The Power of the Portrait
The first part of portraiture that I think we all need to understand is that it's not about you. It's just not about you as the photographer. You have to let go of your ego. It can't be about building your portfolio because that's going to happen naturally. If you are present and you are working in a situation, and it's inspired, and you're really connecting, the work is going to speak for yourself. It's going to be great. But yo have to trust and you have to respect the process. And I'm going to give you a couple of case studies, one personal, I'm calling them case studies, but just sort of three different examples about the power of portraiture. A camera is a really powerful tool. It opens doors. People invite you into their homes, into their spaces. That's a really exciting thing and it's a really powerful thing. I mean, think about if you're walking down the street and you make a connection with somebody, and you say I'd really like to photograph you in your home. The guy might say...
, okay. Because you're carrying a camera, you are given that power. But it also allows you into people's personal space. Because if I'm carrying a camera, I don't think I have my camera here, but if I walked over here and I said, you know what, I'm holding my camera, and I say, I'm just gonna fix your necklace because it's not right. Well, if somebody walked up to me on the New York City subway city and started fixing my necklace, I would scream. Or I would run away and protect myself. But I have this object in my hand, and it is incredibly powerful, and you cannot take it for granted. And these are the examples of why. First of all, when we think about the power of photography, we think about photo journalism. It changes conversation. It records history. But portraiture can also do that. The fist example is when I was thinking about the power of what a portrait can do, I thought about when Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama. I don't know if you guys remember when that happened. It was obviously a very big deal that the former Secretary of State under a Republican presidency endorsed Barack Obama. And when he told the story on MSNBC or Meet the Press, I can't remember what, it was Meet the Press. He referenced that it was because he had seen a photograph that really touched him. And this is the photograph. So, he saw this photo which is the mother of Kareem hugging her son's tombstone at Arlington Cemetery. And if you read it, you can see that he won the Bronze Star, he won a Purple Heart when he was in Iraq for Operation Freedom. He was 20 years old and he was a Muslim. That's a very powerful photograph. And it changed conversation. So the next example, I actually don't have visual for, so I'm going to walk you through the story. There is a photographer named Jill Greenberg who around the same time took a photograph of John McCain. She was asked by The Atlantic magazine to shoot the cover of John McCain. And she said yeah. So she had the shoot. After the shoot, she gave the photos to the magazine, and then on her blog had taken photos and added some things to them. I'll give you more detail. At the end of her shoot, after she had done the cover and the other portraits, she turned off the overhead lights, you know, you can just do that with the little button on your pocket wizard. And she just had the underlights firing to make him look like a monster. Cut to the photos that she released on her website. She had drawn fangs, and put blood all over him, and all sorts of stuff making him look like sort of an evil villain. Now, this created a huge controversy in the photography world, particularly in the portrait world. And there are two sides to the story. And I'm going to tell you both sides. I'm not actually weighing in one way or the other. It's definitely an interesting conversation and one that people should have. So, the magazine said how dare you, we asked you to do your job. We asked you to be a portrait photographer and we thought that you would act respectfully and leave your politics at the door. Jill said, I'm an artist. You should have vetted me. You should have looked at my work. And if you had looked at my work, you would have seen that I am known for my anti-Bush photography. She has a series of crying baby portraits. You may have seen them. But essentially, it's a series, there may be 12 of them. It's lit very high key, and you see these babies crying, or young children, toddlers, two and three-year-olds crying. And then the captions of the photos were all very anti-Bush. She said you should have vetted me. I don't know what the right answer is. She has an opinion. She was hired for her opinion. Was she supposed to leave it at the door, you know, I don't really know. But it's definitely interesting and I'll let you guys decide. I always found that to be a dilemma. But then I ended having my own personal dilemma, a couple of them, so I'm going to share those with you now. Several years ago I was asked to shoot Michelle Bachman down in Washington because she didn't like her official Congressional portrait. So I went down to D.C. and spent a couple hours with her, and we shot some portraits, did a whole bunch of stuff. We had a lovely time. While we were shooting, particularly in the beginning, she was really nervous, and she just was uncomfortable in front of the camera. No big shock, right, most people are really uncomfortable. So, I actually had her do something that I often do, which is pretend you're in a photo booth. I still do it from time to time, but when I really used it all the time it was before photo booths were so popular and you could set them up everywhere. When I would mention it, it made reference to the old black and white ones where you get five pops, and each time you do something silly. So, she did that and we had got these pictures. I'm going to try to tell this story linearly here so you can follow me. Newsweek was doing a story about her, and she said, well, why don't you call Victoria, she took some photos of me. And Newsweek said, well, we're going to send a photographer to you to take some portraits, but we'll contact her. So, they sent a photographer, they did some portraits. And I got a call from Newsweek saying could you send over a PDF of low-res photos of the portraits you like. And I sent over just a sample, but I included some of these because it was sort of the whole journey that we had. And I thought nothing of it. A couple weeks later, on the cover of Newsweek was a photograph, not mine, of Michelle Bachman looking a little bit crazy. She sort of had this weird face, and the title that went right across her said Queen of Rage. And I remember standing at the newsstand being very, just