Unplanned Portraithood

February 15, 2013 

As I've written before, I used to find portrait assignments frustrating, always preferring some real moments to help tell the story. That opinion has changed drastically since I decided to work on my photo weakness a couple years ago.

Last week's trip to My Friends Place wasn't supposed to be a portrait session. After reporter Ty Beaver worked to get photo access, they called to let us know some of the homeless teens who stay there were available. I headed down quickly, but just missed them as they had left to catch a bus. The counselors on hand had some minor housekeeping, so I snapped a few crappy frames as they worked a bit:

In the past, I may have just settled with something like this, but I got them to agree to a quick portrait. The first angle I picked was hard to work with, both compositionally,

and due to the large, reflective windows behind them:

I swiveled around and got this:

It's pretty basic, but accomplishes the same thing the candid shot above did (showing the space available to the kids) in a much nicer way. There's a much deeper story to be told about homeless teens, but getting access to such a sensitive subject takes more than an hour and a couple phone calls.

I had a similar situation earlier this week for a story about Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Craig Matheson's impending retirement after 26 years on the bench. Reporter Kristin M. Kraemer arranged for me to meet with the judge before some preliminary court thingy.

Five years of semi-frequent coverage of the criminal justice system, and I still find myself wishing Vincent D'Onofrio and Courtney B. Vance were somehow involved...

I figured he'd have some preparing to do in the chambers, but brought my bag of small lights just in case he was free for a portrait. I didn't want to lug my unwieldy bag of light stands and modifiers through security without knowing what I'd be able to do and decided it would be a fun challenge to work with less equipment if he did have time.

You can probably guess where this is going.

I went with a simple two-light setup to add some drama to fellow Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner's office:

The judges all share each other's offices since they work in both counties, and Judge Spanner popped in as I was trying to figure out a cleaner background for the portrait:

He asked why we weren't shooting in the historic courtroom, which made me feel like a fool since I had gone into backstage-access-is-best mode and not even realized that court was not in session. After some unsuccessful angles, the least embarrassing of which is seen here in all its boring and wildly glaring glory,

I moved to the side and worked a better version of the dramatic lighting I was looking for before. Too much ambient exposure blew out the fancy window and ruined the effect,

and here's what I ended up going with:

The idea was to create an image with a dramatic contemplative quality to it, playing off the iconic black judge's robes throughout the frame. The high contrast is meant to speak toward the sometimes stark, black-and-white-guilty-or-innocent nature of the courts, with his expression meant to convey the challenge of weighing the myriad variables within each case.

And if you don't buy all that, it looks better than the "action" shot I snapped after he had to get back to work:

It was a nice change of pace and a fun exercise in quick improvising without my big light modifiers to rely on. With a bit more time, I would have liked to add a hint of light to the back wall to bring out its woody goodness to see how that looked and maybe worked on softening the light a bit more on Judge Matheson's face.

This change in photo taste doesn't mean I've fallen out of love with photojournalism. Nothing is more fun or rewarding to me than getting to spend some time on telling a story. Time has always been a luxury since I started working here and the constant edicts from on high to do more with less has made long-term projects even more precious.

There's no shortage of quickie portrait assignments, though, and I'm happy to have found ways to keep these assignments interesting instead of groaning about having to settle for some lame portrait.

Speaking of spontaneous portraits...

Photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero got some attention this week for a series of self-portraits featuring supposedly derisive looks from passersby. The project aims to shed light on the mistreatment she's faced for her weight, but falls short of that goal. I don't doubt her statement that people have been "making faces, commenting and laughing at (her) about (her) size," according to her website. But while a couple of the people in the series do appear to be laughing in her direction, I'm willing to bet the awkward situations she has put herself in with a camera on a tripod are more likely the cause for attention.

It is an interesting idea, though, and one I'd like to see develop over time. As it currently stands, I can't help but feel it's just as unfair to shake your head at the supposed mockers in the photos as it would be for them to be doing so as she perceived.

Check out Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer's stunning series on China over at Lens. The portraits, shot before the 2008 Olympics, chronicles some of the country's people province by province.

What about the London Olympics? Well, you can see some of David Burnett's Speed Graphic shots from then.

And just for fun, check out the LOLtastic Tumblr featuring cats as the subjects of this year's POYi winners.


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