Spontaneous Combustion

I cannot explain it. Some days the coffee hits hard and I start moving furniture around and pulling stuff off the walls. I will skip breakfast and let the coffee churn in my stomach for a few hours. 

Then this music starts playing... 

...and I begin to take on the form of Charlie Chaplin trying to quickly transform a living room into a photographic studio before the sun goes down. Then I find someone to come model for me and I dress them up and give them props and coffee and we end up having a lot of fun. 

This kind of spontaneous photography is always fulfilling by virtue of its mysterious ignition. I was not asked or paid to do it, I just did it because at the time, I felt I had to. I was not compelled to write, or to go shopping, or anything else. I was compelled to shoot and that is as far as I understand.

Portraits are often engaging and playful, while they can also be very personal and intimate. When someone comes to have a portrait made, they ask me to make them look good. My end of this deal goes far beyond nice lighting and a focused lens.

I always make an early attempt at disarming them of the typical "portrait session" stigmas. I want them to understand that I do not intend to transform them. 

We walk around most days, guarded, hiding behind our sunglasses and cellphones and fake, people-pleasing personas. A portrait should speak volumes about the real you- not an idealistic or stoic formulation. I see no value in over-lit, glamorized portraits. These detract from what could be an insightful image of someone. They are impersonal. Our faces are our identity, so then it only makes sense to capture it honestly.

On the other hand, lately there has been a trend of exceptionally casual and unflattering portraiture. I suppose because it is easy. The subjects wear unflattering, ill-fitting clothes and sit or stand or slouch or hunch in contorted, unattractive positions in messy, grungy rooms. But you can see her nipples, so you'll be rightfully confused about whether you are supposed to be turned on or saddened- because these photos do not look like portraits and the girls do not look like models, they look like 16 year-old hipsters at a slumber party that did not intend to have their picture taken. With this in mind, I would cite c-heads.com. But you do not have to look hard, it's everywhere.

I do not use strobes or flashes. They are harsh, psychologically, and generally unnecessary given the advancements and affordability of LED panels. Continuous lighting is soft, and it removes the anticipation of a loud, temporarily blinding flash that hits you right at the moment when you are not supposed to blink.

It is a challenge to articulate what you want your portrait to look like. Some people give general characteristics they want to portray: Confident, friendly, peaceful. But it is more difficult to explain when is the very moment their face and body are conveying those emotions, and what it takes to evoke them.

This is where the coffee comes in. Or liquor. An essential part of being a photographer is always having great coffee, a well-stocked liquor shelf, and good ice. And knowing how to make a few basic cocktails. Nothing puts people at ease in front of a camera more than their go-to drink.

A portrait session can be therapeutic as a subject, though I find it is equally so as a photographer. It is similar to writing a research paper. Once I have my subject, I have to do research. I investigate their past and present through conversation, and use that information to help form an idea in my head of exactly what kind of person this is, and how they should be photographed. I listen closely and try to discern how I can make this person feel comfortable and open. In the end, the goal is vulnerability. A subject that is vulnerable is unguarded, and with that state of mind comes a responsibility to be sensitive.  

This is, of course, a very subjective mission. I can only make them "look good" according to my eyes. Other photographers will have a different idea. The subject's end of the deal requires the willingness to engage and explore their own emotions. It is not easy to relax with a camera pointed at you, but this is paramount. Music helps. 

These photos were mainly taken to test a film that was unfamiliar to me. Ilford Delta Pan F Plus 50. It is a slow film, so everything was done on the tripod.

Laura is always a good sport. It is my humble opinion that doing these sessions with her over the past few months has been therapeutic in ways that go beyond medicine or even professional therapy- both of which we have clung to in darker times. Our minds have spent many hours occupied with these experiments, where we examine our posture and personalities and faces and bodies, searching for new and interesting ways to make compelling photos. There are many, many failed attempts. I have negatives that would embarrass any photographer. But for every 36 exposure roll, there are usually 1 or 2 that I feel made the entire day worth it. Hell, just spending the day dressing up with my friend and taking photos and playing with photo chemicals makes the entire day worth it.