Portraiture has never been a genre that resonated with me as a creator, which is odd because there are many examples of portraiture that I enjoy, and I’d absolutely love to be able to create meaningful portraits of people in the same way that I feel I’m able to create meaningful images in other genres.
I recently took stock of the collection of “keeper” images that I have been creating over my career as a photographer. Out of these, I was surprised to have as many as a handful of portraits, which I actually like. I so often say that I have no portraits of value that these stood out to me. I then had to think about why – if I have a few I like – did I not have more than that? There must be some factor in these that I’m overlooking when it comes to actively making portrait photographs.
While it’s unfair to say I hate all of my portraits the vast majority do nothing for me. My candid portraiture is fairly decent but I don’t feel they’re valid as “portraits.” There are many commercial portraits I take as part of my work in production, or fashion but again I would not really share these anywhere other than my client and possibly my portfolio.
My favorite genre of portraiture is the street portrait; the spontaneous collaboration between a photographer, their found and consenting subject, and the environment and natural light. This is where I need to put in the work, and start to bring together these factors to establish a style I am happy with.
Finding a subject is one of the hardest things for me. For example, I’ll often be out shooting with a friend and they’ll notice someone who is fantastically or bizarrely dressed and will take either a portrait or a candid. However, this is usually the sort of character I meet at an event like Comic-Con or London Fashion Week where I will have been commissioned and paid to photograph them. I have dozens of portraits of this kind of character and as such am desensitized to their appearance on the street.
I am still figuring out exactly what I am looking for in a subject – and considering the things I’m avoiding (clichés, baseball caps, people of my own demographic etc) this may take me some time.
Once a subject has caught my eye however I rarely have an issue with approaching them. I’m not usually one for small talk, so I’ll go for a cold open – say hello, introduce myself, and then ask if they would be OK with me making a portrait of them. If they ask why I’ll usually highlight some detail – I liked your hair; you have an interesting face, that sort of thing.
If they disagree I’ll thank them for their time and wish them a nice day. If they agree however then that usually means I have about five minutes of their time with which to collaborate on their portrait. I have to give myself this five minutes as when I was starting out I would often worry that I was wasting their time, and would hurry my shot and produce something mediocre.
If I take my time, the subject is more likely to respect the process and the results and will feel like I know what I’m doing. I try to have an idea of what I’ll be going for as I approach them, so I’m not umming my way through asking them to look into their lens, turn toward the light and so on.
I’m not the best at posing or positioning; I prefer for a simpler pose from the subject and as long as the light is right I’m usually happy with the overall scene. However, at this point, my motivation starts to fall apart, as I tend to dislike my results from both posed and more candid presentations. A “pose” does not result in the kind of street portrait I am going for, and a more candid image, or plain with a relaxed face, does not have the same kind of energy I would have noticed when I first spotted my subject.
I’m certain there is something more I could be doing in order to achieve a portrait that is a little more than just a headshot of someone with an interesting face. I think there is something missing, perhaps with the way I render context or the way I ask them to present themselves to the camera – and this is something I will be working on for a long time.
What I want to be capturing in a street portrait is quite abstract and subjective, so when I say I want to capture the “soul” of my subject I’m still trying to figure out what that means myself. The portraits that resonate with me so far, both that I have taken and by artists I admire, will be the ones with a clear mood and intention, and sometimes have a personal connection – either images of people I know, or with an aesthetic that’s reminiscent of someone in my past – but these will be the most subjective examples. Portraits of my friends I consider to be personal documentary, and again wouldn’t really have much room in my portfolio.
The portraits which do not resonate with me are either boring or well composed but without “energy,” or “soul.” I think that in my own work eye contact will be one of the most significant things I need to improve when it comes to street portraits, but I’ve had mixed experiences with this, so it cannot be the only factor.
For example I quite like a small series of celebrity portraits I’ve been building up during my time shooting at MCM Comic Con (although they would not make the final cut when reviewing portraits as a specific body of work), each of which I shoot a couple of images of when I have the chance – portrait, landscape/eye contact, no eye contact. I find I enjoy both examples where eye contact is made, and where it is not, and it really depends on the expression more than anything in these cases.
Instead of specific aspects like eye contact, therefore, I think I ought to look at my portraits on the individual merit of what specifically does not work, and simply reduce that factor when it comes to future attempts. I try and avoid the idea of “liking” or “disliking” when it comes to criticism of any photography, my own or otherwise – looking at what works and what does not is more pragmatic, and can be used to actually improve.
When it comes to what works in the portraits I enjoy it is usually a unique subject paired with an understanding by the photographer of how to bring out something “beyond” their eyes – a sparkle (lighting more than anything), or hint of expression. I’ve been working on the way I interact, leading without showing the camera to build up a better rapport before asking for anything, no matter how plain. I don’t just want headshots, I want to incorporate context, so I will be working on searching for better environments to use, and maybe try identifying a “spot” before even finding my subject.
However up until now my instinct has been to get as close as possible and fill the frame, and from a higher angle when possible, as the lower part of the frame becomes context, but the context of that person’s clothing rather than their environment. I need to work on the ideal distance for the kind of atmosphere I want to be showing in my portraits.
To do this I’ve decided to start working on a series of portraits on an RZ67, a format I’ve never really used before. The new aspect ratio and focal length equivalency mean that I will be forced to experiment with angles and distances I’ve never had to think about before. It will also mean being able to concentrate on my subject dead on through the SLR rather than via a screen, or rangefinder – to slow down and make focus and composition my primary goals.
I’m really looking forward to taking this out over the summer, and hopefully succeeding at creating images that resonate with me and in the process figure out exactly what is necessary for me to do that in the first place!
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.