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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores the use of elements such as location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection. In this installment, Chris visits Rodney Smith, a photographer whose work is known for its graceful serenity and its wit. Rodney's career spans more than four decades and includes editorial, fashion, and advertising work, as well as several books.
The course begins with a wide-ranging conversation between Chris and Rodney, during which they discuss Rodney's work, his approach to photography and models, his love of film and of black and white, and the importance of creating photographs that both ask questions and tell stories. Next, Chris tours Rodney Smith's studio, including the darkroom, to get more familiar with Rodney before photographing him.
Chris then takes a series of portraits of Rodney. Along the way, he reviews his gear choices and the compositional decisions he makes, and discusses the importance of committing photographs to paper, particularly in today's digital age. Finally, Chris reviews the images and shares some insights from his conversation with Rodney.
Now that we've had a chance to see some of the photographs that I feel are keepers, I wanted to take a few more moments to talk a little bit about this whole idea of reviewing and evaluating your pictures. You know, so often what we do is we look at our photographs on our computer screen. We make the important decisions there. You know, sometimes that isn't enough. For example, with this picture here, now we've seen this one before, but what happened was, when I saw it on my computer, I didn't like it, but I thought it might be good, I'll make a print.
And when I saw it in printed form, I really liked it. You know something happens when you commit an image to a print. It tells a different type of a story. Our computers are often cluttered. We have email. We have to think about hard drives and hard drive space and being efficient and making the right decisions. But when you have a print, you can almost let the photograph breathe, let it live on its own, apart from all the chaos of our computers. Here is another photograph where the same thing happened.
In this case, when I looked at this one on my computer, I thought, well, it's kind of ordinary. But then after I created this test print, I liked the fact that it was ordinary. That is what drew me to the image, those simple ordinary details. It was honest. It was authentic. It wasn't that it was dull, but those details became what I valued about the picture. Or this one, another perspective of that same scene, once I ran this test print, I could see into the kitchen. On my computer, I was drawn to the shapes, the forms, to Rodney.
Once I created the print, it was almost like I peered into the kitchen, and that made me realize I like this one. I like that detail. There are more layers here. There's more happening in that picture. And you know, sometimes it's important to make just rough prints, like this one here. You know, it's not laid out well. It's not on a big piece of paper. It's a rough test print. But in doing that, I saw the separation of Rodney from the background, the simplicity or strength of that frame. And again, that drew me in. And the same thing happened with other photographs as well, like this one.
It was all about him. It wasn't location. It was, who is he, who is this person, how can I tell that story? And many times when print small and if I like it, I'll print big, and then I'll create the same picture on a large sheet of paper. Now, the point here isn't to say that there's a method to this madness; rather, that it's worth experimenting and sometimes when you experiment, it can lead to interesting results, like with this last photograph here.
Here was the rough test print, and I liked the picture, but I just wondered, as I looked at this photograph, what would happen if there wasn't so much space above him. What if I cropped this image? So I decided to create another print, and in doing that, I think I created something kind of interesting, different, another iteration, or version, of the same picture. Now the crop is much closer to his head. And again, these type of decisions, could you make them on your computer? Well, sure. But sometimes I find that there are certain decisions that I can't make on my computer.
I need to create that print, tack it up, live with it, let it breathe, get to know it in a new way. If you want you want to set yourself apart as a photographer, and if you want to review and edit your photographs in a different way, perhaps creating prints is the answer. You know, so often, people just use their computers; they make those important decisions there. But one of the things I've found that's true is this--Rodney said it best. He said, "With my photographs, oftentimes, I tentatively embrace them.
I'm not quite sure if they're good. That happens to me all the time, but I can really become perhaps a bit more decisive when I make those prints. And by seeing it in printed form, I can make the tough decisions." Is this one good or not? No, it isn't. Or perhaps I can move beyond tentatively embracing it, to really deciding, you know what? This one is a keeper.
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