Category Archives: Confidence in Portraiture

Art portraiture: a personal epiphany?

Reading Face (Ewing, 2008), I suddenly realised the required difference of approach between art portraiture and commercial portraiture that I am perhaps more familiar with.  Instead of apologetically trying to make photographs that people will like, art photography has a different mindset – that of seeking to peel back the ‘veneer’ of the mask, makeup or fake smile to reveal the ‘real’ person undernearth.

Yes, it is important to establish trust with the subject through openness, integrity and good ethics towards photography.  But also I have a right – a responsibility I might argue – to get the photographs that I want.  It’s ok to experiment, change my mind direct the shoot and try to peer beneath the mask…and capture what I might be privileged to see.  That’s my role as an art student.  Not just to make them want to buy a print for the wall.

Writing it down in a reflective way makes this all so obvious.  But I can see how I’ve been so ingrained (for decades) in thinking that, above all else, I have an over-riding social / professional duty to produce work that the customer likes.  This stifles my creativity.  It feeds my fear of being ok to be  experimental rather than on the safe side.  Seminars are geared towards creating ‘portraits that sell’.

A small thing.  But something that has helped reorient how I approach my work

Ewing goes on to explore this portrait, Anastasia, by Inex van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin which can be found on page 75 and online at:


He argues that, at first sight, we are viewing an ‘elegant, refined, Versailles-like decadance, this delicate waif of a woman’.  However, upon closer inspection the mask is not actually a mask at all but black make up.  A mirror rather than a mask?  Is the viewer really looking at a ‘mirror reflecting male lust’ (ibid, p74)?  Clearly this is a carefully constructed portrait image driven by a vision of the photographer to express a personal vision and explore the viewer’s gaze, rather than to produce a portrait that the subject was ‘happy with’.


Ewing, W.A. and Herschdorfer, N. (2008) Face: The new photographic portrait. London: Thames & Hudson.

The Invisible Photographer

Photographers often lean on their cameras in one of two ways—as a passport, a means for entering new worlds (both geographic and emotional); but also as a shield, a way to create some distance between themselves and their surroundings“, Alexander Strecker

Alexander Strecker interviewed Gioia de Bruijn for Lensculture.  The interview explores the idea of when a photographer is actively involved in the scene before them, or whether to be detached.

This struck me as very relevant to the upcoming work in Part 1 of I&P.  I’m very conscious – particularly after the first Exercise of photographing strangers – how often I use the camera as a shield.  “The camera definitely creates a barrier – once you are invested in operating the apparatus, you can’t be simultaneously invested in the situation“.  I wanted to explore this further to understand myself better and help overcome my fears.

In interview, De Bruijn takes the view that “standard documentary photography voyeuristic, even de-humanizing, preferring to throw herself fully and completely into situations that attract her interest“.   This is explored further along with looking at how the relationship between the general public and photographer might now be changing in the digital era.

Her latest documentary work, ‘Weekend Warriors’, is shot in the aftermath of various parties she attended in Amsterdam.  She explains, “I wasn’t an outsider looking in—I was part of it, and I think that’s the only way.”.  Likening the alternative to be “watching monkeys at the zoo”, De Bruijn prefers to be on the inside where the action is.  There are strong similarities in the work with that of Nan Goldin here – infiltrating a nightlife sub culture and being trusted enough to see it for all that it is.

I can see how this ‘being on the inside’ is the only really way to have absolute empathy with the situation you are photographing.

This then opens up the question of public attitudes towards the camera in this situation.  Historically the camera has been seen as a passport to gain entry to a situation, but is that now changing?

Everyone now photographs everything.  We Instagram, Facebook and Tweet our meals, movements and private experiences.  Laszlo Moholy-Nagy famously said “The illiterate of the future will be the man who does not understand photography” (Badger, 2014, inside front cover).   Surely this makes it much easier for photographers since everyone expects everyone else to be taking photographs anyway?

De Bruijn asserts that the opposite might in fact be true, saying that “anonymity almost does not exist any more”, so people are becoming more camera shy than ever.  They might end up in a compromising website, a prospective employer seeing a photo of them on social media.  You are tagged on the photo with your name to complete strangers around the world.  I certainly know several people close to me who do not want their photos on any social media.  She finishes this part of the interview with the lament that “But honestly, I think its only going to get harder.  Having a camera in the future may not afford you much additional access at all“.

Her approach to circumventing this is to shoot film with “such old and beaten up cameras that people don’t take me too seriously

This all led me to reflect on when I feel comfortable or otherwise with a camera in public.  I am happy when invited to take photographs or when I am part of a group experiencing something (a pagan festival in Glastonbury, my local pub, a party, a wedding).  But I’m very uncomfortable photographing strangers.  I think this interview goes to the heart of why: In the first set of situations I am supposed to be there with my camera.  For the latter, I am invading their personal lives, using my camera as the entrance ticket to witness it.  I’m not invited in.  Of course there’s a raised expectation then – your event photos are expected to be good because you are using a ‘proper camera’.  I guess I got used to that from my former life so view it as a lesser pressure than invading someone else’s social space.

