Portrait of a Place
Posted on August 22, 2011
So I’ve got a few workshops coming up. Two of these workshops are about travel, storytelling and books. The third is about making documentary portraits. So, I’ve been thinking. I look at a lot of portfolios. A lot. And I look at a lot of books. Many of the books I look at are created by consumers. In many ways I think pros and consumers are all striving for the same thing, and if you reduce this down to one simple idea I would classify it as “The need to tell a story.” The longer you do this you more you learn about not only how to tell the story but you also learn what your audience needs to fully understand what it is you are trying to visually explain.
A lot of the consumer portfolios I see are random. Lots of travel, lots of places and lots of faces, some faces who know they are being photographed and others who don’t. Many of these portfolios are random because that is how the photographer came to photography, simply bringing a camera along and shooting whatever it was they encountered. This is totally fine. However, if you are trying to accurately portray a place, a people, a story, sometimes as the photographer you must think in terms of story or theme. Even within the idea of the story, each piece, whether that be a landscape, a portrait, an action shot, can also have a mini-story attached to it. These small stories, and their information, make up the overall piece.
I’m a little odd because I’ve always worked with theme or story in mind. Always. When I head out and try to work randomly, I find myself falling back into the idea that what I’m working on is a small part of a larger story. Now I’m realizing I need to move even further back and consider that all my stories are actually a part of an even larger idea that will encompass, perhaps, my entire career with a camera in hand. Scary to think about that edit. This idea was presented to me by a book publisher who flat out told me that I should look at everything I’ve done and look for a “master” theme if you will. Again, I can’t imagine sitting down to begin that process. Maybe if I get a nice, long, prison sentence I can start this baby up.
The pictures in this post are from a series I did in Hawaii, on the North Shore of Oahu to be exact. I went to this place, at the same time each year, for almost a decade. Each year I had a mini-theme in mind, sometimes landscape, other times a specific person or place, but overall the images all played together. When I broke down the portrait idea I realized that pulling back was as important as moving forward. What I’m treading around here folks is context. Context simply puts me in the place, beyond a tight face. Context answers things like “Where?” “How?” or “When,” and is essential for telling a story. The goal is stand alone images that all fit together. Think about that. Images that are good enough to completely stand on their own yet fit together like a visual puzzle, ultimately presenting one, enormous, clear theme. It ain’t easy.
So many of the consumer portfolios I see are filled with tight faces because these are very simple images. These images are easy to read. The wrinkled face of the mountain tribe person. The hands or feet of the mountain tribe person. Woman in market, etc. We’ve all seen endless amounts of these images. The are expected, but in many cases they tell little about a place. Again, nothing wrong with these photographs, but I think there is much, much more to explore when it comes to actually telling a story. I think an easy way to begin this journey is to think about creating a picture package, something small, like five or six images. Give yourself a goal. “I’m going to tell the story of Venice Beach California, and I have six images to do so.” Do you think your images will all be tight portraits? Maybe. You might be able to pull this off, but getting the idea of place or story, with only faces is a tough go. So you begin to think about story first and then images. Maybe you need something that says beach? Maybe you need something that says California Beach? Maybe you need something that says Southern California Beach? Maybe you need something that says unique, Southern California beach? You see where I’m going with this?
Now the fun part of working this way is you have the ability to edit the final images into a variety of stories. And, if you show your work to ten different editors, chances are, you will end up with ten different final edits. This is where making books, working in themes, really gets interesting. You being to edit, see your idea coming together then realize, “Hmm, I’m missing something.” You then head back out to figure out that final piece that works as the visual glue to keep the piece together. And believe it or not, many of these type images are NOT the most visually stunning. I call them transitional images, pictures that link sections of a story together, images that provide very small pieces of critical information that assist the viewer. Nobody likes talking about these pictures because we all want to be top guns and talk about the brilliance of our most successful snaps. Again, that is great if you are showing a portfolio perhaps, but when it comes to storytelling sometimes we have to play by different rules.
When I do workshops I’m normally working in theme mode. Information or transitional images are a big part of what I’m doing. If I just walked and looked for lifetime, stand alone pictures, well, I might get lucky but then again I might not. Now here is where things get really tricky. You can’t tune yourself OUT of looking for those incredible one-frame wonders. You have to do both. You have to react to what is happening. You have to anticipate. You have to predict. But in the background your overall theme hums along. I don’t know about you but I talk to myself almost nonstop when I’m working because all of these ideas are flowing without pause. It can be a lot of voices going at one time. And yes, from time to time, I lock them all out and look for a zen-like connection.
So when you look at the images in this post just realize that each one represents a chapter of the overall story. Competition, landscape, portrait, culture, sense of place, are all represented. There are many ways of getting from point A to point B. We each work in our own way. My goal with this post is to get you to think in terms of theme, of story and of the idea that whatever you are working on….there is something larger just outside your view.