Monday, January 31, 2011

National Portrait Galllery photographic workshop saturday jan 29'th 2011

Like the last workshop I did here, this was a little dissappointing. Perhaps the NPG sees photography as primarily art rather than being infuenced by art? My intention here is not to discuss that but outline what happened during the workshop which overall seemed worthwhile doing. This blog attempts to be a faithfull account of what happened but the views expressed are bound to be coloured by my own view and hence may not accurately reflect what was said at the time.

It was run by Anthony Luvera, a proffessional photographer from Australia, who also teaches at universities in the UK and writes about photography. He considers his approach to portrait photography as being documentary based.

The environment in which a person is photographed is important. The exhibition can be considered as different takes on environmental portraits!

All 12 participants introduced themselves ...

a Japanese man who wanted to brush up his technique
Brazilian woman who wants to get back into photography also interested in technique.
Recently retired British male who wants to make better photographs.

AL(Antony Luvera) interjects here to say that even proffessionals end up with lots of rubbish photographs!

Neuroscientist who likes to photograph
British male who works in radio; likes to make photographs.
Female artist who loves the NPG; photography her hobby.
Female who wants to push herself in photography.
Bank worker who wants to take better photgraphs of his children.
Asian male, a beginner, interested in technique and composition.
Amano, myself, an OCA student who wants to understand what the exhibition is really about.
Mentioned I was taking notes as part of my OCA learning blog. AL responded by encouraging me to do this and sugesting others did likewise ... which they did!

AL talks of understanding contemporary portrait photography. If you want to take better photos, take lots of photographs .. then deconstruct them along lines he'll mention later.

Retired art teacher, female: given camera and this course as a present. Likes garden photography.
AL mentions the book Derek Jameson's Garden

Muslim woman dressed in black robe who works in London; is assisting this workshop. Loves wildlife photography.
Retoucher going freelance; interested in portraiture.

How much does a photographic portrait represent the person portrayed?
How much is the photograph a result of what the photographer wants to say?

AL quotes Lucy Davies from the introduction to the exhibition portfolio ...

A portrait photograph depends on the person pointing the camera.

Is a photograph more engaging when the meaning is not obvious. This approach encourages the viewer to become involved with the image!

An image can be said to be worthwhile if it helps you to see the world differently.

AL uses large format cameras and has the film properly printed rather than scanned; scans from the print if required.

For the exhibition, 60 photographic prints were selected from over 6,000

At least a couple of the judges were documentary based photographers.

When looking at photographs in exhibition, need to consider ...
camera position
the story within the image (what is being played out)
caption - way in which this effects our view!
biodata of photographer

We were asked to look closely at 4 images and consider those ... I found I only had time to look and write about 3! There seemed to be so much to consider when one looked closely and considered the images along the guidlines suggested.

CHARLIE WATTS (Rolling Stones drummer)

The obvious appeal of this image is that it portrays a celebrity. It also questions popular notions of what a rock and roll star might be like as this image suggests a rather conventional person who wears a shirt and tie, a smart corduroy jacket with trousers to match and inhabits a somewhat old-fashioned house with a wooden staircase, quite different to the characteristically brash image of a pop drummer who living a crazy sometimes drug fuelled lifestyle. The image seems to say a lot about the sitter, inviting us into his world, a world that is apparently comfortable.

The camera is placed directly in front of the viewer, there is no subtle angle and the sitter look straight at the camera although his gaze is perhaps not entirely direct. He manages a smile which is often considered inappropriate with portraiture.

The composition is clever. There are diagonal lines in the way the sitter has placed his legs (the caption tells us that this was a pose naturally adopted by the sitter that the photographer asked him to hold) while the staircase in the background reflects this with more diagonals. The placement of the feet, horizontally towards the viewer, is almost comic.

Although subdued, the location here does add atmosphere to the portrait with its subdued tones and lack of detail; the unexpected image of the sitter is being further deconstructed by an air of respectability.

AL comments that this photograph works not just because the sitter is well known but because there has been communication between the sitter and the photographer who was watching the sitter from the very beginning of the shoot.


Although not a winning portrait, this photograph is being used to advertise the exhibition appearing not only on the front of the exhibition portfolio but also on brochures and other media. As AL points out, this decision is a marketing one and little to do with the curators and judges of the exhibition.

This photograph tends to rely on a more traditional and less challenging notion of what portrait photography might be. There is beauty here not just in the woman's face and look back also in the architectural background. Her attire suggests the Muslim religion and her appeal is bound to attract the male gaze, still a predominant force in advertising.

The camera angle is straightforward as is the case with many other images in the exhibition.

The composition contains the curvaceous lines of the subject body, face and hands, as well as clothes that contrast with the straight largely vertical lines of the architecture around her in the background. There is also some ornamentation in the detail behind her. The sitter's makeup is barely visible yet adds to the subtle tones of this image.

