On portraits and “Tamelife” photography

If you look at my work at all you’ll notice that it’s quite a lot of random. When it comes to photography, if something sits still I’ll shoot it in macro. If it runs I’ll chase it and if it’s looking back at me then I’ll try to pretend I’m not really taking its picture. I tend to approach all my photography like I’m stalking a wild animal on the Serengeti, even if it happens to be the middle of GenCon and everybody will stop and pose even if you look at them funny.

Despite this general outlook, I still like the idea of taking people’s pictures because they want them taken. For years now I’ve put out the general message that yes I will take your picture, dozens of pictures, and give them to you if only you ask. You don’t even have to sit still because I’m accustomed to that sort of behavior in my subjects, though usually they’re furrier and faster than the average human. On a very rare occasion someone will take me up on my offer and I’ll show up and awkwardness will commence. Having done this a couple of times I’ve come to realize that portrait photography doesn’t really have all that much to do with actual photography, at least not as I define the science of the whole thing. I’m used to having to sneak up on my subjects and work for a couple of hours to catch them at their best whether they want to be caught or not. When you’re doing someone’s portrait though, they do something even more unnerving than run away. They stare back at you expectantly as if to say, “you’re the expert. so now what?” Somehow the desired answer of “Just go about your business and do whatever you’re going to do” doesn’t sit well with people.

This, I think, is a real pity though because it’s those absolutely frank and unposed moments that are most evocative. For example, a few years ago at the Talbot art fair I was behind a dad who had a very tired and very hot child in his arms and snapped this shot. It’s one of those absolutely raw moments but her eyes bore in to me even a year later. This is the sort of thing you get after you’ve let your guard down and stopped smiling the 3rd grade photo day smile into the camera.

I’ll wrap it up because I’m close to coming up on rant status, but I guess my real point is that the good shots happen after your hair is down, your makeup is smudged and you’ve forgotten anybody is taking pictures at all. It’s that moment when you look up and say, “Dad, is it time for lunch yet?” in your best and most expectant face. And that, I suppose, is the difficulty of Tamelife photography. Getting it to revert to its natural state so you can get the best out of it.

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