Photographing People or Personalities

Like many photographers, I have always had a problem photographing people, especially people I do not know.  The fear of rejection and being told “no” to a request to photograph a person is overwhelming and except for very rare occasions I have tended to steer clear of this genre of photography.  However, I really enjoy looking at images of people, especially those that give us an insight into the personality of both the subject and the photographer – I firmly believe that an image of a person tells us as much about the person as it does the photographer.

In my work I always try to form some kind of a relationship with the subject.  For example, if I am photographing an abandoned building I want to imagine what life must have been like when it was inhabited and therefore I try to include human elements in my images and use them to give the building a personality.  If I am photographing a landscape I want the feelings of the scene I experience to come through in the images I create. Creating a relationship with such subjects is relatively easy – they don’t answer back, and for the most part they don’t move and therefore I can take as long as I want.  Once the relationship has been formed I need to lose myself to my imagination since, for me this is where creativity resides.  However, for me, taking photographs of people is much more challenging because this relatively slow, methodical work flow just doesn’t seem to work.  I still want to form a relationship with the subject but unlike when I am photographing other subjects, I struggle to determine at what point the relationship has been established, and therefore I have a hard time allowing myself to trip off into the imaginative state that I feel I need to be in to create images that tell my story of the person.

In an attempt to overcome my fears of photographing people and to learn new approaches to form a relationship with the subject I have been reading Discover Yourself Through Photography by Ralph Hattersley on and off for the past couple of years. Published in the 1970’s the idea of the book is that the process of photography can be one of self-discovery, rather than one of documentation or creativity. I was attracted to Hattersley’s thoughts because this isn’t radically different from how I approach my photography.  Hattersley continues his argument by stating that self-discovery by itself is not enough – you have to know how to do it.  The book is arranged more as a workbook whereby tools are described that the photographer can use to dig into their own subconscious and apply the learning in their own work.  Pretty deep stuff.  In parallel with my on and off reading of Hattersley’s book I also started to follow closely the work of photography historian, writer, and photographer Bill Jay who created a body of work called “Men Like Me” – the following is an example image from his portfolio. 

The images in the project depict a side of humanity that we all share, irrespective of the fact that the subjects are down and out men. Each image tells a story that reveals something each of us could be, in our own way.

As I mentioned, there are rare occasions when a situation presents itself that I just can’t pass up and just have to pluck up the courage and get the shot.  More often than not the resulting image doesn’t work but there are instances where I am pleased with the result.  One such example is the following image that I created a couple of years ago, not long after starting to read Hattersley’s book and following the work of Bill Jay.

I was wandering around some fisherman’s huts at a place called Paddy’s Hole in Warrenby near my hometown in the North East of England and saw this man peering out of his cabin.  He had an extremely interesting face and after walking backwards and forwards several times trying to pluck up the courage to talk with him he asked me what I was doing.  Since I was armed to the teeth with camera gear I think he suspected that I worked for the local press. This presented the opportunity I was seeking to strike up a conversation and once he got comfortable that I wasn’t about to include him in some major expose he shared with me an amazing collection of antique clocks, all with a nautical theme that he hung on the walls of his hut.  He was clearly very proud of his collection and he asked me if I wanted to photograph it.  I jumped at the chance.  After spending half an hour or so making a few exposures of his collection I decided to take it one step further and asked him if I could photograph him with his clocks.  He agreed without hesitation and although I did make some environmental portraits I couldn’t help but think of Bill Jay’s Men Like Me work and I began to previsualize images just of this man’s face.  Since the environmental portraits were more in a documentary style I started to close in to isolate his features and capture my perception of his personality.  I thought the lines on his face resembled a roadmap that somehow lead the way to his life story.   I also knew that the final image would work best in Black and White since I wanted the focus of attention to be the shape and patterns on the man’s face without any distractions from the color of his clothing or the cabin walls. I was immediately reminded of a quote by Ted Grant:

When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes.  But when you photograph people in B&W, you photograph their souls!

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