Fading StyleWednesday, August 25, 2010
When Hassan the Electrician had a look at my pictures hanging on the wall of my darkroom (very close to the ill-fated circuit breakers) he said, “Alex, you are really good.” I have never been able to handle praise so I answered in my usual way, “If by this time I were not good I would have changed professions a long time ago and particularly a more lucrative one like plumbing (certainly not electricity with my low capacitance for understanding voltage and impedance).”
But there is one area of my photography where I will rapidly come to my defense and say I am really good at it. I am good at taking portraits that feature hands.
On December 22, 2006 I wrote a blog here that featured a photograph I had taken of actor and acting school teacher Peter Breck. I had taken the portrait back in May 1989 for the Georgia Straight. Within a few days I received a nasty email from an irate Peter Breck fan who wrote that I had a reduced a handsome man into an ugly apparition. I was shocked and hurt and never answered the email.
While for years I have stuck to my guns that a portrait photographer has the obligation of making people look as good as they look or better, I have held a parallel opinion that with actors capturing drama was more important.
When I photograph women of a certain age (even female lawyers and politicians of a certain age) I refuse to smooth out the face so that skin pores disappear. I might ease out some rings around the eyes and a few crow’s feet but I try to make the people of my portraits look real. I opine that the infamous Photoshop tool “diffuse glow” is Jennifer Anistoning the world. Yes I claim to be the first to use that person’s name as a verb!
My almost rant comes from the fact that yesterday I saw a reputable photographer’s photo card at a printer and I saw a nicely lit portrait of a man. It looked like a photograph I might have taken around 1985. It was evenly lit with a softbox but there was a bit of nice shading on one side.
My point is that back in 1985 few had softboxes so when I took my soft box portraits in Vancouver people knew I had taken them, especially when they looked at the hands and noticed that my camera was always higher than my subject’s eyes. I also liked to use a deep green filter with b+w film to increase the contrast (manliness?) of a man’s face as is the case here in the portraits of Peter Breck.
The last one (all are negatives that are scanned into the computer) has some added vignetting. This was standard for me even back in 1985. The darkening of the corners and sides made the portrait seem more dramatic.
The picture I saw at the printers had no drama. It was efficient, sharp, well exposed and probably (when a real print hangs at a gallery) the print will be very nice. But there is something missing. Perhaps it's soul but, more likely, a sense of style.
We have reached an era when photographs “come out”, “turn out”. In the past that was not always the case. Once one circumvented all the equipment and lighting equipment pitfalls it was often a miracle if any of the pictures that one took were decent. We are now in the era of almost assured efficiency (an exception could be that horrible term “a corrupted storage card”).
Anybody might simply say, “Alex, chill out; accept the inevitability of things digital. Hang up your Mamiyas. Buy a Canon Mark IV with overdrive and torqueflite transmission. You will like it.”
In our path to finding and have found equipment that works all the time we have forgotten what style is.
On a sad note when I checked Peter Breck’s web site (where you might agree with the irate fan about how I photographed such a handsome man) I found out that his wife tells us that Peter Breck has dementia. As for me I can remember a gracious man man with a beautiful voice who told me he liked the Polaroids I took of him before I committed to film. It seems to me that Peter Breck, too, had style, a kind of style that has since faded and is hard to find in our now perfect world.