Saturday, November 7, 2009

Discussin: Photographic Style Part One

After last week's launch of the Kioku Project website, I received a lot of interesting emails from friends and photographers. One person, who is both a very talented photographer and a very intelligent person, asked me why I chose to photograph my subjects against a white seamless background, and why I chose to photograph with a partial smile.

In this post I'd like to talk about the first question: the white seamless background. In the following posting I'll talk about the second question: the smiles.

My primary inspiration for the photographic style of this project has been Richard Avedon's In the American West project. Avedon, one of the world's best-known fashion photographers, spent five summers traveling across the American mid-west shooting portraits of people who symbolized his vision of that part of the country. He photographed everyone in open shade against a white seamless background. He described this technique as, "it's just me, the subject and the camera". Although this technique is easy to setup, and it gives the photographer a lot of control over the sitting, it also exposes every minutiae of the photographer's talent, or lack of, as a portraitist.

(Avedon at work on "In the American West", photo by Laura Wilson)

An alternative approach would be to photograph the subjects in color, with a narrow depth of field, in a location that shows some connection to the person's life; such as their home, their family, or a meaningful location. This is known as environmental portraiture. This was also a very attractive option that I seriously considered for the past year. And I've photographed some of these subjects under the those conditions. But this style of portraiture is very popular today. When I visualized where this project would be after a few years, I felt that it would be difficult to differentiate my project from many other photographers' work, particularly among popular photo-sharing communities such as Flickr.

The second reason for selecting the white-seamless-open-shade approach is that I found it the most challenging photography technique that I've ever wrestled. A successful shot in this style is very difficult because the slightest flaw becomes so obvious. Maybe that's why Avedon chose it; because he was talented enough to it off. For me, it's a challenging learning experience.

For more examples of portrait photographers who were influenced by the style of Avedon's In the American West, take a look at Lynn Blodgett's Saving Grace project, and Clay Enos' Street Studio.

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