A2 vice versa – concept

The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits. (OCA IAP, p55)

Further text explains that the idea is to take what has worked during part two and develop it further through interchanging the use of portraits taken inside (studio) and those taken outside (location). A series of five themed images is required. ‘There is no right answer, so experiment’.

Initial thoughts, as I reflected on this brief:

  • ‘visa versa’ is one of those Latin phrases that survives in common use, perhaps it concisely expresses a concept with poet phrasing. In modern English the meaning is defined as, with the order changed : with the relations reversed (Merriam-Webster, online); visa versa sounds much more pleasing!
  • In the context of photography inside (studio) or outside (location), it is not a straightforward concept to interpret. A studio has become a flexible concept as the portability of equipment, including lighting has increased; Irving Penn and his pop-up studios is a good example – a kind of outdoor-indoors. Even outdoors, we can control the light or overpower the sun with the use of ND filters and powerful flash, rendering the background unreadable. Or indoors, we can make use of natural light, even if the term ‘studio lighting’ suggests the use of studio strobes or flashes.

In the run up to this assignment, I’d become interested in the concept of showing something of a person through a portrait and the psychology of the interaction between photographer and subject.

Influences in this respect are Emil Hoppé, who discusses his interactions with his sitters extensively in his autobiography (see here) and Jane Bown, who talks about moving around her sitters, trying to find their photo (see here). Both photographers worked in monochrome, which I feel gives a sculptural feel to portraits as we view line and shape without the distraction of colour. Faces are distilled to their essence. Bown’s work in particular I admire for its visualisation of personality. I would contrast this to the work of Irwin Penn, who produced arresting images but with a staged feeling, echoing his work with fashion photography. This element of stage, doesn’t allow the same intimacy visible in Bown’s work.

My tutor recommended three photographers to consider in preparing for this assignment (see here). They all work in colour with limited colour palettes and I notice that this creates something of an abstract feel; not the pure line, shape and shades of monochrome, but something without the distraction of full-on colour. The effect appears to be achieved partially through the use of colour in objects set up in the frame but also in the colour response in post-processing with certain tones muted. This is an area which I will experiment with in future exercises.

A further aspect of monochrome work is reading light and how it falls on the subject – it is the variations in light and shade that add colour to black and white. Bown relied almost entirely on natural light for her work and the location of light seemed to be the deciding factor in her contextual placement of sitters.

I want to aim to show something of the personality of the subject, through careful interaction during the shoot and avoiding direction or staging as far as possible. Almost like a discussion with a camera, rather than a scripted approach. The ‘vice versa’ objective will be dealt with through a mix of situations: one, where it is difficult to control the context and lighting of the subject (location); and two, where there is more control over the lighting and background or context for the subject.