I had been editing images from a wedding (pictured) I photographed on the weekend and decided to take a break, and settled down to watch a documentary that my wife had recorded on television about photography-great Annie Leibovitz.
Leibovitz made a name for herself with her collaborative style of portrait photography in the 1970s as a photographer for the Rolling Stone magazine and, of course, if you’re my age you may remember the incredible photos she made while touring with the actual Rolling Stones rock band.
The program was a walk down memory lane for me, and I thought about how she and other successful photographers had influenced my approach to photography, and as I watched I considered some other great photographers that impacted my view of portraiture.
The first photographers I became aware of while living and beginning my study of photography in Los Angeles so long ago were the co-founders of Group f/64, an association of west coast photographers. I would go to exhibitions of their work and irritate my friends because I would ignore them to sit for long periods viewing each photographer’s work; I was amazed with the way they dealt with light and shadow. Ansel Adams and Imogene Cunningham, although not especially portrait photographers, were among those that changed the way photography was approached. Adams is well known to most, but Cunningham’s controlled photography of patterns, detail, and texture is worth viewing not only for her portraiture but also in her botanical work. On portraiture she was known to comment, “The thing that’s fascinating about portraiture is that nobody is alike.”
Discovering Arnold Newman stopped me in my tracks. Newman photographed the world’s most influential people and his portraiture was termed “environmental”. Unlike many of his contemporaries at the time, he might include tables, pianos, and other elements he deemed structurally important to a portrait and when interviewed about his style he said, “I am always lining things up, measuring angles…. I’m observing the way you sit, and the way you fit into the composition of the space around you.”
Another woman that challenged the way photographers approached portrait photography at that time was Sarah Moon. Her photographs were mysterious and surreal, sometimes in weirdly muted colours, or nostalgic with diffused grain. Her comment as to her portraiture was, “I never photograph reality.”
One of my favourite portraitists that I have mentioned and quoted many times is Richard Avedon, and his minimalist style with stark white backgrounds. The provocative three-foot high photographs from his exhibition entitled “In the American West” were an important hallmark in 20th century portrait photography. When talking about photography he said, “if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible.”
There are many more that made me want to spend time making portraits in my early days with this medium, but the last I’ll mention is Irving Penn. Truly an artist, his portraits are more than images depicting beautiful people and his prints take on the mantle of works of art in themselves. He said, “I myself have always stood in the awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.”
Photographing people and stopping their lives for a fleeting moment is pure enjoyment, and for those photographers that want to become more proficient I recommend spending time searching out the famous photographers I have mentioned, viewing their works, and applying the lessons learned to their own portrait photography.
To complete my tribute to those portrait photographers that affected my photography, and that of many others. I will end with Imogene Cunningham’s famous quote “Which of my photographs is my favourite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”
Don’t hesitate to leave me your comments. Thanks, John
My website is at www.enmanscamera.com