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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.
Chris Orwig: Okay, Rodney has agreed to having his portrait taken, which I'm really excited about. And I want to try to do a couple of different things that captures a bit of who he is and what he means to me, as far as a photographer and someone who has influenced me. So I'm thinking of a couple of different ideas, and I am going to start one off right here. Chris: Actually, that's a good spot right there. Rodney Smith: Where? Chris: Right there. Rodney: Okay. Chris: Actually, a little bit to--okay. Then I'm going to close this door behind you.
So here is where the shoot begins. I'm a little bit excited and nervous. One of things that I've discovered is that quite often it's helpful to just begin where you are. You don't have to over-think those first shots. Now, it is important to pay attention to details, because so often when we engage or interact with someone, we're focused on them. We neglect to look at the background, or what's surrounding them. But more importantly, or more than anything, I need to just break the ice. I need to capture some of those first and initial photographs.
Well, here I was, on location, really excited, but also incredibly nervous. I knew that I had a short amount of time, just about 10 minutes before I needed to get into the car, head to the airport, and fly home. And I wanted to try to create a photograph that was relevant, say, to people who know Rodney, but also relevant to those who don't. Even more, I didn't want to create just another portrait; I wanted to create "the" portrait. I also knew that I was photographing a photographer.
Whenever you do that, it's a very different experience, because most photographers, they prefer to be on this side of the lens. Whenever they step in front of your camera, they see you, your camera, and your lens differently. It's almost like they can pre-visualize the pictures that are being made, and it's kind of hard to step out of that role of being the photographer and to have your picture being made. After capturing a few photographs of Rodney in the doorway, I knew that I need to move on.
I need to keep the momentum going-- but I have to tell you, I really like that doorway location. I liked how you can compose pictures and kind of arrange everything in the frame. I could have photographed there all day long, but I knew that I need to keep moving. I mean, you don't have a lot of time. You never really know what you're getting. You don't have time to review your photographs in the back of your camera, or really think about what's happening; but you do know that you've got to keep that momentum moving forwards.
So we walked to a new location, not very far away, keeping things very simple, authentic, conversational. And there was a stone arch. I liked the different elements: the stones and the grass. I also liked that it was a little bit elevated. Sometimes when you have a lower camera position, it can make the person you're photographing seem a bit stronger, taller, more iconic. I wanted to tell that particular part of the story, yet more importantly, I knew that I didn't want to get stuck in a rut of just shooting in one spot, because you never know if that's really going to work out until after the fact.
So I kept the momentum going. We walked to that stone arch and kept shooting. The last spot is I'm going to step on the other side of this gate, have you Chris: stand right in the middle of it. Rodney: Okay. Chris: After having captured a couple of photographs of Rodney in front of the stone arch, I thought about flipping that perspective around. Now one of things I've learned from photography is sometimes doing a 180 can give you new insight into a scene; it can help you create a different type of photograph. So I want to take advantage of that arch. I really liked it.
So walking up and asking him to turn the other direction was kind of interesting. I knew what that was going to do for me; it was going to give me some different type of light to work with. Also, it would position my camera at a little bit higher than eye level. I was paying attention the fact that there were slightly overcast clouds overhead. What that does many times is it creates shadows under someone's eyes if they're looking down, but if they look up a little bit, it can allow some of that light to fill in their eyes.
I also knew that it would create a different type of picture. I liked framing him right inside of that arch. And then after capturing a few pictures there, I wanted to do something a little bit risky. So far, I had created some pretty straightforward, and I think--hopefully--good, pictures, but I wasn't exactly sure. But I knew I needed to do at least one picture that was risky. So I asked him to step down the steps, so that he was a few feet lower than myself, so that rather than just raising his eyes up a little bit, it would be even further, and that completely changes the mood of a picture.
Consider this, someone standing tall looking down at you. They're iconic. They're strong. Well, all of a sudden, when they look up at you, it's a bit more vulnerable. And you don't always know if that's going to work, but I wanted to try to create that kind of authentic, or maybe even a bit of an intimate, or telling, portrait, so I took the risk. So I captured a few more photographs and then eventually knew it was time to call it a wrap. And whenever you get to that point where you say, "that's a wrap," it's a difficult decision to make because, especially in this situation, I didn't know if I captured anything that was worthwhile at all.
Now you have hopes and aspirations, but you just don't know. So in these situations what I tell myself is this: while I don't know if any of those photographs are good, I am grateful to have had the opportunity. I'm grateful to have taken those ten minutes to experiment a little bit and at least try to create a photo, to create a portrait, that's telling.
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