Roy Surette, David H. Souter & Gregor Roberston Snaps His Own WorshipnessSunday, May 03, 2009
In these last months that I have been teaching photography I have noticed that some of my students (most are quite intelligent) who may be in their early 20s or even 30s have no concept of the former existence of Life Magazine. When I point out to my class (usually an even split beween women and men) that Life’s first cover on November 23, 1936 was taken by a woman, Margaret Bourke-White I am met by blank expressions. I am no longer shocked as I simply think that few now would know of events that happened 73 years ago. At the same time my 11-year-old granddaughter Rebecca can use Microsoft Word with no problems and knows all about different typefaces and font sizes. At age 11 I had no inkling of such things. My students have simply traded knowledge of one thing for another. It is up to me to more or less set them straight on the origins of photography and perhaps this might help them in their pursuit of success in this now difficult medium.
When my Sunday New York Times comes crashing on my doorstep sometime around 7pm on Saturday night I try to ignore it. At one time the paper would arrive much later, much as the daily weekday version does. But the delivery people have become most efficient and I am left with that terrible agony of not wanting to delay the reading of the paper to Sunday morning. Be it Saturday night or early Sunday morning, the first part of the paper I look for is the one titled Week In Review. It will usually have a fine column by Frank Rich and another by Maureen Dowd. The rest is usually extra scrumptious gravy. This is the best section of the paper. Today’s Week In Review visually blasted me with a photograph that had me staring at it for a long time (yesterday it was!). It is a panoramic shaped portrait of retiring American Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter taken when he was attorney general of New Hampshire in the 1970s. The photograph is credited: Ken Williams/Concord Monitor, Via Associated Press.
Before I go into my analysis of this striking portrait I would like to point out that the credit for the on-line version is different. It is Jim Cole/Associated Press. This is an interesting discrepancy that has no bearing with my story here. What does have is the fact that there are subtle differences between the look of the hard copy version and the one I see on my monitor.
For years I have received much criticism for taking portraits of people looking at my camera, either most seriously or imagining that they are smiling without in fact doing so. Consider the one here, top left of theatre director Roy Surette, and artistic director of Victoria’s Belfry Theatre. It was American photographer Gregory Heisler who publicly criticized Annie Leibovitz for spoiling it for those photographers who tried to look into the soul of their subjects. Heisler remarked that thanks to Leibovitz now photographers had to photograph people doing something. In some cases this doing had to be an eccentric activity like hanging upside down from a tree or bathing in milk.
This has waned a bit as Leibovitz filed for bankruptcy and Heisler, more or less still relatively unknown, has been vindicated. I wonder what Heisler would say of how portraits are now lit, or in most cases not lit. The advent of the do-everything DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera) has made a generation of photographers to so rely on the camera in hand that they don’t consider the possibilities of “tethering” (be it wirelessly or with a cord) the camera to a light and not depending on the light that is available or that pop-up flash that makes it all so easy and, oh so! Flickr.
In the 19th century, before the advent of electrical light portraits, be they photographic, painted or drawn, the rendering of them relied on window lighting or light coming down from large skylights. Such light creates shadows. Shadows give shape to the body and to the face. Shadows hint at the three dimensionality of a person’s face or body on a medium that lacks that third dimension. Flat lighting does away with what in photography is called modeling. Modeling is the contouring of a person’s face with shadows.
What is striking about this portrait of a young David H. Souter is the shading. One side of his face is light the other is dark. The nose somehow (I have never really known how, exactly!) projects an inverted pyramid on his left cheek that those who know call Rembrandt lighting. The absolutely black part of his neck is sharp edged to an area of relative lightness. Again I have never known exactly why except that this is a feature of window lighting or that of a photographic soft box that is placed to one side of a person’s face. The photographer (is it Ken Williams or Jim Cole?) has taken ( I am loathe to use the 2009 term capture) a photograph that shows Souter to be intelligent, urbane and there is, furthermore, just a hint of of a smile. Do either Cole or Williams know of my trick? I tell my subjects, “Think about smiling, very hard, but don’t.”
Colour photographs to this writer are much more effective when there is a lack of colour. A businessman in a dark suit in which the warmth of his skin colour hints that the portrait is in indeed in colour is an example. Contemporary portraiture seems to stress extremely bright, sharp and contrasty colours. This portrait of Souter is the more remarkable in that it has no colour. It is black and white. It stands out in the virtual Babel rainbow of our times.
The discrepancy between the look of the hard copy version, the second picture here and the on-line version, the third picture is due to the manipulation of the scan (this photograph was either a scanned negative or a scanned b+w glossy from a newspaper’s file). The one on my monitor has more of a halo between Souter’s dark side of his head and the back wall. The print version has a more uniform fading into the darkness of the wall. If anything I would like to point out that both images are striking but one might be affected by one over the other without really knowing why. Our ability to subtly change and modify (or not so subtly) the look of a photograph is something that should be considered by all of us and particularly by politicians. Shifting a politician’s face colour from an attractive flesh colour to one that goes into the cyan, the green, or the blue can directly affect our perception of the politician’s qualities and or defects without us being consciously aware.
In the last picture here, a self-portrait by Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson (in my studio, with my camera and facing a large mirror) you can see the modeling on his face, the Rembrandt lighting and that curiously attractive light area right next to the dark side of his face. If I were to up the contrast and open the dark shadows with Photoshop, that area around his head would halo much like in the on-line version of Souter's ever so beautiful portrait.