Without noticing, I’m becoming a portrait photographer. I was watching a live VLOG from Tony and Chelsea Northrup about unconventional portraiture and it got me thinking about my own work and in particular how it has changed over the years.
I’m not a people person. Interactions with strangers and even acquaintances are often awkward for me. They drain me in a very real way. Even interactions with close friends and family are exhausting. Every social interaction feels like a chance to crash and burn and that stress tells.
Speaking to random strangers, even with an introduction, is terrifying. I don’t let that stop me when I have no choice, but it does limit what I do when I’m free to behave how I want.
It’s hard to admit that I’m terrified in any situation because I consider myself pretty fearless in general (for example, I’m an experienced technical cave diver, something that terrifies most people). But, in the social realm, I am a fish out of water. I’m far from dysfunctional, but I will never say I find social activities “fun” and I avoid them when possible.
Translating to Photography
As you might imagine, that aspect of my personality has a profound effect on my photography. I think one of the main draws of photography for me is its insulating aspect. It provides a socially acceptable reason to be alone. Suddenly the draw of landscape photography and especially astro-photography becomes clear.
Take it a step further, a camera is armor in social situations too. If I’m carrying a camera, I’m not a person. I’m a photographer. I have an assigned role and so does everyone else in the room. We all knows the expectations, or pretend to anyway.
The net result was that I took a lot of photos of people I didn’t know and had no interest in at events. And the resulting photos, while perfectly competent, are totally uninteresting to me. When I was free to shoot what I wanted, I headed as far away from people as I could, usually out into nature and often at night when the sensible people were asleep in their beds.
Shifting to Portraits
That VLOG got me thinking about portraiture and my portfolio. I realized that many of the images I like from the last couple of years are of people, or contain people as a part of the landscape. Apparently I turned some sort of corner without realizing it, or maybe the path doesn’t have corners just bezier curves.
I started to glance through my archive starting with images I’ve made recently working my way back. I pulled images, not that the subject liked, not that a client liked, but that I liked. The change happened about 3 years ago, and like most shifts, was slow.
One of my first “talking to strangers” triumphs was in Joshua Tree. And like so many breakthroughs in the world, it happened when my social-buffer (Josh) wasn’t around.
The story of making these images isn’t all that exciting, but it is important. I saw a group of climbers around sunset. I asked if I could photograph them and they said yes. Nothing much came of that. None of the photos were really that exiting or good. But, as they were packing up to leave, I asked them if any of them would like to stay and do some night climbing for me to use as a subject for milky way photos. All but two of them said no.
Two was more than enough. In the end, I did not make portraits, but landscapes. This was after all an incremental shift. But the landscapes featured a person as a central element. That inclusion improves the photos.
More recently, my normal post-shoot depression (I’m not sure this is the right term and I don’t mean to diminish anyone with clinical depression’s experience, but I can’t come up with any other word that is appropriate) has been punctuated by regret for missed portrait opportunities. I get home and look at my photos and think “why didn’t I pull that person aside for a portrait.” And in many cases, I even made portraits, but NOT the portraits I know I should have.
You see, my introverted nature means I will almost always take a back seat to a more social personality when it comes to soliciting buy in from subjects or planning shoots… And of course, Josh is a classic extrovert who loves to walk right up to strangers and talk to them. That is basically my definition of torture (yes hyperbole is a thing).
The process of regretting imagined missed shots is a part of the growth cycle. The unpleasant feeling of failure is motivational at least some of the time.
Becoming a Portrait Photographer
Looking through the work I selected in my quick survey tonight, I realize something: many of the images I like the most came about because I was left in a situation without that safety blanket, without the ability to abdicate responsibility to subject bye-in to someone else. I planned the shoot, or stumbled across it, or simply took over and did what I wanted instead of following. The results are portraits I like and that say something about me.
My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph. – Richard Avedon
I’m not sure what the future holds, but I plan to spend more time making portraits I like and that speak to me. Where does that fit into my business (it is how I pay my bills after all)? I’m not sure.
One thing about shooting as a part of a team is that highlighting individual differences is difficult. It often makes the team look inconsistent. Variations of style clash when they would be fine, even spectacular, in their own portfolio.
Some of My Portraits
Here are some of my favorite portraits from the last few years. These are not necessarily the subject’s favorites or even the most technically perfect images. But they are images that speak to me.