subsequently broadened the subject to say a little about the production that each individual was promoting, for reasons which will be explained in the text.
Typologies have been a theme in photography for many years, and they ask the viewer to consider the differences and similarities between a collection of images on the same subject. The concept came from the Darwinian idea of classification and taxonomy and the late Victorians’ obsession with measuring and sorting everything from insects to grasses, and as photography provided a straightforward way of recording these, it was only a matter of time before the notion began to be applied to the photographic portrait. The grandfather of typologies, August Sander, began his first series in the early 20th century, and his work was clearly influenced by the ideas of evolutionary systematics and eugenics that were prevalent at the time, and which allowed a “pseudo-scientific neutrality” while discussing matters which we now see as being completely outrageous (The ASK Team, 2012). His People of the 20th Century implicitly asks the viewer to consider what might be inferred about the subjects’ station in life and how this might be changing as the century progressed.
Modern examples of the typological portrait include Bruce Gilden’s Faces series, Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits and Thomas Struth’s Family Portraits, all recent works which show that the typology as a genre of photography is still alive and well, over 100 years after it was first used. The convention for a series remains, as it has throughout, that all the images should be taken from the same viewpoint and should keep similar proportions and appearance. Sander firmly believed that a three quarter or full length pose was necessary in order to show the sitter’s full personality, but as time has gone on, this convention has been removed, and some modern examples, such as Goldin’s Faces involve extreme and very unflattering close-ups. For Sander, the background was also an important part of the images, allowing visual details about the sitter’s occupation and lifestyle to inform the viewer’s reading of the photograph.
On a more practical level, the assignment was clear that we should use people we had never met before as our subjects, and I found the Flickr series 100 strangers project was inspirational in considering how to approach people and set up the shoot.
The format of my own typology was dictated by the location where I made the images. Originally, I had hoped to find a blank background for each person, but it immediately became obvious that this was not possible. The Royal Mile was far too busy to find a quiet corner, and I did not want to use more time than necessary with each sitter, as I was aware that they were there to do a job. As a compromise, I opted to photograph they with an open aperture to blur the backgrounds, thus ensuring that the subjects themselves were clearly the focus of the exercise. I had also planned to use Fill Flash but quickly gave up on this as I was worried that the images were over-exposing, despite the use of exposure compensation.
Every August, The City of Edinburgh plays host to the Edinburgh Festival – a massive international pooling of arts, including theatre, music, dance, reading, and art. People come from all over the globe to participate in the event, and it is known as the largest of its type in the world.
Alongside the main Festival is a separate event, The Festival Fringe, where over 3000 shows are put on in a host of smaller venues across the city, ranging from the merely odd to the downright weird. The Fringe is the place for ambitious young performers to showcase their talents in the hope that they will receive good reviews and subsequently be seen by important agents and others who might help them in their careers. Many of the actors are students and other young people who are living on a shoestring to be part of this event and who are unlikely to cover even the costs of putting on their shows. Furthermore, a high proportion of the events are free, with punters being asked to make a contribution if they enjoy the show. Participation is a highly risky undertaking, as a poor review or bad location might mean that one’s show fails dismally and expensively, over and over, every day for three weeks.
With 3000 shows to choose from, competition for punters is fierce and each day, before their show, actors have to tout for business and the main place that this happens is on the Royal Mile. Whether or not their show is doing well, actors have to accost hundreds of people daily in the street and try to sell them the idea that their show is worth seeing. As punters roam up and down the Mile, flyers are thrust into their hands from all sides, and people launch into their “Elevator Pitch” – a 15 second resumé of the show and why one should see it. With so many events throughout the day and evening in a host of co-located venues, it is possible to attend several shows in a day, (I myself have managed seven), and it is worth encouraging visitors to fill any gaps they have during their schedule.
For this assignment, I decided to photograph the people handing out flyers. I would then put each image alongside a picture of the flyer and a published review of the piece. The selection of subjects was made on the basis of who approached me, rather than me actively seeking out subjects myself. All of the people I met were happy to have their photograph taken after I had chatted to them about their show and what brought them to Edinburgh.
Paul, who is the Archaeologist.
Ask an Archaeologist – 4* http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/paul-duncan-mcgarrity-ask-an-archaeologist-/713864
Luke, who was being paid to hand out flyers for someone else’s show.
Here’s Some Black for the Union Jack – 0*
George, who was handing out flyers for a friend.
Pond Wife – 3-4*
Marianna, who strongly believed in the political value of this show.
This Earth – 2*
Naomi, who wasn’t sure about being photographed to begin with, until I explained what I was doing.
Zero – 4*
As part of the process of image selection, my fellow OCA students were asked for their opinions, and the consensus was that what drew them together as much as their activity was that they all looked “so damned young and happy“. This led me to consider the second element of the series, which is the text. For each subject, a rating has been added from the Edinburgh Fringe site, and where available a review has been included. None of the shows being advertised were big name events, and as one can see, some were considered by reviewers to be much better than others. It is interesting to consider how Marianna must feel, trying to promote a show that has only gained 2 stars and is therefore unlikely to be a “must see” show for many people. Trying to hook people off the street is the only way that a show like hers will get an audience, whereas Paul’s show has attracted enough attention for it to be on the list for people who know nothing about him.
