When I’m working with clients who are business owners I counsel them that if they can tolerate it, they should be prepared to be the face of their “brand” to some degree (working within the parameters of their temperament, sure). Given that most are passionate about their work and motivated by a deep sense of conviction talking about their business is a tap easier to turn on than off. Enthusiasm peaks just before I mention having photos taken. At that point it doesn’t so much as taper off as plunge.
Which I totally get. There was a time that just thinking about having my photo taken would bring me to sweat. Someone would hold up a camera to my face and the level of threat that I’d register was somewhere in the vicinity of a hand gun.
But a few years ago taking my freelance business to the next level I had to document my folio, a task that I approached with palpable dread. Designers are often their own worse clients. Just dragging my work out caused me actual physical pain. (I can’t break that down in 50 words or less but I think it has partly to do with my relationship with process and also a fear of judgement).
And while photographer Emma Byrnes and I had a long friendship to draw on, this was the first time we’d worked together. We didn’t really have a language for collaboration, no points on the board, though I sensed she was the right person for the job: intuitive, sensitive, and with a camera in her hand part psychologist, part animal trainer.
I thought we were going to lay the work flat and Emma would take a photo. Shoot. Repeat. But that’s not how it panned out. Firstly, Emma took a shine to my outfit. She thought I should appear in shot with my work, a surprising suggestion; the portfolio genre is disembodied, not counting the occasional hand holding book pages flat. But the idea will give you an insight into Emma’s approach, feeling her way through a given situation with openness and curiosity.
I had not bothered with my hair or worried with the makeup bag that morning. The lack of preparedness crossed my mind. But I placed trust in my photographer. I became a willing participant. Emma’s attitude was contagious. Before long I experienced a sensation I only reliably associate with writing and sometimes designing – when it’s going well, that is – a satisfying absorption and state of unselfconscious flow.
I know, “What the heck?”, right?
Since this shoot I’ve found myself moonlighting as a middle-aged model – no one is more surprised that myself by this turn of events – moving from behind the camera art directing shoots for clients and in front of it.
I have become a moving human prop for my photographer collaborator: the blurred person adding scale and texture to the photo for a small, seaside makers market, a hand model for a tea brand, a figure moving around oversized puzzle pieces for a community banking not-for-profit.
It turns out I really enjoy making images. I like it a lot. Here’s what I’ve learnt:
Taking photos takes time
Sure, it will be over more quickly if you rush it but capturing a good image takes time.
Think about the shots you want to get ahead of time. Be guided by how you intend to use them.
Go for tone over expression. Humans are too inconsistent to give good face. The tone of a series of photos is more memorable.
The “decisive” moment
In regards to portraiture, the idea that a photographer can capture some essential aspect of her subject – authentic, unguarded – might be true but is it helpful to the subject? I don’t think so. The thought is more terrifying than appealing.
Approach it like a performer
Like most stressful situations, it’s useful to assume a persona.
Show a willingness to try different things. Often an on-the-spot solution to a particular problem will emerge.
Attention to detail
Give your props and setting plenty of thought beforehand but be flexible on the day.
As in, have reasonable expectations. More than likely you will still look like yourself. I never expect more than six good shots out of a four hour shoot all going well. Some set ups will bear no fruit. It’s no big deal.
Even my celebrity friends are getting older. It’s okay. We’re all growing old.
Of course, this whole about face has prompted to ask: what else am I hating that I could be loving?