Last week I posted the first article On Street Portraits in which I discussed how I came to street portraiture, and the merits I see in it.
In this second part, I would like to discuss a couple of points in more detail, taking as a reference the picture above, which I took this weekend, and which I thought illustrates the case very well.
On The Unexpected
When asking a stranger to pose for your photo, you don’t normally know what you will get. Some people will pose in a silly or formal manner, some grant permission but still manage to look annoyed. Some are relaxed or amused. Some try to display attitude and be real cool about it. Some stand at attention. But sometimes you also get unexpected emotions.
I took the picture above on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz (you can see the tv tower in the background). In the summer, groups of young goths, punks and skaters like to hang out here, enjoying the weather, doing some street dancing and basically having a good time. I wanted to capture the pierced fellow and asked him if I could. He was very shy about it but then asked his friend to pose with him. His friend grabbed him by the shoulder and together they faced the camera: one looking fierce and protective, the other vulnerable, which you can see in the way he leans into his friend; and if you look at his eyes, you see the shyness. This result was totally unexpected. Tattooed and/or heavily pierced people often like to display a certain attitude, but here, there is both sincerity and attitude and coolness, and the image is so much better for it…
I guess interestingness is like beauty: it’s in the eye of the beholder. What makes a person in a picture interesting: their attitude, their charisma, their (good or bad) looks? Their clothes, their tattoos, piercings, hair style, adornments, pets? The given situation? Their exotic origin?
I would think that interestingness comes about when several of those attributes come together. Would a man walking down Times Square in the rain be interesting if he had not the nonchalance and the good looks of a James Dean?
I cannot say whether there are people who I find more interesting than others. I like people who dare to look different, like the pierced guy above, but that’s not the end of it. I know that over the years I have come to stay away from certain types of photographs, for example, folk dancers or singers in exotic costumes doing their act, and street performers as well. To quote Mary Ellen Mark:
“The picture should be more than the costume, more than the event that’s taking place. Move beyond the circus, the dance, whatever the action. To make a great photograph, you need other elements, like content, emotion, composition and depth”
(from the book: On The Portrait and the Moment).
That sentence reflects for me where portraiture adds to a photograph: in the interplay between photographer and subject, it adds emotions and subtext that are not always present when taking a candid photo of a given situation.
What I find interesting in a person is not always shared by others, and sometimes, reactions to the photos I post surprise me. As an example, I’m very fond of the picture of the bloke with the arrow in his forehead whom I photographed at Berlin’s Carnival of Culture, depicted in last week’s article. Yet the resonance on Flickr and Instagram has been low. On the other hand, the picture of this street musician pausing before playing, which I thought was good but not great, proved very popular on Flickr.
At the end of the day, though, even if I have an audience in mind when taking photos, I shoot based on my criteria. It is I who has to find a photo interesting. Everything else follows from that. Although I know that certain types of photos will attract more “likes”, I capture what is interesting to me. This goes for both the format (for example, I currently prefer colour to black & white, although in street photography black & white is more appreciated), how I photograph my subjects (I like close-ups but I’m not a fan of in-your-face photography), and finally the selection of subjects as well, the last being based more on gut feeling rather than reasoning.
Next week I will be discussing the reactions I have received when asking strangers, and how I have learnt to anticipate them.