In reply to my last post on the full length portrait, the wonderful Johnny McMillan (https://www.johnnymcmillan.com) brought to my attention the origin of the “straight-up” photographic portrait style. Steve Johnson was originally commissioned to photograph London’s Punks by Terry Jones, for what eventuated into a book (“Not Another Punk Book”) and became a foundation of the original hand-stapled fanzine format of i-D, which he founded later in 1980.
As a response to the portraits of August Sander and Irving Penn’s Small Trades the Punks were photographed against a plain white wall on King’s Road. This stylistic motif has since permeated documentary photography, such as in Richard Avedon’s famous In the American West, which he begun 2 years later in 1979.
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.
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.
About 14 months I was incredibly privileged to spend two weeks in Los Angeles, California, with friends, and heavyweights of the online film photography world George and Louis of the prolific Negative Feedback. During this time, and while we weren’t enjoying the luxury of cheap Grey Goose, the lads filmed a number of videos, one of which was a walk-around video where I demonstrated my general attitude and practice when it comes to taking street portraits;
This brings me to the title of this blog post. At around 1min 35s I utter the (now infamous, at least to me) phrase “Colour is important… in colour photos”. In the last year I have remarkably received plenty of comments/messages like the one below.
The actual phrase comes from a moment in the video when I’m talking to a portrait I had just taken of a gentleman, Chris, holding a large bottle of milk. When asked about what I was thinking about when taking it, the truth was that I was just excited that the red colour of the bottle cap matched the signed behind it!
I’m aware that the simplicity of the phrase could easily be mistaken for the simplicity of the concept behind it. I do however stick by it and will elaborate on why.
When it comes to documentary photography I think it’s easy to get caught up in exotic or profound subjectivities. The works of my favourite photographers, Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Dianne Arbus et. al. all tackle complex ideas. Their photographs, however, would be failures if they weren’t also incredibly visual enthralling. Photography is a visual medium and for an image to be successful it has to firstly be successful at a surface, design level. Stephen Shore’s photographs in Uncommon Places, while picture banal subjects, were masterfully composed - Shore mastered the large format view camera. Alec Soth’s images are undoubtably beautiful, whilst also being wistful, romantic, shocking and confronting.
I think colour, especially, is a very important visual tool. Colour as a design feature within a documentary image has a supreme ability to convey serendipity and to suspend the viewer between thinking the image was staged or candid. Perhaps no image represents this better than Joel Sternfeld.
McClean, Virginia, December 1978 is a bizarre symphony of coincidence and serendipity which captivates the viewer. The orange repeats itself is a way which is both uncanny and bizarre, an aesthetic quality which is echoed in the subject of the photo. A seemingly too-calm firefighter casually selects pumpkins as a beautiful house is ablaze metres away. The actual scene captured, for the record, was a training exercise by the McLean Volunteer Fire Department!
An awareness of colour is so important at the moment of taking a photograph and is something I’m training my eye to be more and more aware of. The two portraits below from my series, Wellard, perhaps represent my best efforts to date.
Stuart, Chisham Ave 2016
Venus, Runnymede Gate 2017
So - is colour important in colour photography? Obviously!