Your Way With the Subject

A lot of people ask me how I deal with my subjects.  Some people claim that I get something special from them, something different than what other people get.  I don't know about that.  I'm proud of my work and I think it's of a high quality, but I don't buy into having any special powers or anything.

As I've said many times before, I tend to like serious portraits.  I was looking at the portfolio of another editorial portrait guy and a lot of his subjects are smiling.  I usually get a few of those during the course of a session, but mine almost always end up feeling forced or silly, even when they weren't.  What's someone ironic is that I tend to think of myself as a people person kind of photographer. I have a knack for discussing pretty much any subject with anyone. Any readers who have sat for me could hopefully back this up. Usually, I'll spend an hour or so the night before and do some research on the person and watch interviews if they're available, maybe look at other pictures people have taken of them. And I think this leads to honest portraits of people, but you think that it would lead to more smiling pictures if I really had them comfortable.  Maybe other photographers ask the subjects to smile or tell jokes to get them to laugh and then snap away. Maybe I make them think too much so they're all serious.  I once read a list of rules that Timothy Greenfield-Sanders uses when taking portraits (a list I came upon while doing research before shooting him) and one of them was something like "never ask someone to smile". Perhaps I've internalized that one a little too much.

I've also seen the setups of a bunch of other photographers and they've got a ton of gear. Two, three or even four battery powered strobes on stands with modifiers and sandbags and such. Makes me feel a bit inadequate. I've got a lot of that gear, but I find it tedious to lug and setup even in a studio setting, let alone in some park or office or outside. Not to mention that my back would be screaming at me for days. My hat is off to them for the patience and time required to use that kind of setup. They certainly get some great looks out of it, but for me I feel like I'd get consumed by the gear.  Lately, I prefer an incredibly minimal kit. I've been working with a reflector and a speedlight or two.  One stand plus an assistant to control the other light.  Does it work for every situation?  Of course not, but it covers about 95% of what I could imagine having to cover, and for the other 5% I can improvise some shade or a diffuser or other. This is probably from reading McNally's book and reading Strobist.  When I've got 30 minutes with a person, I like to have a malleable setup that can bend to the subject, not the other way around. Gotta keep the subject engaged when you're not shooting. The biggest problem with fancy setups in my experience is that they're complicated and require the subject to stay in one place, turn a certain way, etc. It makes people self-conscience and feel awkward.  Or at least, that's how I'd feel if you stuck me in that situation.  I tend to instead start taking some pictures with a vague sense of the lighting I want and see where the subject takes me. This 'fly by the seat of my pants' approach can be internally terrifying at times, but it hasn't failed me yet, and on the rare occasion where I get stuck, I've got enough lighting and shot staples in my toolbox to get good work. When it does work, it's a great rush. Like improvising something good in real time. Like playing jazz.

I also want to be remembered by my subjects.  I have the feeling that some other photographers would like to get the shot and disappear. To be invisible.  Me, I'd rather have all of their attention and really be engaged with me.  And not in a superficial, "Look here Tom" kind of way.  But rather as a partner in an experience that we're sharing.  I think that's where the really special images come from. My goal is to meet up with some person I shot 4 years ago and have them say "Hey, Bill, of course I remember you. You know, I was thinking the other day about that story you told me..."   I guess we'll come back in 4 years and see if it happens.