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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.
Rodney Smith: I think rhythm in music is equivalent to composition. I think somebody who has great rhythm in music has a sense of composition. It's like putting things together. But as I was implying prior that I think--and I lament this tremendously and maybe I live in the wrong era here-- that what has happened in the latter part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first century is this total loss, in my point of view, of being in touch with what's fundamentally important in our lives, and that is this sense of cadence.
I mean, it goes back to classical proportions of symmetry, about putting things in the right place. Having things, being aware of how things fit into their environment, the scale and proportion, that there is a right place for certain things. That music has to resonate with the emotional core of a human being can't fight that and have it feel comfortable or beautiful.
If you want to make discordant music and your body rhythms and cadence is that these other things, you are going to be fighting it the whole way. Now maybe that's what they want to do. Maybe they want to shake you up, scare you down. I don't know. But I think the world is so unsettled, so unresolved, so lost in so many ways that what it does, it doesn't need anymore of this. It doesn't need anybody telling them how terrible it is, or how distinct it is, or how vulgar it is.
I think people know all these things backwards and forwards. They don't need to be told these deep inner truths anymore. What they need to do is they need to find a way out. Chris Orwig: Get a group of photographers together and start to talk about this whole idea of what makes a photograph good, and inevitably the conversation will turn a corner where you will start to talk about composition, because composition really is integral to our art and our craft. And typically, when you talk about composition, at photography school or in a photo book or workshop, you start off with this whole idea of the rule of thirds, and then from there you may give some compositional tips.
You may give a few rules. Follow these rules, and it will lead to good and well composed photographs. Well, we've all heard that, and I like how Rodney kind of turned all of that on its head, and almost pushed it aside. So we have this blank slate. Let's think about composition from a different perspective. I like the comparison. He compared composition in photography to rhythm in music. What does rhythm do in music? It kind of sets the tone, the mood; it's really this structure underneath the sounds which ties everything together.
He talked a little bit about Henri Cartier-Bresson, someone whose pictures he really likes. I think in some ways the composition that we create is influenced by those photographs that we like. And Bresson was fond of talking about this whole idea of the decisive moment, you know, that magic, special moment when something is just happening and you capture the essence of it. Well, even more, in related to composition, the way he chose to work with his camera, to frame a scene, it was decisive.
In photography, we talk about being creative, experimenting. Sometimes that can lead to waffling. Should I point my camera here or there, try this or that? You know, eventually, if you want create photographs with style, with vision, with voice, you have to take a stand. You have to say, you know what, this is the right perspective, and you go for it. And in a sense, composition is a little bit about who we are and how we see the world. Remember what Rodney said, "People are unsettled.
They need to somehow be given a way out." It's almost like his photographs are providing a bit of beauty and grace and hope; therefore, composition isn't so much about the rule of thirds. Rather, perhaps it's about who you are and about how you see the world.
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