As I’ve continued to take pictures for my Bradgate Strangers project, I’ve also kept up the reading and research into portrait photography and similar photographic projects that have set out to document certain parts of the community or social groups.
This has included returning to Graham Clarke’s book, The Photograph. This book was sent with the OCA course material and as many of my coursemates have done before me and since, I opened the book when it arrived, read a short section, before putting it back in the box and wondering what we had let ourselves in for. It is an academic text and a thorough examination of both the history of photography and its place in society, as well as individual artists and their work, through chapters focusing on different genres of the practice.
Revisiting the book 11 months into the course, I’m pleased to say that the text made much more sense, showing not only my increased understanding of the subject matter, but also my ability to consider photography in a wider context and particularly as art. Having read his chapter on portrait photography, I have been considering where my project sits in relation to the dividing line that he explores between candid, documentary portraits and those more formally posed.
Clarke tells us that August Sander was the photographer who excelled above all others in using a camera to ‘define a personal history within other frames of reference’ and that he was ‘dedicated to social picturing of the individual’. Between the wars he attempted to photograph the entire social arc of German society and to define individuals by their time and culture. Each subject is referred to by their profession (or lack of it) and every detail in each frame is significant. These photographs, and other such as Vandyck’s portrait of The Prince of Wales and Lloyd George that is also analysed at length by Clarke, are formal, staged and carefully planned. The sitter has had the chance to consider how he wanted the world to see him and the image he wished to portray. The image is a collaboration between the sitter and photographer.
Close to the opposite end of the scale, David Gibson in his Street Photographer’s Manual explains that he dislikes speaking to his subjects, at least until the picture is taken, as it isn’t ‘in the spirit of street photography’ as it is a ‘hindrance to the natural moment’. Beyond this and at the very extreme is the Bruce Gilden approach that is designed to provoke a reaction that is then photographed – what Gibson calls a ‘mugging’ style.
These subjects of street photography have no control over how they are portrayed, other than they are in public and (presumably) wearing the clothes, hair-style and make-up that they have chosen for themselves before leaving the house.
The subjects in my project sit somewhere in the middle ground. They are aware that they are going to have their picture taken and have agreed to do so, but it is always interesting how they ‘prepare’ to be photographed. Some will hurriedly run fingers through their hair, adjust their clothing and be careful how they stand and to smile at the correct moment. They might put down the carrier bag they’re carrying or even put it inside another.
Others make no effort at all and it is probably this group that interests me most. If I wasn’t holding a camera and was just looking at them, our paths having crossed in the park, then I would see them in this most natural way. This group is closest to that divide between candid and aware.
As I wrote in the last post, I’m learning a lot from this project (and more on projects in the next post). As I take more portraits for it, I’ll continue to add to this Flickr set.
Clarke, G (1997) The photograph. Oxford; Oxford University Press
Gibson, D (2014) The street photographer’s manual. London; Thames and Hudson