It’s fortunate that my recent trips to the Farne Islands and Castle Howard were so productive in terms of imagery and inspiration, because otherwise this blog would have ground to a halt of late. Why? Partly because I’ve travelled so little with the day job during October, but also because I worked every weekend so no time for exploration.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t taking photographs; quite the reverse in fact, for whilst I was facilitating learning events, I was also required to photograph the participants in their moments of frustration, revelation and celebration, which given the importance of observation to my role as a facilitator makes the multi-tasking quite manageable. It does raise some interesting questions though.
As someone who is always striving to improve their photography, photographing students is a mixed blessing. The diversity of young faces from around the world might be a portraitist’s dream but shooting candids during events with a very tight timetable means that every shot is purely a reaction to an expression or some interesting lighting, but rarely both, and never with any degree of input from me. My colleagues, and the students themselves seem to enjoy the results, but I feel like I’m nothing more than a competent snapper, maybe even a voyeur.
I’m fascinated by great portrait photography; perhaps because as an introvert it facilitates a kind of “outsider looking in” take on people watching. The human zoo. That introversion means I’m unlikely to provoke interesting expressions from my subjects in a formal sitting, but my ability to anticipate an emotive reaction allows me do so through the candid, though I have no control over what the resulting expression may be. An artist like Avedon a gem cutter, looking for the right facets to accentuate; I am more like the prospector, panning for rarities amongst so much sand.
The next dilemma occurs when I find the occasional fleck of gold or flash of diamond. How much polish should I apply to that image to try to create a thing of beauty?
Photographer’s have always retouched their imagery, but the software available today has endless possibilities (and not all of them good ones). Textureless skin, over-whitened teeth, eyes given so much “pop” that they become so unnatural as to be repulsive? I’ve been guilty of all of these in my early efforts to develop the retoucher’s art, but aside from aesthetic considerations, where does honesty enter the debate?
My subjects, being young, are prone to spots, scabs and other blemishes, and removing these seems like a courtesy. They’re not permanent features so their continued presence in a photograph could be seen as nothing more than an accident of timing. But what about scars, facial hairs, or eye bags? Should I consider slimming down a jawline that I know has been distorted by a wide-angle lens or is that only one step from the body politics debate. Kate Winslet was famously “slimmed down” by GQ magazine and now has a “no retouching” clause in her contract with L’Oreal. Quite right too – a cosmetics company photographs should only show what the consumer could achieve with the cosmetics, not what a retoucher can do with a digital file. The artist Alison Lapper and photographer Rankin (who has made a living from fashion and beauty work) recently made a fascinating programme for BBC4 about the culture of perfectionism that pervades the selfie generation. If you can get to see their film No Body’s Perfect I would recommend it.
I have no such ethical constraints and am bound only by my desire to create an image that is recognisable to the subject and those who know them, yet visually attractive to those who don’t.
Can you see the join? And should I have made it?