Conceptual Portraiture


A couple of thoughts on personal projects, genre, and experimentation. First off — conceptual portraiture the term and more importantly, as opposed to what other kinds of portraiture? There's the problem with genre, there's really not a whole lot of meaning when you slap genre labels on things is there. Let's chuck some other ones out there like documentary, street, still life. You could go on and chuck all of them out there and probably not really land on anything super meaningful when it comes down to it.

Sure, there are some genre labels that might be a little more definitive but only slightly. Genre labels that are subject related might possibly be more useful or at least offer one a bit more of a clue as to what a particular photograph labeled landscape or wildlife or sports might contain.

The tricky part is when one starts adding modifiers or even using other genre labels as modifiers. Documentary portraiture, fine art landscape, street fashion, abstract photojournalistic whatever could be examples. Who are these labels for? Are they for the consumers of photographs or the producers? Were you at all driven by any of this the first time you picked up a camera or fell in love with making pictures? How about now?

Personal Projects And Markets

No matter if you make photographs for some part of your livelihood or not I would propose that if your intent is to satisfy a particular audience you may start veering off what makes a personal project so much different than if you have no particular market to satisfy including purposeless ones such as views and likes on any of the hundred different social platforms out there. Think about this for a moment; As soon as some vague notion of a market enters into the why of a personal project you're one way or another bound by similar constraints of just about any commercial job, or will be shortly thereafter.

Feel free to define personal project any way you want but limiting some degree of freedom of exploration in whatever your endeavor happens to be leaves a hole to fill with something of another name just to play, to blur the genre lines, to not care what it's for. The pull that all of us feel to satisfy some market somehow is not an easy thing to grapple with given the instant availability of audience today. Even with this random walk thru the forest I feel it and it's easy to succumb to.

A quick sample of the range of examples:

  • Publication and features of various subsets of this project in venues that one might expect as well as a few that are surprising. Of course the fetish niche stuff but a few other not so niche venues as well.
  • Private commissions. Let's call it off-the-beaten path boudoir clients that want something "like these".
  • Random clients that like a particular look/style/feel but want something completely different for their product.
  • Product purveyors that want exactly "this" for their fetish gear/wear/whatever but color too…
  • Random people that would like a print of who knows what that is a different subject matter???. Love your stuff but do you have pictures of x, y, z I could buy a print of? Hmmmm.

I could go on but that will server to illustrate a point. The instant I do any of those things in the context of this endeavor the personal project notion is over. At least it is for me and my mental make-up. Do I want to be a "fetish" photographer? Do I want to photograph gear/wardrobe/whatever like this as a job? Do I want to get into the boudoir business? Ummm, no. What about the portrait business? Not really, maybe but not really. Another tricky part which is satisfying collaborators, yes even that is a market. I circumvent that very tricky desire a completely different way (more on that another day) but it was influencing me to a large degree early on.

The Why Of It

Here's the crux of where the notion of personal comes in. That's a long and laborious thought process I've thought about and re-though many times since I started this particular set of personal projects. A random list of things that interest me might serve better than anything else.

  • Human beings interest me. Reactions, expressions, emotions, body language, all of it.
  • The notion of what exactly is a portrait is interests me along with thinking about all of the modes, modifiers, and diversity within that genre label interests me. One way or another I look at all photographs of people as a portrait of one sort or another.
  • Dichotomies and contrasts interest me. Opposites, dissonance and harmony interests me.
  • Complexity of subject, relationships, geometry, composition, interests me.
  • Complexity of technical process does not interest me at all.
  • Social commentary interests me.
  • Dichotomies, contradictions, and the complexity of humanity interests me.

This particular group of personal projects is a vehicle for my own exploration of that and all of the immense variables contained. Letting go of control of many things that in the past I've worked long and hard to exert control over and at the same time using observations I've made to influence other variables in a different way.

