Portraits

In Craft & Vision, e-books by David27 Comments

Images shot for, and property of, Save The Children.
Ethiopia, 2009.

Tomorrow we release Forget Mugshots, 10 Steps to Better Portraits. While I was writing it I spent a lot of time thinking about my favourite portraits. Many of those were shot for clients, and I’m limited in how I show them, so they can’t go into my books, which is too bad, but it’s just the way it goes. But while I was putting it all together, I came across these two and thought I’d share them with you.

Two of the ideas I share in the new book are these: that waiting for the moment, and recognizing it when it comes, is more important than other issues of so-called technical perfection, and that portraits are a relational process, not merely an artistic or technical one, and time spent with your subjects, making them comfortable, will be worth at least as much as time spent learning the buttons on your camera.

This girl was a trooper, wrangling these young camels like an old pro. She was 6 years old and her initial trepidation about the white guy with the big cameras were calmed when she realized I was more scared of her camels than she was of my cameras. We laughed, I made faces, and we did a whole lot of not-photographing for the first little while before I even raised a camera to my eye. And then we played some more. Patience, curiosity, and a willingness to value and love our subjects more than the photographs themselves will, in the end, result in stronger portraits. This patience and care allows subjects to calm, to drop their walls, and make way for moments like the second frame above – unrushed, unplanned, and unrepeatable.

Comments

  1. Possibly the best photo blog I have ever seen. Not only do you have breathtaking images, but you also give good advice for newcomers to photography like me. I’ve begun this passion at a rather late age (60+), but I’m having the time of my life.

  2. ok, thanks again ๐Ÿ™‚

    i think i’ve got a problem with people saying “thats a strong photo”. it’s just a thing said with no meaning at all. i never heard a convincing explaination. it’s never what’s in the photo it’s always what people see in the photo. from this day on i will always claim that each and every of my pictures is the strongest. and if asked why i’ll mumble something about strong this and that. maybe its just something one has to believe sooo strong, that it radiates into other peoples heads … ok, i’m a little exaggerating ๐Ÿ˜‰

    but honestly – in all other arts i can ask what makes this work better than that and get an answer i can understand and i’m convinced. if i ask any photographer i’m left with questionmarks. they try to explain – if they’re not dumbstruck that anyone dares to ask further – but i’m not convinced. i want to be convinced. but each and everytime it does not make sense (to me).
    maybe i should stop looking at photographs. maybe i should stop asking questions and just nod to the “declaration of strong”. and maybe i’m just frustrated, that everyone seems to see things i’m not convinced of.

    Eli R.: thanks. that connection part is something i can understand and here you opened my eyes (at least a little) ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Torsten – Fun discussion! I “Like” #2 more becauses it has humour and it surprises me, also seeing that she is surprised (she and I connect because we are both surprised). There is somehing new besides a pretty child and her camel. I’ve seen thousands of pretty portraits so I am looking for the little element of surprise – which for me creates a “moment”. It doesn’t have to be all pretty and technically perfect.

  4. Love, love, love these portraits, David! She’s so cute! And what a story! It is too bad you can’t show your portraits more often. I’d love to see them. Your portraits are great!

  5. Author

    Torsten, I begin with the assumption that this stuff is subjective. When I say it’s stronger, I mean it’s stronger to me. I think the moment is stronger, the shapes and lines are stronger, and the emotion is more genuine. But if you feel the first image is stronger, that’s fine too. We all resonate differently with art. Ultimately you need to find those answers for yourself. Sorry to have made you stumble around looking for them, but that’s the task of the artist, so you’re on track.

  6. thanks everyone for explaining ๐Ÿ™‚ i’m still not convinced that all this makes #2 the stronger photograph, like david so clearly claims.

    i guess it’s just the wrong statement to say this is the stronger photograph, because that implys there is some objective reason. maybe it’s more honest to say “i like #2 more”. (wich is even for a pro a honourable statement, because the other leaves the impression of “because i said so!”)
    take away the things people attach to the content (smiling & kissing camel …) and reduce it to only the shapes/visual language and it falls flat. or in other words – the storry in #2 is told weaker but the content might be more interesting.

    yes, i know that a photograph is more than just it’s shapes and the content is huge part. and when one claims “this is stronger” then i think there should be some kind of objective “hints” and not just some subjective “sort of” in the picture. which leaves everyone looking for answers stumbling in the dark.

    greetings
    torsten

  7. Or to put it another way; Image 1: “Here’s a girl and a camel” Image 2: “Here’s a girl with her camels”.

  8. Torsten I think the kiss of the camel and the girls reaction suggest more of the fun she is having with looking after the camels (in the presence of the photographer). Her smile in the first could have been the relationship with the photographer alone and the camel just a prop. Also the non kissing camel in the second looks like “Sid the Sloth’ ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Torsten – to me the first image is a beautiful portrait. The second image is a moment. And together they tell a story.