sort of having that pit in my stomach moment. Because I realized that it's very possible that when Newsweek was calling and they wanted my photos because they wanted something like this, you know, they really wanted, they had an agenda. Their title of this was Queen of Rage. And I didn't have to make that choice. But what if Newsweek had called and said, hey, we want to put this on the cover. Well, who doesn't want their photo on the cover of Newsweek? I mean, I certainly do. However, I am not interested in swaying an election one way or the other based on a photo that's taken out of context. It's also very important to me to honor the portraits and the time that we had there. She actually wasn't crazy or full of rage that day. She was lovely, and so it would be dishonoring her to have given them those photos. The photographer who did take the cover image was actually recently quoted. There's a little bit of snafu that went back and forth between them because she said this was a light test, that wasn't supposed to be used. He said he wouldn't use it. And the photographer actually said, actually, that wasn't a light test and I never said that, and I stand by this image because it was an accurate representation of what she was like that day. So what I find important about that is going back to sort of what I've said to you guys all along about it's about what we're doing here that day. So, if somebody is really being unpleasant to you and that's what you capture, that's what you capture, that's what's happening. And I think that is a fair and accurate representation. I've also had to deal with this in much more profound ways. And that's two examples of portraits that I took and then in both situations both of these people passed away soon thereafter. A portrait can be a defining image in someone's life. You have no idea when you're taking that photo if it's going to be that, and you have to treat it that way. You can't go into it with your own agenda I don't think, because that person really deserves to be represented in the most honest way. This is examples of situations that were actually very difficult for me after the fact. Later events can give the image a second life that you never anticipate. And as an artist, you might not have any say in that. And that's really difficult and a very harsh reality. And why you need to treat this profession and the people you photograph with the utmost respect. I know that's a very heavy note, but if you have any questions, I'm happy to take them.
Victoria, thank you for sharing these with us, and that evolution that you've gone through. I love the concept of how you talked about creating your point of view no matter whether it was the lighting changing, or using tin types, or whatever, that it's coming back around to developing your style as a photographer. What are some ways that you would advise for people at home to think about developing that style, if you will, your point of view, or how will you recognize what your point of view is as you're just doing your thing?
Okay, great questions. I find that, I actually have a lot of answers to that. First part, trying to be somebody else, I know that sounds really weird, but I'm never gonna be Platon. Because when I show up to a shoot, I'm not a five foot seven, quirky English man with a great accent. So, what I get out my subjects is going to be different than what he does. However, I really respect him and I love his work. And I had the opportunity to study with him in one of my workshops and I got to watch him work. After that workshop, I was like I'm gonna be Platon. So, I would go to every shoot and I took all those things that he taught us, and I would set up my lights in a similar way, and I would approach it, and I would just shoot, shoot, shoot. And what I learned is that in trying to be him, every day I went out and I tried to be him, I was able to start seeing my own voice. Because I'm never going to be him, so I would look at my images and I would say, why doesn't this look like him. I was able to, in trying to mimic other people, and there's lots of people that I've tried to mimic in my days in the sense of I'll do a test shoot and I'd say I'm trying to make this one look like Annie Leibowaitz. Well, I'm not going to be Annie Leibowitz. And when I tried to be Annie Leibowitz, I didn't find her, I found me. I was able to just keep trying new things, and keep really seeing the difference, like why isn't this Annie? Well, it's because I did this, this, and this. I really like this. The other way actually is laying out a portfolio and making a website. I found that when it was my time, when I had left the paper and I needed to make a website and needed to make a portfolio, I took all of my images and I laid them all out, and I had them all over my monitor. And I sort of went, oh, okay, this feels like this one even though that was five years ago. And this feels like this one. And I actually started to see something that felt cohesive. And by curating a book, or curating a website, you can see that. I don't think that you can say my style is going to be X. I think that's a gimmick, and I think it's very kitschy. My style is going to be I'm going to use 10 lights every time and it's going to be very high key. Well, that's great but sort of a one-trick pony situation. And people will hire you just to do that. I think that as an artist you're going to evolve, and your case is going to evolve, as well. So, it can't be reliant on lighting, or any sort of medium or trick. In the same way that I don't wanna shoot tin types all the time because it's not about the tin types, it's about the portrait. So, I think those are two ways, Kenna, that you can really try to find your voice. Oh, and I actually just through of another one. I would look at magazines, in the same way I was trying to be Annie Leibowitz and mimicking situations, I would look in magazines and just pull out photos that I really liked. And I'd try to guess who the photographer was. I'm really good at it, actually. Don't test me right now, but. One of my very close friends is also a photographer, Dan Brouillette. He and I will do that, we'll just screen grab magazines back and forth, and we'll just try to guess who the photographer is. And most of the time, I can do that. And that's when I know that photographer is really nailing it, like he has such a clear point of view. I can look at a portrait by Dan Winters, I can pick it out of a lineup of a thousand any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And I'm sure there are photographers that you guys love that you'll recognize their work right away. I want people to do that with my work. That means that I'm achieving a very clear point of view.