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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.
Here we are going to take a few minutes to review the photographs that I captured of Rodney. I have printed all of these on this velvet fine art paper. You can see there's a little black box here. I am going to send these pictures to him, because, you know, a lot of times as photographers, we are creating pictures for ourselves, but it's also interesting to see others' responses to those same pictures. Well, here is the first one. This picture was all about working with what I had. Rodney walked up in front of the studio, and I like this one.
I like how there is a window behind him. He is a little bit off to the side, not centered in the frame. It's an honest picture, and I like that it's telling of who he is and his space. Well, next, we walked over to this great door, and I really liked this door. One of things that I knew I needed to do here was to experiment within this location. This first picture, it's one of my favorites. I like his hand on his face; he looks comfortable, at ease.
It's telling about who he is. And I like how the details are right. There are nice lines, but it's not too perfect. Here's another perspective of that same picture. This time it's a little bit more close. See, I've cropped out, on camera, the window above and some of the shutter. I think this one is even a little bit more simple and strong. One of the things I love about this setting is it was a lucky moment to have these two pots sitting there, because everything is so perfect, but those few elements of imperfection, they make it a bit more real.
And I like how he's squaring off a bit, leaning on that door, almost leaning towards the camera, almost asking a question. Here is that same scene, this time in a horizontal perspective with a wide-angle lens taking in a bit more. You can see the kitchen in the background, the lights on, almost wondering what's happening on the inside. I love this whole thing with the inside looking out. One of the things I wanted to do of course was to get close, and so here I'm approaching the door and I'm getting closer.
Now, it's not so much about Rodney's house anymore; it's a little bit more about him, about being surrounded by lines, by sitting within this geometric space. And so I get closer, and this time he is on the bottom of the frame, and I like that. It's almost like he's more present there. There is more of him separated from the background, and the frame--or the door-- becomes almost a frame, a little thin edge surrounding him in this darkness.
That's almost like he is illuminated, almost glowing, sitting there in that spot. And that expression, perhaps there's a little bit of a smile. I like it. Here again is another photograph, moving even closer. The door is now completely irrelevant, with his hand on his face. And just moments after this picture is this next one. It's amazing to me what a difference a few moments can make, and I think I like this one perhaps even a bit more, although I think they're both really strong-- I enjoy them both.
Again, this is more about him, about who he is, than about space or his context or where he lives or him in a larger sense. This is him up close and really personal. Well, then we moved to that next location, the stone arch. I like the stone arch. I like the vines, the stonework, the grass, but it was a difficult spot for me; it just wasn't quite working. And while this picture is good, in my opinion it isn't great.
There's almost maybe too much going on. Here I am trying to do something else. He is looking out the frame, legs crossed, a little bit different perspective. It's close, but it's not... it just wasn't there. Well, I moved in a bit closer, and I am liking that. I like that it's a little bit more about him than the arch. Well, then I decided to flip things around a bit. We walked through the arch and looked back the other way, and I like this one.
I like that he's in the center of the frame, that the stones aren't so prominent, but they're really framing who he is, standing there. And again, he's at ease. He is in his home, his backyard. He fits that spot well. Well, then I knew I needed to take a risk. I asked him to step down those two steps. This would position him so he would look up a little bit. And in this case I think it is a vulnerable expression and picture, and I think that does give a certain amount of authenticity to it. And if you compare this one to the photograph just after it, again, it's amazing the difference of just a couple of moments.
And out of these two photographs, I like this one. I like his expression. It's almost like his eyes are smiling. There's a little bit of a smile on his face. It's not so much about being vulnerable as it is about being hopeful. And you know, in reflecting upon these photographs, they resonate with me. And a lot of the review of your pictures has to do with who you are. Well, what did you set out to capture? What was your goal? And I think by really defining that, perhaps in some words or maybe even with a few sketches, it can help you get closer to actualizing what your vision actually is. What is the story that you want to tell? At the end of the day, if a photograph is good or bad, ultimately, in a sense, it's up to you.
Does it connect with you, does it communicate with you, does it resonate with you, and is it part of your voice? Because really, as photographers, what sets us apart isn't necessarily what other people think. Well, that's important, but perhaps even more important is what do we think, what do you think? You have to pay attention to that and make pictures because of that.
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