These are two portraits of friends of mine. One of the sitters I’ve known for a month, the other I’ve known for seven years, however I think both photos represent well the way these people are. Both photos represent extremely successful endeavors with the 4×5, which is quickly becoming my favorite portrait camera for reasons I’ll discuss below.
In a rush job, I could probably take a picture with the 4×5 in two minutes. If you aren’t familiar with how a 4×5 camera works and are interested in photography, I think it’s edifying to study the camera a little bit and learn about large format photography. It’s an interesting technical endeavor as well as an artistic one, and I may go into more detail in another post. However, it is suffice to say that the process is involved. Both of these pictures took me about twenty minutes to take from the time I took the camera out of its box to when I clicked the shutter.
Twenty minutes is, of course, a long time to take a picture and the idea may be foreign to those only familiar with digital or even “automatic” photography. In a word, 4×5 cameras are manual. Manual focus, manual exposure, they are large and cumbersome. The process of setting up the camera, focusing, and composing it takes a long time. The exposure is normal, it’s completed in fractions of a second as it’s still modern film base being exposed. But how do you spend the twenty minutes while setting up the camera?
I am thoroughly convinced that a good portrait has to be meticulous and familiar. Candid expressions are offhand little emotional phrases which really only exist for the duration of the shutter and then change instantly, in minute yet huge ways, into different expressions of personality. These may poke at the truth of what this person is like, and these kind of pictures are often most meaningful to people who know the sitter. However a candid laugh, a coy smile, these are all expressions which can be captured by anyone keen enough with a camera to notice and anticipate someone’s expressions. These are often expressions of how people want to be seen. However, what does it mean to take a portrait of how someone actually is?
It takes familiarity with that person, it has to. Twenty minutes of focusing and judging light and carefully balancing a composition under a dark cloth on a ground glass is a chance to simply talk to the person. I think a thoughtful and practiced portrait artist can get a sense for the nearly indescribable and nearly unportrayable aspects of someone, the things that makes them unique from the next person, and communicate that in a photograph or whatever medium they’re working in.
How long does it take to get at the truly unique aspects of someone? Twenty minutes might be enough. One month might be enough. Seven years might be enough. It takes time. However, the most successful portraits are one where the viewer can look at them and feel like they know the sitter, like they’re an old friend whose name they forgot.
It isn’t easy. It’s something I’ve been working on and would like to get better at. My understanding of how to improve at art is technical expertise, connection to the world and your subject, and finally a lot of thought about how your subject affects you and how you’d like to portray it. The 4×5 used for portraits encourages all of these things rather nicely.