The caption informs us that this is a "daring" look. One wonders where this daring may lie! Is it because Muslim women are traditionally bound not to show their face in public or does the danger lie in the seductive nature of the glance?

The Spanish photographer is undertaking an art history course at a university.

AL mentions the lovely interplay of detail in the background.


As a visitor to India, this image strikes me as a clever image but not out of the ordinary as riding on the tops of trains is quite common. On learning it was taken in Bangladesh, the reading of the image changes as Bangladesh is a predominately Muslim country in which traditionally, the place of women is subservient; here the woman is down below, in a potentially dangerous position. She looks upward not with confidence but with the air of one who is lowly.

The angle of the camera is unusual for a portrait since it is above the subject who looks upward.

The composition contains blocks of blue and green while the at the centre there are the warmer colours of the dress. Also, across the centre, is the diagonal of the woman's arm which is she is using to steady her body; it has a similar effect on the image. The rounded form of the woman sits amidst the hard lines of the sides of the gtrain that is the surrounding composition.

The Swedish photographer who made this ordinary yet striking image is a photojournalist so this was apparently never intended as a formal portrait.

After seeing the exhibition, there was not really enough time to absorb it, and making notes on a few photos, it was back to the studio to listen to AL again and enter into some discussion.

A point to note, is the way a photograph has been constructed to portray a subject. In regards to the woman on the train, the construction was largely predetermined while often in portraiture, the image can be quite carefully constructed.

There was some objection to the winning photograph which shows a young woman on a horseback on top of which is also a dead deer. The subject was considered to be too central. I felt that the subject was not just the person being portrayed but also hunting, a controversial issue; as with many of the portraits in this and previous exhibitions, there is something else going on in the picture that can compete with the sitter.

Yet the image of a huntress, a real life Diana, contains beautiful natural lighting as well as the colours of a muted palette in the woman's auburn hair, the brown of the horse and the slain animal, in the mountains of the background. Interestingly this winning image is not on the NPG website likewise another winning photo entitled My British Wife which looks up the dress of a woman to reveal her private parts. The newspapers did not print all of this photograph probably because they thought they might be prsecuted for lewdness! The photographer is Greek and as a nude, it challenges the accepted more of the Western classical art tradition since the vagina is not shown. The image is well composed with beautiful light and a beautiful model. Eyeline in the photo is slightly higher than in most of the other photographs. There is an intimacy! Shades of Gaugin and since the photographer has studied art, he was aware of the contexts and ripples of this photograph.

There are only a small number of black and white images in the exhibition about 10% of the total. Colour did not start as an acceptable medium until the mid 1980's.

The use of colour in the images is often subdued though a few contain stronger colours.

When photographing, it is good to look for interesting colours as well as tonal range, different kinds of light and con contrasts of different kinds (whether of form, colour or texture etc).

Film still used a lot by professionals; the kind of film used is important. Some are better suited to portraiture.

3 basic types of camera ... 35mm, medium format (e.g. Hassleblad) and large format (e.g. Linhof also field cameras). Still used quite a bit; gives forensic style quality. Use of both negatives and positives also prints in image processing.

What about the use of the rule of thirds, off centre placement? Better to be more aware of background elements! (maybe the rule of thirds has become a little cliched)

One photograph that people did not seem to like was that of a couple of American GIs; the female is pregnant yet one needs a caption to tell us this. There seems to be little sense of composition.

AL mentions the "freaks" of Diane Arbus.


One photo is of two scantily clad women on a doorstep. Is this how they would like to be photographed?  Ethical question!
People on the fringes of society, under-represented. Subdued colours ... not natural, awkward look.

Another photo is of an elderly lady who wears a blue jumper; the face looks away, downcast. The use of a larger format permits greater detail and feeling of texture; great detail in the hair. The caption tells us she is blind! The colours are pastel.

Another photo is of two elderly golfing ladies; they both look directly into the camera.

Captions can be enormously important and effect the gaze of the viewer; for example, my seeing the oppressed woman in the train photo as soon as I heard it was in Bangladesh. Possibly though, my view is a stereo-typed one.

the way the photo is being used
the words that anchor the photo

manipulation of colour saturation
evident in some images such as that of Tony Blair
does not mean its' a bad image rather a statement
muted colours

naked male torso of person who has Parkinson's disease .. impressionistic
done by using a long open shutter with a torch being flashed a few times
mistakes OK if part of the creative act

interesting light, interesting colour
placement of subject
communicating  with subject
environment - way it relates to the subject
fill the frame - make sure all detail is relevant

Examine the whole frame; notice the edges, take more than one photograph

depth of field - amount of photograph that is in focus - usally less rather than more as it helps to concentrate the eye of the viewer rest on the subject

series of decisions made by the photographer; examining the photograph in this manner deconstructs them and is the best way to improve one's own work

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