I watched a video on the B&H youtube channel titled ‘How to Talk to Strangers’. Adam Marelli gives a talk that not only gives solid information about how to talk to strangers, but how to photograph people with more direction. He talks about the composition and posing; referring back to renaissance paintings. This helps create an informed formula to contemporary portrait photography and provides an interesting context for photography.
Furthermore, Marelli highlighted that the eye is trained to see people in portraits in a certain way. Since very early on statues were made of dead people with their head fixed in line with the middle of their chest. It’s the way people are positioned in coffins so it’s the way it’s presented by artists. Typically the way live people are portrayed in portraiture is with their head facing a different way to their body to make them seem more alive. As strange as it sounds it does make sense. He also refers to the placement of hands and the roles of hands in an image. Hands tell us a lot about a person. Rough hands could mean that someone works as a builder and soft hands could mean that they work as an accountant for example, or any other work where there is no heavy lifting or hard labour. If someone has a confident grip and if someone has their hands nervously loose, it could tell us more about them than their face portrays. Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is a prime example of a painting where the sitter is positioned so it reveals a lot about them. The soft but confident hands were thoroughly researched and positioned by Da Vinci so they showed more about her. She is positioned with her head facing Da Vinci and her body facing to the left of him. It is the most recognisable painting because its subtle character. The posing reveals a lot, but the sfumato haziness hides some character.
A photographer that has heavily influenced my project is August Sander. Sander photographed the people of Germany and Austria pre and post world war II.
‘Based on the idea of homo faber —people are what they make— it represents an ambitious attempt to create a photographic encyclopedia, a typology by profession of all sectors of German society at that time, with each sitter representing their profession.Sander photographed people from all trades and social strata, ranging from farmers and craftsmen to lawyers and politicians, including families, children, the young, the old, and the sick’
Phillippi, D (1998) Art on paper, vol. 3 Issue 1, p44-48
His representation of people in jobs was a radical push of new objectivity. At the time, there was little consideration for the working class in photography. He photographed anyone and everyone without any subjectivity to provide a documentation of the German people through an unstable and anxious time in recent history. The images expressed his curiosity in people, and his open mentality in giving anyone the opportunity to be photographed.
‘He paid careful attention to each individual he photographed, both as a distinct personality and as a representative of their role in the community. ‘
Gett, T (2004) British Journal of Photography, Vol. 151, p25-28
You get a sense of equality and empowerment through Sander’s photography. There is no image that gives anyone a more favoured representation, they are just photographs of people. The clothes paint the portrait, but the people are the same. Clothes and gestures give impressions of who these people are in their occupations and personal lives, but in the moment all are equal.
‘People adopted their own poses and revealed more about themselves than they knew. Contrary to customary practice, the artist said in 1907, I endeavour to leave in my pictures the characteristic traits that time, situation and life have wrought in a face.’
Black, C (2011) feb 8, Sunday Herald
Sander creates portraits that allow the sitter a chance to express themselves. He holds back from the conventions of portrait photography of that time, the posed and artificial portraits. Instead he allows the natural ambiance light the photograph, to give a more environmental portrait, making each images site specific to the person in their location. He lets the sitters form their own expressions, there is no direction communicated. Instead the characters are left looking at the lens, giving expressions that come naturally.This communicates a truth to the image, a truth of the time. Sanders curiosity finds the location and frames the image, but each image is a collaboration and the expressions of the sitters enhance the truth and connotations of the portrait.
Sometimes his openness to photographing anyone reveals irony. Similar to the controversial portraits taken by Diane Arbus, a photographer heavily influenced by Sander’s style. The portrait of the two midgets expresses this irony. By photographing people equally makes people consciously question and laugh at their inclusion and their similarity to that of another portrait. Sander’s unadulterated bluntness to the truth was sometimes ironic, but his new objectivity in photography was a brave representation of a country without hiding anyone from his documentation.
The aesthetic of the images was very pictorial. He incorporated a shallow depth of field that made the background look like a painting. He also played with composition which created an interesting perspective on some images, making objects and animals intimately placed to take the spot light off the sitter.
I’d like to incorporate Sander’s style of portrait photography into my own work, in terms of composition and simply photographing people in occupations.Some that I won’t be directly influenced by is his desire to allow the sitter more power. I want a more posed style, to ensure that my input into the project is pushed through. I’d want a posing style similar to that of Richard Avedon’s photography.
‘Riichard Avedon’s series in the American West (right) features rugged portraits of the labouring and unemployed classes of America: drifters, factory workers, meat packers, prisoners, ranch hands, waitresses and the mentally ill. Avedon said he chose “men and women who work at hard, uncelebrated jobs”. the result is an unglamorous parade of the socially disadvantaged and marginalised, very much the antithesis of Avedon’s fashion photography’
Durden, M (2014) June 15, The Sunday Times, Features
‘Avedon’s stark ultra-realism spoke of grit and grim determination’
O’Hagan, S (2008) Dec 28, Observer Review
Although similar to Sander’s objectivity in the way he photographs labourers whose lives we wouldn’t be introduced to without searching for them rurally. He does give them a bigger platform to present themselves on. By posing them next to a black and white background he strips away context of their lives and puts them in a studio. A place where high fashion images are taken for commercial use, and photographing rural labourers in that space provides a nice juxtaposition. I will consider the effect of this in my own study, but the posing of them has inspired me more.
Another photographer who has inspired me for this project is Lorenzo Vitturi. A fashion photographer whose project ‘Dalston Anatomy’ achieved great success, and landed a long term space in the Photographers Gallery in London. His work creates the essence of Dalston market. He takes objects from the market and sculpts them to make artefacts that display more of a fine art aesthetic, combining elements from different stalls which come together as one. His work is beautifully lit to bring out the highly saturated colours; coordinated to create an interesting palette.The work comes together to make a project that combines genres of photograph to create an informed study of London culture.The images without the context look interesting in their own right, but the context gives so much life to the sculptures.
“People always says ‘Ugh! Hackney,’ but actually there is a lot of beauty in this neighborhood,” says illustrator and Dalston resident Vanessa da Silva.’
Nnadi C (2007) FADER Issue 44
The project presents the beauty of a place that people would otherwise ignore. I want to use aspects of Vitturi’s work to give my project more individuality and creativity. I think still life photography would first of all get me to research and find resources that would benefit students in getting a job. Secondly it would give me time to arrange the artifacts and photograph them innovatively in the studio. I will have to be careful to now create a homage to Vitturi, but my interpretation and my contemporary piece.