PPE 2012: On Making Compelling Portraits

In the seminar “The Art and Business of Portraiture,” held during PhotoPlus Expo, portrait photographers Lydia Panas, Chris Buck, and Charlotte Dumas showed their work, primarily focusing on their fine art images, and described how they interact with their subjects to make compelling portraits. Gallerist Michael Foley of the Foley Gallery in New York moderated the discussion.

Panas, a fine artist whose portraits reveal much about character and relationships, showed work from her Mark of Abel and Falling from Grace projects. She explained that she doesn’t direct her subjects; in fact, she talks very little, and works without assistants when she’s shooting fine-art portraits. “I recognize what is happening between myself and the model, and I don’t force anything,” she said. “It’s amazing what you can see just by staring at someone.”

She shoots with film exclusively, and brings only a limited amount  of equipment to each shoot. “That helps me concentrate and focus,” she says. And not knowing what she’s getting “builds up tension and intensity.”

Panas explained that she edits her work with an eye toward body language. The result “is not so much a portrait of that person, but a portrait of what happened between them and me,” she said.

She said that her biggest challenge is asking subjects to sit for portraits. “The fear is that I will disappoint the model and myself, that I won’t see anything [to shoot],” she says. Her method for overcoming that is to forge ahead. “Just jump in,” she said. Editing also creates tension, she said, because models don’t always like the images that mean the most to her. “But the model’s feelings are never far off” during the edit, she said. “I  struggle because I don’t want them to dislike the photos.”

Chris Buck, who is known for his quirky, humorous editorial portraiture, recounted his start as a photographer. He was fascinated by celebrity and pop culture, and attended press conferences and book signings to photograph celebrities. But he admitted that he was intimidated and didn’t quite know what to do with his subjects at first. So he experimented with themes to gain confidence, such as photographing their feet and the things they carried.

When he came to New York and started shooting for magazines, “It was important for me to shoot the way I wanted,” he said. That has not changed. He emphasized that he doesn’t shoot to satisfy or flatter his celebrity subjects; he’s shooting for his magazine clients, and to satisfy his own creative urge. “If I do a shoot, I’m trying to get something for me. There might be three set-ups, and one of them is for Chris Buck. I get hired for that,” he said, explaining that he realized clients call him for a distinctive vision and style that pushes the boundaries of editorial photography.

For instance, he projected one of his early images of Julia Child, photographed from a low angle that made her look slightly monsterish. It horrified his agent, who worried that the public adored Julia Child too much to tolerate such an unflattering picture. “But I loved that picture, so I put it in my book, and it became one of my best images,” Buck said.

Buck said, “Preparation is really key” to good portraiture. He tries to check the location in advance, to see what lighting and props are available. (He relies heavily on props because they tend to relax his subjects, he explained). He does research, and comes with lots of ideas–some of them outlandish–for how to photograph his subjects. For instance, he photographed Billy Bob Thornton urinating on a backdrop. Buck asked the actor to do that, and Thornton complied willingly, but then indignantly refused to pose while holding a bowl of potatoes (which Buck had learned was the staple of Thorton’s diet when he was a starving actor).

“I throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks,” Buck said. “I write lists of ideas, and when I go in, I refer to that list of ideas, but once I’m there, I’m open. It’s like you’re ready to throw it all out and do something else entirely.” Some subjects are more willing to try his ideas than others, he noted.

Buck said he prefers film (and uses it for personal projects because it looks better, he says) but clients expect him to shoot digitally for the speed and convenience. But he studiously avoids looking at his images as he shoots them.  “When you can’t see [what you're shooting], you keep pushing. I try not to look too closely. I’m genuinely surprised because I’m in the moment when I’m shooting. We know it’s sharp, we know it’s exposed correctly, but that’s about it,” he said. He also instructs his assistants to close their computers and pretend to be busy when celebrity subjects or their publicists approach, so they don’t try to edit the take.

Charlotte Dumas showed her quiet fine art portraits of animals, which began as a project about aggression. Unable to find people to photograph, she ended up photographing police dogs in training. That led to photographs of police horses. “My subject was about working animals, but I didn’t want to photograph them in action,” she said. “That made me realize I wanted to shoot portraits.” She ended up photographing them off duty, as they rested in their stables.

From there she moved on to rescue dogs that had worked at the scene of the 9/11 attacks, and horses that pull funeral caissons at Arlington National Cemetery, and exotic animals–particular large cats–at private zoos around the US. She explained that her work is about “our relationship to animals.” It would be a stretch to say there’s a connection between Dumas and her subjects, but the animals exhibit an unmistakable awareness of the camera.

Dumas noted that one of her challenges is her own rising standard for her work. “You know what you can do, but you have to surpass it. Images happen by accident, and then you have to really work harder and harder to surpass what you’ve done before.”

Dumas talked about her process, mentioning that she likes to work with an assistant “not to handle the camera, but to talk to the people–I like to have someone there who can be the distraction, so the [animals'] caretakers leave me alone.” LIke Panas, she prefers to shoot with film. “That gives you an incubation time between shooting the images and seeing them,” Dumas said. “You need that.”

With regard to the business of portraiture, the discussion revolved around self-promotion. And to a large extent, all three photographers are at a level where their work promotes itself. Dumas said, “I slowly but surely made my way in. I don’t feel the need to make a big statement [ie, promotional push].” Instead she has made books, starting with self-published books in print runs of 500 or 700 copies.

“My first book I financed myself. It was a small book. I had myself convinced it had to be really, really nice. I had special edition to cover printing costs. That’s the way I still do it. I keep making small books that represent each series,” she said. “There’s an audience that really likes to collect those books, but also works as promotion.”

Related stories:
Charlotte Dumas: A Fine Art Approach to Photographing Animals
Hide and Seek: Chris Buck’s Conceptual Celebrity Portraits

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2 Responses to “PPE 2012: On Making Compelling Portraits”

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  2. Chris Buck Says:

    Great piece David – much thanks. But just for clarity sake, I would not describe my depiction of Julia Child as “slightly monsterish,” I have great respect for this iconic chef and found her engaging and continually surprising, and I intended on I showing her as such in my portrait.