As often seems to be the case with my photographic projects, idea basic ideas form quite quickly and are not necessarily the result of prior research. Rather, research tends to follow after the primary decision for the project has already been made and in some ways acts as validation of that idea or an influence on the final form of the project. That has very much been the case with this assignment. I knew very early on what I wanted as the subject once the initial idea of a Lee Friedlander-like series of backs of heads fell by the wayside and also what effects I wanted in terms of depth of field and focus.
As a result the photographers I have gone back to are ones that I already know and at some level probably influenced my choice without having to think about them consciously. One thing that they have in common is that all of the work that I considered is in black and white and the subjects’ heads are closely framed with very little visible background. There are though differences in focus and depth of field.
My starting point was the portrait work of Julia Margaret Cameron. Shallow depth of field and soft focus (more to do with long exposures than anything else) produces pictures that are both dramatic and characterful, giving the images a real sense of life. The lack of extraneous background detail in most of them forces the viewer to concentrate just on the subject. There are no distractions and the gaze is held by the subject, who sometimes looks straight back out of the picture at the viewer. (Weaver, 1989, pp. 64 – 73.) Mostly though the subjects are looking of at an angle, or have their eyes downcast – such as Iago, Study From An Italian which I feel is one of her most atmospheric images. (Jeffrey, 2008, p.24.)
Alfred Stieglitz also came to mind. Most of his work was very different but his portraits of Georgia O’Keefe, which are both intimate and sometimes unflinching in their gaze, struck me as being relevant to my project and embody strongly some of what I hoped to achieve. Whereas Cameron’s view point is straightforward, what is so striking about some of Stieglitz’s pictures is the choice of dramatic, foreshortened camera angles. This is particularly noticeable in the photo reproduced in Jeffrey’s book (Jeffrey, 2008, p.68). This is the sort of view I wanted to achieve although as explained in the commentary on the assignment I was not always able to do so.
The other photographer who came strongly to mind was Alexander Rodchenko who also produced closely framed portraits, often from a dramatic low angle looking up at the subject.
There is then of course Mapplethorpe, as I have already mentioned in the commentary on the assignment photos. In his case though it has been more his photographs of statues, most notably “Apollo” rather than his portrait work as such.
There are of course lots of other photographers whose work has also been something of an influence (Edward Weston and Paul Strand to name but two) but that I have not gone back to so far for the purposes of this assignment.
Jeffrey, I (2008). How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. London: Thames & Hudson.
Lavrentiev, A(1995). Alexander Rodchenko: Photography 1924-1954. Köln: Könemann.
Marshall, R, (1988). Robert Mapplethorpe. London: Secker & Warburg
Weaver, M (1989) (ed). The Art of Photography. London: The Royal Academy of Arts.