  10. “Patience, curiosity, and a willingness to value and love our subjects more than the photographs themselves will, in the end, result in stronger portraits.”

    David – this reminds me of Annie Leibovitz quote along a similar sentiment. Outside of “waiting for the light” (for the landscape photographer), better advice can not be given. This is also why Avedon always stated it was just what was happening between him and the sitter, nothing more.

  11. The ebook is terrific David and you really get to the essence of capturing great portraits. What I want to know is how you made the camel smile in the second shot ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. ok, everyone seems to favor the second photograph. i don’t see it ๐Ÿ™ could someone explain why #2 is stronger than #1?

    in #1 i see the girl smiling at me. a little more reserved than in #2, but she is smiling at me. big connection! the camel is making a snobby face at me. nice. i’m totaly in the storry.

    in #2 the girl giggles more freely BUT totaly away to (maybe?) someone outside the frame. no connection to me and even her arm is building a barrier to me, covering part of her smile. the camel is now “smiling” at me. but now it’s competing with the second camel. the kissing camel is very nice, but i feel its somehow distracting the scene.

    the storry in #1 is clear, simple, nice, to the point and about us three (the girl, the camel and me). the storry in #2 is fuzzy or crowded. there is some part too much or at least not quiet right. i don’t see your intent. was it the relation of the kissing camel and the girl? then why is camel 1 distracting? or even if you just look at the shapes – #1 is nice and clear. #2 is confusing (the outline of the girl is not as clear a human as in #1 and the shape of the camels merge to something strange).

    so what about #2 is making it stronger than #1? what am i not seeing?

  13. Beautiful portraits. That delicate touch she’s using on the collar there really makes it extra special. Visually it adds to the contrast of a small girl handling a large animal. But emotionally it speaks volumes about her experience and relationship with camels. All that–in a touch of a collar. That right there is why photography can be so amazing.

  14. Dropping the walls and making way for the moments… wonderful interpretation. Look forward to the new book tmo. Thanks for all you share.

  15. Love these. Thank you for sharing and your advice on waiting and relaxing. I am looking forward to your new book.

  16. Amazing photos as usual. I have been fortunate to make images here in the villages of Chiapas and luckily been accomplishing good things. You remain an inspiration.

  17. Excellent advice, David. I love the relaxed, fun attitude in these images. Excited for the book tomorrow!

  18. Author

    Torsten, Milke’s right, I was just trying to show the difference one moment makes. First photograph is strong, but the second one is stronger.

    Leonie – Me too, girl. Me too!

  19. Amazing second photo. Not only is there a tender moment between the second camel and the boy, the first one is smiling!

  20. Eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new book, portraits are out of my comfort zone… now… I need to make this my next challenge…

  21. I cringe when I look at the photographs I made of the woman in Oaxaca when I compare them to the series that you took.

    Thanks for pushing me to ask, then teaching me to look and think and take the time to get the images that tell the story.

    And I’ll never forget the kindness you offered – allowing me to spend some time making photographs of you.

    Happy travels, friend. I hope I get to travel with you again (actually, I will – as soon as my budget allows it).

  22. One camel is cute, two camels and you’re really smokin’. Torsten, my take is its about the difference that waiting for ‘the moment’ makes.

  23. Hi David
    I’m pleased to see you back with “people photography”. Amayzing how u can spend so much time doing Landscape photography and come back to people photography as if u never stoped for a moment.
    I love your bit about developing a relationship with your “subject”. Try doing that when photographing “formal” “families” with Ten other members of the family standing behind you and trying to get your shots.

  24. hi david,

    because i often have a problem with selecting images to show out of dozens very similar ones – why did you show us two very similar pictures instead of only one?
    i get always in “trouble” for not picking one image. i know you love each and every one and every picture has a unique something about them (like the second camel leaning in or the face oft the first camel in the first shot …) so how do you chose if the only difference is not a quality issue but only detail and why didn’t you chose this time?

    greetings
    torsten

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.