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I spent last week in New York participating in a workshop called “Environmental Portraiture” at the School of the International Center for Photography (ICP). After last summer’s terrific “Photographing People” workshop at ICP with Harvey Stein, I thought I’d turned the corner and that it would be clear sailing from then on. Then I had one of those “Aw, s---t!” moments when I realized I had to give thought to what to do with people once they’d agreed to be photographed.
This isn’t rocket science. But still, if you want photos to be more than mindless snapshots, you do need to give some thought to how you portray people honestly, accurately and engagingly. And it’s not like I haven’t given this some thought already. Still, I thought it might be instructive to observe how another photographer works through this process.
This year’s class was taught by Shelby Lee Adams, who is probably best known for his arresting portraits of individuals and families who live in the “hollers” ofAppalachia.
From anyone else, this series of portraits could come across as exploitative. Shelby, however, grew up in Hazard, Kentucky. He understands and respects the culture and customs of that impoverished region. He doesn’t treat his subjects as caricatures, something an outsider would be easily tempted to do.
I enjoyed getting to know Shelby. But it didn’t take long to conclude that the course should have been called “Lighting for Outdoor Photographic Portraits.” There was very little talk about the intellectual process of environmental portraits and a whole lot of talk about lighting ratios.
Let me tell you, this is a lot harder than you might think. As someone who’s always favored natural light, learning to shoot in a formal portrait format, particularly outdoors, was a real test of my comfort zone elasticity.
What we had to do was reject natural light and instead learn how to create the light we wanted. We were approaching these portraits as a painter might, with all the creative flexibility that entails.
Artificial light isn’t a foreign concept to me. I’ve photographed in a studio before. It's intuitive to use strobes and other artificial lighting there. But on the street, where there’s lots of light and maybe even the interesting light that drew you to photograph someone in the first place?
This leads to the second obstacle. Normally, I’m anxious to photograph people in their own context. I go to where there are, whether that’s an artist in his studio or a pianist at the piano or just a pretty girl sitting in the soft light under a tree. You get the picture. That’s why they’re called “environmental” portraits.
But in this class we were learning not to go to the people, but rather to bring them to a place, or create a place, where we’d set up a series of artificial lights to turn an outdoor space into an indoor space. To me, this makes about as much sense as spending a lot of money to manufacture rain on a sunny day just because you have a raincoat you want to wear.
Anyway, I spent a week stumbling through this change of paradigm. I shot hundreds of images of seven or eight different models. I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much. The photo above was taken in the arcade under the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park.