Portraits Aplenty

January 22, 2009 

Environmental portraits are one of the most common photo assignments — often our only option when there’s no action to document. Sometimes the verb of the story is either past or future, and sometimes it's a glorified way to put a face to the quoted.

The "environmental" portion of the portrait is meant to tell a part of the story other than what the subject looks like.

These often accompany business stories, such as when Jim Harris started Northwest Palms, an exotic plant nursery:

Or when Gesa Credit Union customers were targeted for phone and e-mail scams, and Gesa's president and CEO Christina Brown was prominently quoted:

Sometimes, I'll utilize a photo gimmick to try and get the point across, like when Dylan Matteson, manager of Aspen Sound, commented on a proposed Pasco policy that would impound the cars of people who commit vehicle noise violations, saying, "We’re to the point where we have retarded loud stereos, and you still get frowns at low volume. That just makes you want to turn your stereo up louder."

In this case, the gimmick involved a slow shutter speed, lots of camera shaking and a flash at the end to render the subject recognizable in an attempt to visually simulate vibrations from the wall of speakers:

The centered compositions on these three are coincidental, but also serve to illustrate the difficulty in keeping these portraits fresh.

This difficulty is occasionally exacerbated when the ideal environment isn't immediately apparent. When Angie Ash was selected to be this year's recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award, reporter Joe Chapman, photo editor Bob Brawdy and Ash discussed possible settings.

The most obvious choice was the statue of King at Columbia Basin College, but we already had a portrait from that spot that was going to run the day before. They settled on Mark Twain Elementary, where Ash taught for about 20 years before retiring in 2004.

My preconceived idea was to place Ash amongst a blur of jumping and cheering children, but I knew better than to tie the knot with this concept.

This fear of commitment stems from having my heart broken by ideas too many times.

Sometimes it's a matter of logistics.

Our lack of photo assistants and a travel light kit limit our portrait options, and props and extras can be hard to come by on short notice, which is, according to a national study, the most prevalent form of notice.

Sometimes subjects aren't cooperative or acclimate poorly to the photo process.

When I started my photo career in college, I had to shoot a portrait of someone who rejected every idea I bounced off of him, before half-heartedly offering a, "I don't want to stifle your creativity, but..." after each denial.

Granted, my concepts can teeter toward goofy on occasion — perhaps a side-effect of an April Fool's birthday, but it's never my intention to make a person looks stupid or silly. Ultimately, however, the subject's personality has a major impact on the success of an environmental portrait. A good-natured, positive person can help execute one of my goofball ideas, such as when Tony Greager agreed to head out into the December cold for this shot:

Tony Greager of Kennewick has been battling with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, which attacks the nervous system, for 1.5 years. The affliction left him completely paralyzed at one point, but Greager is now able to walk without a cane after leaving his wheelchair in early September and his walker in early November. Greager walked one mile unassisted in the Cable Bridge Run.

But sometimes a concept fails when my blossoming photo skills are buried by the crappiness of inexperience.

This realization turns from self-inflicted slap in the face into a kick somewhat lower if I refused to leave the abusive idea and ignored my good friend, the C.Y.A. (Cover Your Ass) shot.

In the case of Angie Ash, I 'C'ed my 'A' with this snap of her in front of the Mark Twain mural in the front lobby:

The mural ended up being somewhat serendipitous, since it was the only remaining post-remodeling feature of the school from when she taught there.

I had already suggested my original idea to her involving celebratory kids, and she seemed down, but we both questioned the logistics behind wrangling a herd during school hours. Contrary to popular belief, I don't feel self-important enough to barge into a classroom for this request.

For Act II of serendipity, however, 2nd grade teacher Sheri McKinstry walked by us en route to a recess retrieval. McKinstry was not only a former colleague of Ash, but also a friend since 7th grade, and she was happy to oblige:

It's a rare thing for me to smoothly realize a concept like this, so I was sad to see how small it ended up running in the paper on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I suppose a serendipity hat trick was too much to hope for.

Something about some thing going on in Washington D.C. or something took up a bunch of space.

I hope it was important.

~~~~~

kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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