Hey guys, Andy here. Today I’m joined in my London base by fellow photographers David Mayne and Robert Law, both based in Wales, after a Twitter post by David about portraits and, in particular, portrait expressions.
David was a former civil servant who escaped and now works as a photographer and researcher for a London data collection agency which involves visiting town city centres and documenting what’s there. His personal practice involves various strands of documentary work primarily focusing for the time being on the urban environment. Rob is also a documentary photographer, capturing both rural and urban environments and the people within them. His work was published in the Portrait Britain book 2019, he was shortlisted for the British photography Awards 2019 and also last year’s Urbanautica Institute Awards. His work has been widely exhibited, including recently Ffotogallery, Cardiff, where his commissioned portrait taken for Invisible Britain was shown.
David, your work is primarily documentary, so talk to me about portraits, or as you call them ‘mug shots’, and why eye contact is so important.
When I left the civil service, I did a BTEC followed by a degree; I thought that I would become a portrait photographer. I had a particular obsession with Richard Avedon and David Bailey, who are both famous for a certain aesthetic. Avedon’s most famous example of that is in his series entitled ‘In The American West’. Both were direct; Bailey was close with his crops and liked to fill the frame while Avedon had a front on approach. In regards to eye contact, I wanted my subjects to literally stare at me through the lens. My aim was to try and get a window on their soul. And there was that other quality you sometimes have with direct portraits where the eyes follow you around the room. It is kind of creepy, but I liked it. I hammered that particular nail for about three years and when the degree was over, and I got the job I’m doing now I moved towards documentary work which, as I mentioned previously, I sometimes see as portrait work, but not of people.
Avedon and Bailey who are two of my favourite photographers and both, as you say, have certain quality. Rob, what are your thoughts on portraits and portrait expressions?
I came to portraiture via documentary photography. I had to, and I use the word ‘had to’, start including portraits in my work to tell the stories of places and communities. The best example of this is in my project Holyhead- Sea Change? Photographers and hobbyists ignore much of North Wales and aim for the honeypot locations to take stereotypical landscapes, lighthouses and beaches. Some of the less popular places get completely undocumented and ignored along with their people and communities; so I turned my lens to that. Holyhead is a sidelined, maritime community and in the face of Brexit had various narratives that I believe deserved to be explored. I grew in confidence as the project progressed until I found myself at a threshold of needing to include portraits of people; so the way I’ve worked has gradually evolved. The portraits have been ad-hoc of people I’ve met, had a chat with and gotten to know, much in the same way that photographer Niall McDiarmid works. I have heard that he talks with his collaborators for up to half an hour, to get to know them first before actually pressing the shutter. I do something fairly similar; I engage in conversation before asking if I can take their portrait. I frame the subject fairly loosely, because I like to show them within the context of the environment they occupy. It tells a story and develops a strong narrative for my project.
In regards to portrait expressions, it is difficult to tell somebody, ‘Okay, this is a serious picture’ and not have that person beam at you straight away. In these instances the camera modifies a person’s behaviour which is not what I am aiming for. David mentioned the eyes being the window to the soul and I am after a neutral expression, not to have modified the person’s behaviour, and to take something truthful.
I was thinking when I went for a walk today about the ‘rules of photography’. Rules are everywhere and we photographers have our own methodology. Some people enshrine them, such as the rule of thirds, when of course rules are there both to be followed but also to be broken. However in regards to the ‘neutral expression’ there’s a great example of breaking that rule; Craig Easton, the current Sony World Photography Award winner, has a series of portraits called ‘Fisherwomen’ of people working in the fishing industry. He has a portrait of a woman preparing and cleaning fish, nearly bent double laughing with a fish in her hands. It’s a joyous picture and it is a great example of when breaking the rules certainly does work.
I practice what you’ve just said in regards to conversation when it comes to my own portraiture work. I always sit and talk to someone for at least 20 minutes at the start of a session to break the ice; I think it’s unfair to throw a camera in someone’s face and expect them to offer engaging portrait expressions. This conversation gives me a chance to understand who the person is, where they are from, their background as well as what the aim of the image is. I also find it very useful in terms of reading expressions; I establish a baseline of happiness, sadness, etc. which I find vital during a session.
When it comes to portrait expressions, I find if there is something important in someone’s life, that will come through in a person’s face no matter how much I distract or direct them. A good example of this came during a session where my collaborator informed me that a friend had just died and they were giving the eulogy the following week. Almost every image of that session contains a certain sadness, even when they are smiling. David; you indicated in the Twitter thread that you usually let people talk and you pressed the shutter when you thought they were offering something. Care to elaborate?
By way of disclosure, all the people that I showed on Twitter recently were friends I knew well when I photographed them ten years ago, so I had relationships in place already. Thus it was a just case of putting them in front of a white background and chatting. And then, if I saw something, I would ask ‘that, just do that again’ and photograph that. Or sometimes have the camera on the tripod and take the picture when I spotted something that illustrated them in some way. That may have been a pensive look or a little twinkle in the eyes or an intensity that would briefly surface. Like the one I shared which is the most obvious Bailey rip off, of the guy who looks like a gangster. He’s a chemistry teacher and I directed him to a degree, in that I asked him to wear a suit and funny tie. It was then a case of asking him to talk about certain things. For that particular frame he said something, and it was very dark, it was reflected in the way his face momentarily went very stern and his eyes went dark. And I thought, ‘Oh, you’ve just revealed something about yourself there.’ And I managed to catch it.
