Three great photography teachers share their wisdom.
One of Lauren Shaw's photography students at Emerson College in Boston last year chose her fellow students as subjects, and the images she showed were pretty good. Shaw says the young woman did a marvelous job of removing herself from the scene, as if she were a "camera on a table" at the gatherings she'd photographed.
But how to push the work further? Shaw, who's been teaching photography at Emerson for 34 years, had some suggestions. "I told her she needed to get more personal, maybe working one-on-one, maybe taking a few steps closer, and maybe having a conversation with her subject."
Making portraits more intimate is a given for Shaw, whose own 10-year project, Maine Women: Living on the Land , was published last year. In it, she interviewed women in New England's biggest state and photographed them in the landscapes intimately tied to their lives.
According to Shaw, a portrait is "what happens in that magical space between the photographer and the subject." It comes not from a quick snap with a long lens but as the result of some interaction between subject and photographer.
Shaw's interest in teaching grew out of her desire "to find a profession that would allow me to maintain my sense of identity as an artist. I wanted to integrate my avocation with my vocation," she says. As a teacher, "I'm looking at photographs all day long. I'm encouraging young photographers. I absolutely love it."
She teaches only advanced courses, with names like "Ways of Seeing" and "Finding Your Voice." Her school's curriculum requires students to know the history of photography, and she frequently has them look at different photographers' work. It's all part of educating their eyes, showing them what's been done before, and helping them understand how what they're doing now fits in.
Although portraiture is not a separate course at Emerson, when it comes to people photography, Shaw draws on experience. "When you're doing portraiture, it's a collaboration" between subject and photographer, she says.
She has suggestions for strengthening that collaboration, including such simple acts as moving closer and talking with your subjects before picking up a camera. Her students are not allowed to snap at a distance-she tells them they must start out using a 50mm or 35mm lens (most of the teaching is in 35mm film). And she tells them to keep the gear simple so that they can be "so comfortable with the equipment it becomes invisible."
Her students may end up doing "portraits" of inanimate objects or of themselves. One student took staged photos of himself as "Everyman," posed doing things like fixing the furnace in the basement. As the project continued, it became clear he was really photographing himself in the role of "the man of the house," a role that he had been forced to take on at age 16 when his father died. Shaw had suggestions for him, too. ("How about taking your clothes off, and do body identity, not just costume?")
"For me to have access to a teacher like Lauren Shaw is something I couldn't have expected," says Emerson student Katherine Kordaris. Part of her work involved people photography. "We were able to talk about it with her, which was really great, because she is a working photographer."
People How-To TipsGet personal. Go metaphorically or literally into the "inner rooms" of a person's life. Converse.See their place. In many portraits, the subject's environment, and how he or she interacts with it, makes the image.Look around. "You've got to see behind your subject." Be careful not to look only at the person but at the whole scene.Frame carefully. Check what happens at the edges. Shaw sees people cut off at the wrist, the finger, the ankle. "It's OK to cut off a head," she jokes, "but not an ankle." Watch the bottom of the frame, in particular.Liven them up. Strive for animation from your subjects. "It takes tremendous energy to get people to animate themselves," Shaw says. She admits to acting goofy or doing whatever it takes to make this happen.Shift position. Don't stick to the eye-level point of view. You can climb higher, get down low, walk around your subject, or move in and out. Each POV will lead to a different image.