So what can one say about these portraits? Using Bate’s elements of a portrait (2009), the faces are uniformly happy and young, and with the exception of Paul, they also look excited about being part of such a prestigious event. The sitters are dressed very casually, except for Paul the archaeologist, whose garb quite deliberately harks back to the pre-war years. One can see from his flyer that he is dressed ready to go on stage, and that he is taking his theme from the Indiana Jones films. Most are carrying rucksacks, presumably to enable them to keep their hands free. The locations are all outside and three of the images have either people or flyers as the background. It is clearly a busy area in a city.
The most interesting element of the set is the pose and the body language that it gives away. As Badger (2007, p. 174) says, “the subject’s pose is the presentation of their identity to the photographer, an act which ensures the preservation of that identity…the pose is the subject’s defence.” Additionally, the pose is part of a collaborative transaction between the photographer and sitter, with both attempting to impose their own agenda on the process, (although the photographer has the upper hand, being in charge of the camera and having control over the exact moment the shutter is opened). (Badger, 2007, p 170). In this particular set, I did not show the photographs I took to any of the participants, and therefore it can be argued that the images were a gift from them to me, given freely and without expectations.
Sander apparently “constructed his images in archetectonic fashion, giving his subjects time to present themselves in an arrangement that felt right to them” (The ASX Team, 2012) and I have done the same with this series. Luke and Marianna are facing square on to the camera, looking confident and relaxed. Marianna holds a cup of coffee in front of her (and in fact she also had various other paraphernalia which is out of sight), which one might perceive as either a barrier or a comfort item. Paul, George and Naomi are facing slightly off to one side or other, and in the case of George and Naomi, there is a hint of embarrassment and self-consciousness in their stance. Paul, on the other hand, looks relaxed and much more professional than the others; he is clearly assured about his product and is effectively in-character while he does this necessary work. The flyers themselves function as props, both as a unifying force and so that the subjects have something to do with their hands.
It is also interesting to consider the importance of body language in informal portraits, and how the viewer’s understanding of the subject, or lack of it, may influence their reading of an image. Desmond Morris’s Peoplewatching (2002) is not on every student’s bookshelf, but I am beginning to think it should be, as students of portraiture need to be able to decode body language in an organised and objective way.
Finally, can one infer anything about the success of the show from the manner and demeanour of the five people? I am not sure that one can. There is no perceivable difference in expression between them which one could ascribe to their show’s success or failure. Given that the subject’s financial and emotional wellbeing is so clearly attached to the success or failure of their show, I am forced to the conclusion that Luke and Marianna are either very good actors, or do not personally have a stake in the productions they are advertising.
Assignment preparation posts, including contact sheets.
Badger, G. (2007) The genius of photography: how photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille.
Bate, D. (2009) Photography: the key concepts. London: Bloomsbury. pp.67-86
Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: a concise history. London. Thames & Hudson. pp. 130-136.
Morris, D. (2002) Peoplewatching: the Desmond Morris guide to body language. Vintage.
Nicholls, J. (n.d.) Typologies. At: http://www.photopedagogy.com/typologies.htm. (Accessed on 31.08.16)
The ASX Team (2012) August Sander – a profile of the people (2002). At: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/04/theory-august-sander-profile-of-people.html. (Accessed on 31.08.16)
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (n.d.) The Edinburgh Festival Fringe: defying the norm since 1947. At: https://www.edfringe.com/ (Accessed on 31 .08.16)
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
I do not feel this project took me out of my comfort zone technically. My original plan had been to photograph the subjects using a very shallow depth of field and fill light. In the event, neither was possible and I think that was largely because I became muddled over my camera settings in the heat of the moment. In an ideal world, the backgrounds would have been much more diffuse. I did consider producing the blur using Photoshop, but decided that it detracted from the integrity of the images.
On the other hand, I am reasonably confident that my post-processing successfully drew together the images. The originals were taken in a variety of different lighting situations, from bright sunlight to heavy shade, and I feel I have managed to unify them in a pleasing way.
Quality of outcome
In terms of collecting a range of similar portraits, I think I have been quite successful. The contact sheet indicates that my initial set was sufficiently large to enable my to select a final five which worked together as a series. I also feel that considering the psychological aspect of the relative success or failure of the shows that the subjects were advertising has added another layer of narrative and interest to the series.
Demonstration of creativity
I am not confident that any particular level of creativity has been exhibited in this series, except perhaps the subject matter. Quite deliberately, I had opted for the genre of street photography, and in order to maintain consistency, it was not possible to be very creative. The success of the series relates to the story it tells, rather than any specific creative slant.
I have read around the subjects of portraiture and typologies in some depth for this project, and already had a fair amount of knowledge gleaned during the Context & Narrative module. Whilst typology and the unfamiliar was not my preferred section of this unit (the archive appealed to me more), I undertook several projects in the field, including artists at the Gloucester Art Fair and allotmenteers. As portraiture is a genre of photography that I have avoided up until recently, I am pleased about my growing understanding of the art, and have been practising in my own time, as well as for the course.