Experimentation & Casting Aside Common Wisdom

I've written quite a bit about experiments and observations and validation of some of those observations here. What are some things when discussing that genre label of portraits that come to mind? What is one after in the making of a portrait and how does one get there? The list may be miles long and probably contains a lot of diverse things, some even contradictory depending on who's making a portrait of who for what purpose. I'll just chuck a couple of points heard quite a bit out there as well as typical advice or common wisdoms.

How about "moments", that's one many portrait photographers talk about and one way or another are after. Heck even way back in the era of kids portraits at various department stores were a common way to get things done what was the camera operator after with all the goofy shit and props? Some sort of human moment one way or another. Isn't that what differentiates the good portraits for the bad ones if there is such a measurement? Real ones being better than fake ones right?

How about another modifier, lets say candid? That's a good one and typically used to define how something looks as well as a process used to make that don't always go together. Cameras and photography are really good at this in a way other mediums aren't. In many ways it's part of that photographic magic and so difficult to get at in many cases. What is a common thought process on getting to those moments and getting to "candid"?

Candid: unposed, informal, uncontrived, impromptu, natural. Also: open, honest, truthful, sincere…

I would say the vast majority of portrait photographers no matter what process or how formally approached are looking for at least one of those words used in the definition of candid. There's subtle distinctions between many of those words to be sure. The common wisdom suggests the best approach to getting to one of these descriptions as within a portrait is to make the "subject" comfortable. I hate that word "subject". I much prefer collaborator which it most certainly is when there's any interaction and intent to make pictures.

Consider the random images contained in this post. I quite literally did exactly opposite of making Lori comfortable. In fact we decided on a set of circumstances that were about as uncomfortable as she could get. Let's count the ways.

  • L. is not at all comfortable topless. As in most cases that's rooted in the perception of how she looks rather than anything else. I knew this from working with her in the past on something a bit different.
  • L. is relatively tall and the props we chose along with the configuration of them made standing up strait pretty much impossible.
  • The props themselves are a bit on the uncomfortable side. Actually a lot, especially the steel bottoms.
  • Last but not least L/'s wearing six inch heals. Obviously out of frame.

Candid? Absolutely, candid moments, some relaxed, some apprehensive, some a bit of both. Portraits - yes. Conceptual - sure, i'll leave the concept up to the viewer there's a bit of room there. Documentary - yep in fact there's a notion to wrestle with aren't all photographs documentary to some degree you can put that particular line wherever you want. I tend to draw it somewhere way before composting things together that never actually occurred while being okay with actually having a frame that doesn't include a 360-degree view. Social commentary — doing my damnedest. Figure study - yes. Dichotomy and contradictions, yes subtle ones here and there along with some dissonance/consonance I was looking for. So which particular genre label and modifiers should we choose. I would submit to you that all of that are for consumers of photographs and convenient classifications of us humans that love to put things in neat little boxes rather than for producers of photographs. Too bad I see it driven mostly the other way now based on appealing to a market of one sort or another.

End Notes

I made these a little while before committing to X-Series only for a minimum of six months. Made with a Nikon Df and 28mm Non-AI from 1971 and a Nikon D600 with 50mm f/1.4G. Processing via Lightroom with some random B&W preset of which I forget which applied on import. Probably one of my own recipes.

A preemptive answer to the inevitable question of the above mentioned Nikon cameras compared to my Fuji X gear I currently use. Yes I like my Fuji X cameras and system better than my Nikon system. If I didn't I wouldn't be using it as my only current camera system not only for this random group of off-kilter projects but everything else as well. Specifically My Nikons did nothing better, were much larger, not nearly as quiet, and I really do like the Fuji X lens line-up far better for my purposes than the current Nikon line-up.

The why of this particular session was twofold. First I wanted to play with some portrait notions. Second I wanted to do a very uncomfortable set of things first in an attempt to influence the other thing I did after this (more some other day as we're way past 1000 words).