Taste of Uruguay: Street Portrait

You might be getting sick of my Uruguay work but I guess you will just have to fake it. It’s been several months since this trip which has given me time to leave it alone and then come back to it. The last post I did, Taste of Uruguay:2, was about black and white, reportage style images, so I wanted to post something in regard to my “other” work. Several years ago I started shooting color square in addition to my black and white 35mm. I’ve threatened many times to quit doing this, but for some reason I can’t stop. Doing two things at once in the field isn’t the best of ideas, but in a day and age when people are doing four, five or six things at once in the field I still feel like a dinosaur. Shooting two different formats isn’t easy, nor is doing both color and black and white. My last post was comprised of images shot from behind. I wanted to show that I also shoot people from the front. In fact, I do a lot of portraits when I’m in the field. Portraits, for the most part, are easy, that is why so many people do them. I think this is why so much of the fine-art photography world is flooded with portraiture. Black and white reportage takes huge amounts of time to build bodies of work, but portraits can be done very, very quickly. Come up with a theme, a straightforward style, print them 60×60 and you too will be a genius! Seriously, portraits are easy, but they are also very fun, which is why I love doing them, AND they give me a very different look from my “normal” reportage stuff. And lastly, when you’ve been banging away, day after day, and have only a slow drip of reportage images you know are going to work, it’s very alluring and comforting to make portraits, which again are FAR easier to compile.

I wanted to show you these three images because I think they are typical of what happens during a very brief street portrait scenario. In short it goes like this… “see someone I like, devise a plan to engage them, scout for light and then ask to make their portrait.” Finding someone to photograph is rarely difficult, but finding someone you THINK will allow you to photograph can be tricky. If you do this long enough you can sense things. You can FEEL your way into an environment, or person, or shoot and know whether or not you can pull it off. Even those cases when someone says “No,” it doesn’t always mean “No.” How bad do you want it? Why are they saying no? Can you educate them, win them over or get them involved? This people is the game of documentary portraiture. In this particular case, I was at an event where people were preparing to participate in a massive public demonstration, so not a difficult portrait environment by any means.

WAIT! Don’t get ahead of me or yourself damnit! Yes, I saw this guy, and yes I decided to talk to him and ask about making his portrait, HOWEVER before I approached him I did ONE very important thing….I scouted for my portrait light. “Portrait light, what the F%$% is that?” you might ask. Well, portrait light is, oddly enough, the light where I want to make my portrait! You scout this light beforehand, and get prepared, in case the person you are asking says, “Ya sure, go for it, where do you want me?” If you haven’t found your light then you are suddenly dragging a guy in face paint house to house trying to find your personal photographic rainbow. Like packing for the trip, do it before it’s time to go to the airport. In this case my light was just inside a structure across the street, a structure that allowed him to stay in open shade, but also took advantage of the light bouncing off the street outside, an enormous, broad light source bouncing back and into this guy’s face. The light on the street was harsh, midday garrishness, and the light deeper inside the building was dark and green like swamp thing, but the light in the door was magnifique! You can tell the size and scope of the light by looking at the catch lights in his eyes. Pinpoint catch lights means pinpoint light source. Pretty simple. I knew I wanted two portraits, one with eyes open and one with eyes closed, but what happened is what normally happens when I make a portrait. I start with one idea and shoot myself into another.


The last photo in this series is really the image.
I didn’t know it when I made the first portrait, but by the time I made the second portrait my eyes were locked on his lips(We had been drinking if I remember correctly). This was what I was getting at, but I didn’t know it until it presented itself. The first two portraits were done at the minimum focusing distance of an 80mm lens. The third image required me to use my close-up adapter, but it also provided me another opportunity, which was to tell him exactly what I was doing and why(I think I did this in my version of Spanish which means it’s probable he understood nothing and was just being polite). People, making portraits is about a relationship. Granted, it could be like a drunken college weekend relationship, one that happened fast, was a bit confusing and left you feeling used, but in most cases they are brief, intense and positive. When people realize this is MORE than just a hobby, and that you have a vision in mind, they typically are more than willing to work with you. You will hear “NO,” and it sucks, or even better yet, “Eat S%$# and die,” which is one of my personal favorites, but for the most part when people know you are serious they want to assist. This guy, like almost every other human I encountered in Uruguay, was willing to take part.

Using the bellows isn’t the easiest thing, but luckily I’m not looking for easy.
Never have, never will. People love the Hasselblad, or “that old thing” so when I start to look down into it and then proceed to get about 8 inches from their face, the game is officially on. The depth of field is minimal, but that is why I like it. I set the focus, hold my breath, then rock back and forth waiting for those lips to pass in focus. BLAM, I shoot one frame.

Evasive Action: The Family Portrait.

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Not a single person looking at me, I must be doing something right.

I’m not really a family portrait guy. I shoot these images, and sometimes I like what I get, but I don’t do a lot of them, and I’m okay with that.

Photographing adults is an entirely different deal than photographing kids, and typically these shots bring to the table far more tradition, baggage, etc, than do my other images.

