Friday, March 6, 2020

The Informal Portrait

Tres Compadres
Mayalan Village, Guatemala
Olympus OM, Fujichrome 100D

As I wrote in Wednesday's post, I have always been drawn to the old, the abandoned, the worn out, the passing away. Abandoned buildings, abandoned cars – whatever man has used, worn out, and discarded -- fascinate me, because they speak of worn out lives, lived and discarded with neither name nor history.

However, there also has been another constant through all the years I've been doing photography: making pictures of people. Portraits, if you will. I've made studio portraits, editorial portraits, corporate portraits, portraits of family and friends, casual portraits, portraits for money, and portraits for fun.

I also have made many, many informal portraits of people in foreign settings, both of individuals and people together; work I found especially satisfying. As I wrote in "The Fascination of Foreign Faces," As a photojournalist and producer creating magazine features and audio-visual programs to help religious and humanitarian agencies communicate their mission, I'm always looking for opportunities to make portraits.  Strong photographs of people add power to the message I want to communicate, because people are interested in people.  That's why we call it "human interest."  When someone from another culture is portrayed in all of his or her humanity, dignity, and individuality, both the subject and those who view the photograph are served.  As the great Edward Steichen, creator of the landmark "Family of Man" exhibit said, "The function of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself."

Old Peasant Woman
Church of God, Vinkovci, Yugoslavia
Olympus OM or Leica M3, Fujichrome 400D @ ISO 800

Making informal portraits is not difficult. In fact, anyone can do it -- witness the hordes snapping away with their cell phones. Making good portraits, portraits that will interest even those who do not know the subjects, is a little more complex, but not prohibitively so. They are not beyond the reach of any photographer with a reasonably good eye for composition, some ability to notice the play of light, and the will to put oneself out there and just do it!

Salvadoran Child
La Colonia Gloria Methodist Church, Ahuachapan, El Salvador
Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic Lumix 14-140 f3.5-f5.6 lens

A friendly, open demeanor and an attitude of respect and courtesy will usually gain the subject's cooperation. If not, just offer a polite "Thank you" and walk away. But again, the most important factor in making good informal portraits is simply the will to do it. These simple principles have worked for me around the U.S. and around the world.

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