The Benefit of Researching a Subject’s Life Before Shooting a Portrait

Here’s a nice little video in which photographer Matthew Jordan Smith tells the story of a portrait session he had years ago with American actor/dancer/singer Gregory Hines. After finding himself in a sticky situation with a subject that wouldn’t offer the personality and emotion Smith wanted to capture, he reached deep into the knowledge of Hines that he had accumulated through his research; one particular fact saved the shoot.

Here’s the same story in text form in case you’d like to read rather than watch:

If you’re heard me speak then you know how big I am on research. Here a story on how my research has paid off in the past. Before this shoot I had my interns researching everything we could find on Gregory Hines. In this process we found that whenever he found himself alone in an elevator he liked to tap dance because he like the echo in an elevator. Okay, fast forward to the shoot. Gregory comes to the studio and one minute after walking in the door tells me he loves photography and that he loved the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Then he tells me that Bresson walked about Paris with one lens and one roll of film and believed if he couldn’t get a shot this way it wasn’t worth getting then asked if we could get the shot in one roll of film! He was totally serious! He wanted to shoot one roll of film and walk out the door.

So I’m shooting Gregory and each frame he starts counting down and I’m getting nothing. Then as we get to the last five frames I say, for the last few frames do me a favor and close your eyes and imagine your in a elevator tap dancing. He stops and says, “how did you know I like to do that”? Then bent down, took his shoes off and proceeded to give me two hours of the best images and moments I’d had in a long time. We connected at that moment and the entire room changed at that instant.

Here’s the resulting portrait that Smith captured:

You can find more of Smith’s work over on his website and on his Facebook page.

Gregory Hines and Henri Cartier-Bresson [The Joy of Photography via SLR Lounge]

Image credit: Video and photograph by Matthew Jordan Smith

  • Clarkness

    This is why I always talk with my subjects and have fun with it. Only a few times has it worked because they were willing to let loose. I continue to become better working with models. Both male and female. They consider photography a technical skill when it’s much more than that.

  • Kodachrome64

    When he said that Gregory Hines wanted him to shoot his portrait session like Cartier-Bresson, I instantly related to how frustrating that can be as a photographer. People who are not photographers think that all photography is the same and every photographer has the same skill set and style. I would say I’m primarily a photojournalistic type of photographer, street photography is my passion and I shoot a few weddings a year to make ends meet. There have been quite a few times where I’ve been asked to shoot things ranging from child portraiture to products to who knows what, and I stop and think to myself “does this person have any idea what kind of photographer I am.” I’m not complaining or trying to be condescending, I just find it fascinating how photography has permeated into our culture to the point that everyone thinks they know exactly what photography is all about when there’s just so much more to it than that. I would really have to bite my tongue if Gregory Hines said the same thing to me.

  • Thomas Casey

    Cartier-Bresson also said photography was like milking a cow, you have to milk it a lot to get a small piece of cheese.