Here in Southern California we have a lot of traditions in the family portrait industry, white shirts and jeans on the beach being the first that comes to mind.

If you travel to other places in the country they have their own white shirt and jean style images, but for me, these traditions have never fueled my fire. I find them intensely interesting in terms of their tradition, but as for me shooting them, I always look to do something else.

Kids are loose, and often times don’t have the knowledge of a “good side” or “bad side.” They are not aware of their own image, and consequently, they are in most ways very easy to photograph.

Just look at how many “photographers” with little to no training launch their professional careers with kids photography. How many launch their careers shooting adults? CEO’s? Yep, an entirely different story.

“You have five minutes and don’t screw it up.”

This might be something you hear from the CEO portrait client which is a lot different from, “Oh isn’t he cute,” in regards to the kid you photograph. And, you mess up a kid shoot, you can go back. You mess up the CEO shoot and your toast.

Somewhere in the middle is the family portrait.

Family portraits are a little like weddings in the sense that a lot of people do what they feel they HAVE to do and not necessarily what they WANT to do. Or, they don’t have an idea, and the fallback is to conform.

I think getting a group of people to all look at a camera at the same time and “act normal,” is nearly impossible.

But more importantly, it’s boring.

I much prefer the fractured moment, the broken family gathering, where things have begun to fall apart.

My brother and I have been making the same faces for our family portraits for years, ruining every single one. My dad used to go mad knowing my brother and I would be secretly exchanging covert singles as to when to apply the faces. Dinner table, formal shots, casual shots, etc, always with the face.

Posed, stagnant images are just that, posed and stagnant. They have no feel or atmosphere, and most people in these images look like they are about to pass out. Frozen smiles, and that behind the scenes look of “Mother of God, when is this torture going to be over?”
is typically what you get.

My goal with a family portrait is one frame. One image. Yep, that’s it. What more do you need?

I’m looking for that one split second where the stars align and you find an actual moment.

I think a big misconception, especially in the digital age, is that shooting a lot of frames is a good thing. It really isn’t. Not only does it show you, as a photographer, that your brain has completely shut down, but it’s a reminder that great images don’t happen frame after frame after frame. They happen once and are never seen again. If there are seen again and again it means you are either setting it up, over and over, or it really wasn’t that great a moment to begin with.

And what is worse than sitting down at a computer and looking at an entire monitor of the same image with slight variations. UGH. This is the time when I’m thinking about the fifty gallon drum of cheap whiskey I keep in the garage, and what would happen if I shotgunned the entire drum. Please. This isn’t photography, but I know it’s happening night after night, day after day, all over this great world of ours.

I’ve included a photo of what happened to me the last and final time this occurred.
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It wasn’t pretty and I had to check myself into a brain reactivation clinic in Malibu.

So, back to the portrait. I just want a moment when the family is together. That’s all.

The image at the top, I like. Not one person looking at me, which tells me I did my job.

It also looks like these people were dropped into the image on a green screen, and look as if they are all in their own world, which is precisely what happens in NORMAL family life.

I think I like these because my background is in documentary photography, not portrait photography, so waiting and waiting to get one moment is what I have been doing for years, so it was only natural it would transfer over portraits.

Hey, look, I’m speaking on experience folks. I didn’t just come to this photography game last year, or with the dslr, and I’ve had my portrait made by portrait photographers, and looking back…it wasn’t always pretty.

The last time our family portrait was done I was wearing a plaid sportcoat and my dad thought he was Burt Reynolds.

Is there anything worse than having a photographer standing in front of you saying, “Okay everybody, over here…look at me….ready….okay smile.” Your face crumpling in and out of the fake smile as the photographer chimps after each frame trying like hell to understand the hyper-complex metal and plastic beast they are wielding.

Oh God, and I’ve done this myself, as the photographer, and always feel like such a tool when I’m doing it, like a photo-mouse who will get a nicotine pellet if he runs enough on the treadmill. Calgone take me away.

I think these horrendous experiences helped hone my current skills, and also make me keenly aware of who the real photographers are.

When I was fourteen I had my portrait done, with brother and sister, and the guy spent ten minutes at our house. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, DONE, and a cloud of smoking tires and dust. It wasn’t because he was so great, it was because he was a machine stamping out a widget.

In short, if you are doing what everyone else is doing and don’t know why your doing it, then do everyone a favor who you are doing it to and with and stop doing it. Just do it, or don’t depending on how you translate this last sentence.

So onward I go, forging through portrait after portrait, hoping to find myself making a decent image here and there. But I know when it comes to the family portrait, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

But I’ll not go down with a whimper of conformity, oh no way my friends, I’m gonna put it on the line, waiting quietly for those split seconds when I truly am the fly on the wall and I feel like I’m watching the world from a bubble, and not like the “bubble boy” movie from the 1970’s with John Travolta.

That was a bad bubble thing, mine is good.

Fenmore 200909
Family #75657556575647464746 waiting in LA.