Whenever I want to take someone’s portrait, especially in interesting locations, I find myself defaulting to a single composition. Stick ‘em full body in the centre of the frame, usually portrait orientation. About 1/6th above and 1/6th below. Don’t be afraid of a shallow depth of field.
PLEASE DO NOT SMILE.
Hands by your side, or holding an object or interest or importance.
Point your feet a little bit that way, yeah- but keep them together.
Now angle your head - just the head not the shoulders - toward me.
And could you please look slightly past the camera. Great. Thanks.
It’s a portrait style which has now become synonymous with the documentary photography style, especially with the preeminence of the likes of Alec Soth and Rineke Dijkstra. As you repeat the same script over and over again you become more and more aware - and anxious - about it. An anxiety that’s only been reinforced by hearing photographers I respect and admire referring to the style’s increasingly quotidian, repetitive occurrence. .
It would be easy to let this anxiety get the better of me though, and have me pledge to myself I will never take another portrait in that style. What stops me succumbing to it, though, is well described by Alec Soth in a recent video (which you can watch here):
“There is nothing more powerful on a photograph than a face… I mean, our sophistication at reading faces is so extreme”.
What I think Soth is getting at here in regards to portraiture is that even if you control the more compositional aspects of a portrait, control the design, the colours, the depth of field, the expression of the subject - and their connection with their photographer - will always give us so much.
For my own interest I traced this particular portraiture composition back through photography, as well as some contemporary examples - which might be interesting to someone else besides just me.