I love that. He certainly looks like a gangster and not a chemistry teacher. Rob you approach people in the street; how easy or difficult is it to gain their trust and to get them to agree to be photographed?
It involves a certain amount of trepidation however that disappears instantly once you get talking, and I rarely get a straight ‘no’. What motivates me, and I’m sure everybody has experienced this, is the amount of trust somebody places in you and how open people can be. You say you’re a photographer and ask, ‘Can I take your portrait?’, and people let you right into their lives. They will disclose the most personal things and will trust you with intimate and personal information. That is a heck of an honour that carries a lot of responsibility. Also once the photographs have been made, what do you do with them? You are telling somebody’s story, you have to represent them accurately as well as having to represent them honestly. So that position of trust and position of honour that is bestowed upon you, motivates me to go and do the next portrait. A great example of this was photographing a guy called Ben Scott who was wearing big black wraparound sunglasses. He was walking across the road as I was taking a picture of a building in Holyhead; he paused as he was crossing as he politely saw I was about to take a picture. After pressing the shutter I walked over to him and said, ‘Thanks so much. Cool shades.’ He says, ‘Oh, I’m autistic. I wear them to cut down the visual clutter around me otherwise life becomes way too overwhelming.’ The conversation carried on; have you ever tried photography? No, but I have studied videography in college and cinematography. And so we had a chat. So, long story short, I entered that image for Portrait of Britain for which it was accepted and he was so proud when I gave him a copy of the book; we’ve been in touch ever since. He revealed a lot to me about his personal life, including some very sensitive issues.
You touched on a very important issue which is trust. Something I talk about in regards to portrait expressions is ‘emotional honesty’, that is to say building a relationship with a collaborator so they’re happy to let you in and offer real and honest emotion in a facial expression. Additionally I say to people that our conversation is a safe space and I’m not going to breach their trust and share anything sensitive they tell me. This is a two way street; I don’t expect anyone to share and trust me if I haven’t been equally open and honest with them. David; we mentioned the importance of eye contact and also sometimes the lack of it. You showed a shot of someone with a lovely expression of their hand on their face, looking down and away from the camera. Where did that come from?
That was my youngest son, taken ten years ago. He’s a difficult character, shall we say? I put up a white background in the garden and something got in his eye. He was looking totally fed up, wiping it out of his eye and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a picture.’ So it was happenstance really, a happy accident. When I was doing these portraits I had an obsession with red filters on black and white film. So it’s got a very delicate kind of almost powdery aesthetic to it as well.
Rob, you mentioned Sam Abell, the NatGeo Photographer and the idea of the photographer becoming invisible. His approach was to be around subjects until they forgot he was there. Can you go into that for us?
He’s inspired me quite a bit. He talks about sitting around and getting to know somebody, to the point where he’s nearly invisible with somebody carrying on with their work, completely in another world; then he takes his picture. On the technical side of things I think he’s worked mainly with a 35 mm Nikon camera and Kodachrome 64; I say that because there would have been a click of the camera, so he probably takes quite a few frames so that he does not alert the people he photographs. He describes his collaborators as being ‘neither happy nor sad, totally within themselves’. And that certainly is borne out by the portraits he’s taken when you look at them, they’re quite a few good examples of where he’s become almost invisible. It is not something that I try or aspire to do, but I think it’s a really interesting approach as it results in pensive, thoughtful portrait expressions on people’s faces; I like it.
The approach that Rob references in terms of making the photographer or at least the camera disappear, so that the subject is that comfortable with a camera being present, that they’re almost not aware of it, it’s something I have heard of before. I think people like Eugene Smith may have used that approach in a more documentary setting. And it is important to bear in mind when making work involving people because, as we alluded to earlier, when the camera appears people’s behaviour, no matter how hard you try, is modified to a degree.
Coming back to Sam’s approach, an important part of it is time investment. I’ve radically altered how I work; I used to turn up, take the image and leave almost as quickly as possible to move on to the next assignment. This was borne through, maybe self induced, pressure to submit my work as quickly as possible to be published online and feed the beast that is content creation. However I’ve completely reversed that approach in order to invest time in people and relationships to get the best out of them. At the end of the day, I don’t want to take 400, 500, 600 frames on burst; I am deliberate in my pressing of the shutter as I aim to perfect each frame. I believe time has to be spent somewhere during a portrait session and I prefer that to be invested with a person to build a relationship rather than spent reviewing countless images afterwards. In regards to modifying behaviour and portrait expressions, I see this frequently when I raise the camera to my eye; people often stiffen or throw up an emotional barrier which was not there just a split second before. And this comes back to the practice of starting a portrait session with conversation; the more someone trusts me, I find the less of a barrier is erected.
End of Part1 of talking portrait expressions with David Mayne and Rob Law. The conversation carries on in Part2, here.