Join Chris Orwig for an in-depth discussion in this video What makes a portrait narrative?, part of Narrative Portraiture: Foundations of Portraiture.
So far we've taken a few minutes to talk about the importance of connecting with our subject. We've also discussed this whole idea of how we can use our environment in order to tell particular aspect of someone's story. Well, here I want to transition to a completely different topic and that is a narrative portraiture. In my mind narrative portraiture has that extra element. Sometimes narrative portraiture is about connecting with our subject. Sometimes it's about working with our environment or bringing those two elements together.
In other situations, it's about how we use composition or what lenses we use, how we work with lights, and really what narrative portraiture is about isn't something that, say, restrictive. In other words, it's not that one image has narrative while another one doesn't. I think all photographs are full of story. Yet thinking about narrative portraiture really focuses in on what type of story do we want to tell. Do we want to tell story that's straight forward, easy-to-read, or maybe something that's more complex and layered, something that really draws us in? Well, let's go ahead and turn off the lights and look at a few photographs that will help us discuss this topic.
One of the first pictures that I want to show here is of this person Jeff Johnson. He is an actor, a photographer, a writer, a skateboarder, a surfer, a fascinating person. In this case, I am trying to create a picture that tells a bit of his story. He is looking off to the side. There's a lot of texture, interesting tone. And a lot of times when you're thinking about narrative especially when narrative pictures of people, you're saying how can I tell enough, but not too much? Moments after this picture was made I took this next one.
I had him looked to the ground. Here I am telling even less of Jeff and sometimes the less you say, the more you are able to connect with or to draw in your viewer. Moments after I captured this image in open shade, I asked Jeff to step out into the full sun and I created this picture. Now this is a photograph that I probably shouldn't have even taken. It was at noon, full sun, and harsh light. Yet this picture, out of all the photographs that I took of him, was published at the larger size. It was a full page.
One of the reasons why I think this picture works, is because that harsh light it creates a bit of an edge. Again, I'm blocking part of his face. So I am not telling too much of the story. I am not telling too many details. What we want to do as photographers is think about how we can tell different aspects of one person's story and if we approach photography from this perspective of narrative, almost like we're authoring the story, we can ask ourselves. Okay, well what do I want to say about this person, how do I want to do that? How do I want to use light or perhaps post production techniques? Do I want to change the tone or the texture? And how can I use these different ideas or these tools to communicate or convey the story I want to tell? Let's take a look at another photograph.
Here is a picture of Jack Johnson. And this is a photograph of him at a performance. Now the plot was a performance, lots of people, lots of noise. I captured some of those pictures, but I wasn't really satisfied with them. We've all seen performance pictures. Been there, done that. I wanted to create something that was full of narrative, and so I started to think about this and I said, well, what if I could create a quiet moment? And I think that's what this picture has or at least starts to have.
His eyes are closed. There is a ton of negative space. And so, again rather than just telling the details that are there, I am asking myself how can I interpret this scene, how can I find something here which communicates the story I want to tell? Here is a photograph of a surfer at sunrise. This is a picture I probably shouldn't have even taken. I was there to photograph surfers riding waves. There weren't really good waves that morning.
So again, I am thinking well, what else can I do? And in this case, I found this moment as the sun rose and reflected off the water. I liked the direction of the lines of the ocean, the texture. I positioned the surfer out of the center of the frame. And a lot of times when you're trying to tell a story, you're trying to do so in a way that connects with a larger audience. Sometimes your audience is personal, you are just creating pictures for yourself and your friends, other times it's editorial or maybe in other situations it's commercial.
Well, whatever the context, we're always asking ourselves, how can I have a larger audience? I think one of the ways that we can do that with any type of story is to try to transcend the subject matter, to try to create a picture that's of a surfer that's enjoyable by people who don't even like the sport of surfing, who can see the beauty in it. Or maybe they connect to this in regards to a theme, like the theme of someone being alone. It's kind of this lonely beautiful picture.
Well, this next picture is a sad photograph. It's a portrait of my friend who lost her home in a fire in Santa Barbara. She had asked me to come with her to photograph her and a couple of her friends as she dug through the remains, the ashes of her home. I had taken some pictures that were up close, but I wasn't really happy with those. I knew I needed to step back to let the environment speak for itself, but I also wanted her in the frame and I like this moment. Her friend's standing in the ashes, her sitting on the wall, and their connection.
And sometimes, when we try to tell stories, these stories are very personal and we look for those moments of combining different elements together which communicate how we feel on the inside. Here's a photograph which I think has a little bit of a reflective quality. We look at the 8 x 10 camera in the left, the camera is pointing towards the surfer, we look towards him, and then finally we look out to sea. Again, it draws us in. There are almost these elements which we go to one at a time, and then we take in the whole scene, almost like a time that has since passed on.
I want to end with two photographs which I think illustrate this whole idea of narrative in an interesting way. This first picture is of one of my best friends Martin and his son Dylan. They are in the ocean in Costa Rico where they live and I like their connection and so far we've looked at these pictures where a handful of them have been a bit more pulled back, using the environment to tell the story. In this case, we have a lot of environment, but this picture though communicates something interesting.
It's about a connection between a father and son, in the same way that this next picture does something similar. Again, the same two people. The background is now a complete blur. It doesn't really matter. But this picture I think illustrates this interesting idea that good narrative portraits have and that is that they transcend the subject matter. In other words whether or not you know Martin or Dylan, it doesn't really matter. This is a photograph about father and son, about the intensity of that connection.
And so as you seek to try to create portraits that are full of narrative, always be asking yourself, well, what is plot? Who are the characters? Well, the plot is Martin and Dylan. But then what is the narrative? What's the feeling? What's that extra little detail that you can add to tell even more of the story?
In this first installment, Chris lays the groundwork for the series. The course begins with a discussion of portraiture and the characteristics that make an effective, story-filled portrait. Chris then explains the importance of establishing a connection with a subject and identifying those details that will help tell his or her story. Next, he explores elements such as location, natural lighting, and composition. The course concludes with an exploration of gear: the creative options that various lenses and cameras provide, and techniques for shooting efficiently and unobtrusively.
- The elements of narrative portraiture
- Choosing locations and working with natural light
- Connecting with your subject to better tell a story
- Composition strategies
- Choosing lenses and selecting gear for a shoot
- Camera-handling tips