Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography by Roswell Angier provides an excellent survey of the genre, exploring its many forms with references to practitioners throughout, including examples of their work. It also provides information on technical considerations of portrait photography.
This blog entry serves as a headline reminder of what can be found in the book for future reference.
Chapters form topic areas and include: about looking, portrait/self-portrait, at the margin: edges of the frame, tremors of narrative: portraits and eventfulness; you spy:voyeurism and surveillance; portrait: mirror, masquerade; confrontation: looking through the bull’s eye; blur: the disappearing subject; flash; figures in the landscape; and digital personae.
The photographers referenced in these contexts are numerous. They include, in order of appearance: Julia Margaret Cameron, August Sander, Sebastio Salgado, James Nachtwey, Jo Spence, Catherine Opie, Francesca Woodman, Guy Tillim, Leif Claesson, Boris Mikhailov, Allen Frame, Weegee, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Jeff Wall, Merry Alpern, Harry Callahan, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Michael Wolf, Kevin Bubriski, Shizuka Yokomizo, Yasumasa Morimura, Tanyth Berkeley, Nikki S. Lee, Lyle Ashton Harris, Mark Morrisroe, Nan Goldin, Shōmei Tōmatsu, Philip Kwame Apagya, Seydou Keïta, Gary Schneider, Bill Jacobson, William Klein, Nancy Rexroth, Mark Cohen, Chauncey Hare, David Moore, Jitka Hanzlova, Joel-Peter Witkin, Barbara Norfleet, Tina Barney, Kelli Connell, Loretta Lux, and Aneta Grzeszykowska.
Angier covers his topics with energy and enthusiasm which makes reading the 272 pages a pleasure. A few examples of the content:
- In the context of ‘looking’, Angier explores the relationship between photographer and subject, ‘There is tension here between photographer and subject, faintly resembling the moment of concentrated tension that Avedon habitually seeks … Sander’s portraits are not opinions, in the sense that Avedon used the word. His objective was to create an even-handed inventory of social types.’ The varying objectives of photographers when it comes to portraiture. He goes on to describe Jo Spence’s work as, ’embattled and engaged, determined to explore the taboos and hidden truths which bedevil family histories.’
- Angier makes a powerful observation about framing in the context of ‘at the edges of the frame’. He notes, ‘Ernest Hemingway once commented that one of the most important things about a written text is what gets left out … A similar statement could be made about photographs. The demarcation between what is included in an image and what gets left out, the area defined by the edges of the frame, can be one of the more exciting elements in a photograph.’ He makes and important comment on how the technology of modern cameras, predisposes the photographer to centre in the frame, ‘assumption is that the subject of the image should be in the center of the frame. This assumption is part of the folklore of photography. It is reinforced by the way in which modern cameras are designed.’ Later on in the work Angier goes on to reinforce this point and it is such an important point, that I repeat it verbatim:
Camera design actively encourages the balance and symmetry of the centrally framed subject. When it is superimposed on the subject of your portrait, the split-image focusing aid or centered auto-focus mark (right in the middle of the viewfinder) is like a bull’s eye. It is all too easy to aim, focus, and shoot, without shifting the framing before the moment of exposure. This procedure is subtly reinforced by the fact that many in-camera metering systems are center-weighted, giving preference to the reflected light values in the central area of the viewfinder, where the subject presumably will be located. The camera’s viewfinder, in effect, acts like a template, telling us how to arrange the elements of the picture. The point is to make pictures in which the act of framing/ aiming becomes invisible. When this happens, composition not only ceases to be an aggressive gesture, it all but vanishes.
In terms of a practical approach to my own photography, with my Fuji system, this advice supports the use of point focusing (with the focus zone movable around the frame), and spot metering where the metering can be set to follow the point of focus. There are of course indirect ways of achieving the same outcome, but this way puts the camera as a tool to efficient work.
- Angier discusses focus and how some photographers manipulate focus to provide unexpected results as compared to the human visual system. He observes, ‘In fact, the camera and the eye do not see in the same fashion. The eye scans back and forth in time, allowing the brain to assemble an image that we perceive as a stable whole. But this image is really an assemblage of discontinuous fragments. The camera freezes an image, in a wider field of view than the eye can contain, in a single instant. The scanning eye sees things incrementally and in focus, regardless of their distance from the viewer. The camera sees objects distributed through space simultaneously, at different degrees of focus.’
- On flash, Angier comments the need for flash is not necessary the quantum of light as modern camera can cope with most light levels, but more does the quality of light suit the purpose of the image.’
In summary, a book that will serve as an excellent source of reference to be revisited over and over.
Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography (Required Reading Range) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com