I've shot hundreds of people in the past couple of years and I've learned many things. For example, that each subject is a new adventure and no two are truly alike. I've also learned that some subjects are 'easier' to shoot than others. This applies to some folks that are just genetically blessed to be photogenic of course, but I'm often suprised by some people who are handsome in life but hard to capture in 2D, it's almost as if you can't get the camera to wrap around them quite right. And of course the opposite sometimes occurs, where someone just looks super on film and completely different in real life. Those are physical factors and they're important to be sure, especially for a photographer like me who wants to take pretty pictures.
But, and please excuse the flim-flam new agey jargon, the subject's attitude and energy and engagement also play a huge and sometimes even more important role in success. I was shooting a subject on assignment about a month ago and my subject was a nice, very accomplished, very smart, good looking guy, who seemed almost scared to death about getting his portrait taken. And I tend to think of myself as a pretty easy going photographer who's got some skill at making people feel at ease. I knew the guy was a Doctor Who fan like myself, and so started to talk about that.. but that got me nowhere. Maybe it was the assistant and art director and publicist who were there as well, and had I had him alone I would have been more able to really connect. I guess we'll never know. I walked away from the shoot feeling slightly uneasy, but in the end I had a number of shots that I was pretty happy with. I keep telling myself that not every shoot is going to be perfect, so just do your job to the best of your ability.
As I think I've said before, I believe that portrait photography is a two-way street. I can't take a truly great portrait of you unless you let me take it. This equation might not work out for a number of reasons. First, the subject might be scared. As a person with a completely irrational fear of my dentist, I can understand this emotion, but at least my camera doesn't make that terrible high-pitched whizzing sound. Plus, as those who have met me can vouch for, I'm really not that scary. Secondly, the subject might be distracted. Life is complicated and they will probably have a lot of other stuff on their mind. I've found that these first two can usually be overcome if you have the time to wear subject's defenses down. I've spent an hour or more shooting some people before I started getting the kinds of photographs that I wanted. Thirdly, the subject might just be an asshole. This happens sometimes, usually when they think they're hot shit and hold you, your job, the situation, or worst of all, all three in contempt. I hope that eventually I'll get to the point where I'm hot shit too and so can negate this one by just walking into the room, but in the meantime, you just have to grin an bear this one. Most strategies to fight it will make you look like an asshole too.
Sometimes though, when the moon is in the fifth house, and the earth's magnetic field is just right, and you ate your Wheaties, you get a subject that honestly trusts you, and listens to your direction, and just makes it a terribly pleasant experience. This happened to me last Friday when I went up to Bronxville, NY to shoot a man for BusinessWeek. His wife let my assistant Meg and me in, showed us their home and let us setup so that by the time he came downstairs we were ready to go. I like to use available light as much as possible, for both simplicity sake and to keep the portraits from looking too contrived. So it was the sunlight coming through the windows and occasionally a speedlite bounced off the ceiling or through a diffuser or into an umbrella. He's in the oil industry so I did a little research the night before and I asked questions whose answers I truly found fascinating. We moved around a couple of rooms and the front foyer and outside in less than an hour (I work fast). All the while he did precisely what I asked and let me do my job. I think he honestly trusted me and it was a really nice experience all the way around. We got to meet two terribly nice and fascinating people, and I'm very happy with the work we came away with. Sometimes you just get lucky; Hopefully the editor will feel the same way. When it gets published I'll post a few of the outtakes.
It seems like an obvious statement, but the subject makes the portrait. I know some photographer who might disagree with me and think that they're all powerful and can mold any situation to their whim, and still others who are so intent on their work that they never really engage the subject much at all. But in my experience, it's during that give and take, that exchange between two people, that you get the best stuff. The truest Portrait, which to me is always the goal.