I also reflected on De Bruijn’s use of an ‘old beat up camera’.  I came to digital very late in the day, only stopping my work as a wedding photographer when film became obsolete and the appetite in the wedding market was to join a never-ending treadmill of the most mega-pixels and fastest delivery of .jpgs on a memory stick possible.  Disillusioned, I turned to landscapes reluctantly moving to digital only a few years ago.  Since then I can see how I’ve inadvertently got sucked onto the same treadmill.  A 36 megapixel full frame body is great since in my mind it is a ‘proper’ camera without any crop factor issues and I notice that I’ve finally stopped saying ‘its not as good as Velvia 50 used to be on the Bronny’!  But I’ve only had this body for a few months. Virtually all of my work that has been sold, appreciated and hung in an exhibition was taken on a body with only half of that resolution.  Nobody complains about the quality of them.  As a Pentax user I am only too aware of the danger of ego-driven challenges from the ‘What? You don’t use Canon or Nikon!’ hobbyists.  I note that I often respond by admitting that I used to use Canon when a pro but I find Pentax is better for me – I’ve never looked back.  This is all true, but hints at a need to justify why I went a different way to the herd.  Ego.

I noted that De Bruijn describes herself as uncomfortable with groups of people, preferring the company of individuals.  I can again very much identify with this.  Here she picks up the camera  as a shield rather than a passport “in order to diffuse the anxiety for myself and my brain”.  We are probably all the same inside – the differentiator is probably nothing more than some of us, like De Bruijn, pick up the camera anyway, walk into the room and just do it.

Perhaps it is time to be the guy with a old camera and see if I get invited to more the parties – the invitation, of course, has always been there for me.  It is just that my own negative self-talk may decline it on my behalf.


Badger, G. (2014) The genius of photography. London, United Kingdom: Quadrille Publishing.

de Bruijn, G. and LensCulture (2006) Weekend warriors and beyond – interview with Gioia de Bruijn. Available at: (Accessed: 8 January 2017).

What is a portrait? & Feeling Stuck!

Although not an academic or art photography journal, the Dec16-Jan 17 issue of Professional Imagemaker magazine contains an article by Rick Friedman that I found inspiring.

I was keen to take some wider influences as I was having difficulty making progress on I&P exercises in Part 1.  This came as a shock after Content and Narrative, where creative ideas and opportunities seemed to come freely.  But now – with people rather than objects the objective of my lens – there seems to be so many practical issues getting in the way of progress.

Perhaps it is the time of year – I leave for work in an office in the dark and leave work in the dark.  Work itself is very demanding at present so I often return home quite late in the evening.  Having to drive means that public transport holds no opportunities and childcare at the weekend limits opportunity.  These very practical constraints make it a challenge to find several people and logistically photograph them in the same place, or find diary time to take people to a background setting of their choice.

I wanted to look at what other people were doing for ideas to get me going.

Rick is a photojournalist based in Boston, USA but has travelled the world photographing famous people.  When asked at the start of the interview “what is a portrait?” he answers “a single frame that tells a story“(Friedman, 2016).  He generally photographs his subjects in their own environment, which immediately struck a chord with the I&P Part 1 exercises.

He goes on to explain how preparation is the key.  As well as learning about your subject, their likes, dislikes, successes and what they do, he also says it is important to “know what your story is“(Friedman, 2016).  This means that you have a clear idea in mind before you start so are not faffing in front of the subject.  It shows direction and confidence which will lead the subject to relax in your presence, confident that they are safe in your hands.

This approach really comes through in his images, such as those of US politicians.  Hillary Clinton, taken in recent weeks has an air of annoyance and discomfort about her from the glare of the camera lights, a fitting metaphor for the pressure she was under in public for the last few weeks of the USA election.  Trump on the other hand has momentum and a swagger about him:

Obama is more easy going, a ‘man of the people’, serving in the local bar:

I found this a useful kickstart for the exercises.  To this end I started to plan out the exercises as I would approach an Assignment: listing ideas in a notebook, assessing viability and refining it over a period of days.  I have friends who are gardeners, shamanic practitioners, druids and all sorts of backgrounds.

I started to explore the idea of ‘working with that I have’ too.  My sons and partner are notoriously camera shy, although I did manage to press them into a portrait for their mum as a Christmas gift:


Perhaps I should start to use them more in my course exercises.  Logistics remains an issue in this period of winter dark nights.  Perhaps I can use more portable lighting in peoples’ homes.  But I feel like I’m back on track again.

Final word from Rick: “There’s no right or wrong way to make a photograph, as long as you get the image you set out to achieve” (Friedman, 2016).


Friedman, R (2016) ‘What is a portrait?’In Professional Imagemaker (88) pp.56-64.