Thursday, November 10, 2011

Every Picture Tells More Than One Story


It is difficult to grasp that it has been a month since I last wrote anything of real substance on this blog.  Time has flown by and I have been extremely busy.  In the past two months some interesting events have occurred and as is often the case in "Allen's World" there is a common thread connecting them and which is also applicable to the outside world.

Recently I sold two prints from my gallery of photographs documenting a journey to Laos.  In thanking GD of Arizona for their support I wrote: "They say that every picture tells a story.  I actually believe that every picture tells more than one story dependent upon one's perspective and experience"  I attached a copy of the blog entry that was associated with the two prints that he purchased.  The blog entry was my story that the pictures told to me.  This story, my story, would go along to his story related to the photographs.

Photographs are like facts in that they create a reality for each one of us, a reality that is defined by our individual perspectives, experiences, and bias.

I take photographs back in Asia of people, places and things that are interesting to me, - different from what I am accustomed to.  To the people that I photograph, they consider themselves to be ordinary people doing ordinary things but, to them, it is me who is exotic and interesting.  It is all is just a matter of perspective and experience - for all of us.



Photographs like facts can be manipulated and processed to achieve a desired effect or perceived sense of reality.

Interpretation of photographs just as with facts is highly subjective and greatly impacted by our prejudices; prejudices that can be either good or bad.

I recently signed up for a seminar about glamour photography.  In Southeast Asia I never have a problem in finding and photographing "... extraordinary people doing ordinary things."  Here in America, it is not so easy.  People in the United States are more suspicious of being photographed and in general greatly more paranoid of their children being photographed.  Just as I respect the cultural mores of SE Asia, I respect the culture here in the USA and greatly restrain my photographic activities.

However the difficulties of photographing willing subjects here has not lead me to pack up my camera and put it away in the closet.  I have decided to take advantage of resources readily available here in the USA to better educate myself regarding photography.  My hope is to increase and improve my skills in taking MY photographs.  I want to better understand and be more familiar with the tools as well as techniques to better capture my visions to share with others.  I don't want to learn how to and I definitely do not want to take other people's photographs.  As I have written before - one Ansel Adams is enough and one Anne Geddes is most likely one too many - I don't need or desire to take "their" photographs or photographs like theirs.

One area that I would like to become educated with is the use of studio lighting.  In late September, I rented an equipped photography studio to take photographs of my wife.  It was an opportunity for me to experiment with studio lighting.  It was a very educational afternoon and I am still post processing the 1200+ photographs from that session.


I signed up for the Glamour Phototgraphy Seminar given by a well known photographer in order to learn more about the use and control of studio lighting as well as to gain more experience in taking the types of photographs that I would like of my wife.  Although I do not intend to become a studio photographer, I believe the knowledge and experience will enhance my documentary portraits that I typically take while on location in SE Asia.

Due to circumstances beyond his control, the photographer was unable to give the seminar as originally scheduled.  Wishing to demonstrate to the people that signed up and paid for the seminar that he was a real as well as honest person, he offered to meet us at the home of his friend for a day of photography discussion and shooting of a Playboy model - all at no extra cost to the seminar participants.  At the informal gathering, we all would decide when to reschedule the original seminar.

Well the informal gathering was quite an event.  We met at the home of a prominent Boston photographer.  The Boston photographer has 75 magazine covers to his credit and has covered every Presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter.  All six of us strangers were welcomed into his home as if we were all old friends from university.  He was occupied preparing for a fashion shoot later that day, so we went downstairs to his kitchen area.

Our glamour photographer spent the morning and early afternoon in a free, open and animated discussion with us regarding many aspects of glamour photography.  After lunch, which he graciously paid for, we returned to his friend's home.  The Boston photographer created some time to spend with us in his office.  Spending time with him was very informative.  He openly shared his experiences as well as techniques with us.  We learned many details behind some of his pictures that we had seen on covers of magazines.  Some of the facts that amazed me were how little time he has to take the photographs of important people - some people he has only 5 minutes to take their photograph at a location determined by the subject - i.e. in the Board Room, at the Mall, in the office.  He had better fortune with the renowned actor, Anthony Hopkins - 20 minutes at the photographer's home.  I had always assumed that most of these wonderful portraits that grace publications were studio shots which lasted 1 to 2 hours.  As it turns out these photographs were taken under conditions and circumstances that I am all too familiar with.

The photographs, in general, were not taken with 1, 2, 3, or even more studio strobe lights.  Most of the photographs were taken with speedlites, what we used to commonly refer to as "flash guns".  The difference, and oh what a difference there is, between his photographs and the ones that most people take is that he does not have his speedlite mounted on his camera, he utilizes more than one speedlite, and he uses a knowledgeable assistant to position reflectors or speedlites to get the appropriate light.

Appropriate light?  There are two types of light involved in photography; soft light and hard light.  Just as facts can depict and create a perceived reality, so can light.  Soft light creates low contrast portraits with soft edged shadows and conceals blemishes.  Soft light is created by large light sources.  The closer that a light source is to a subject the softer it light becomes.  Soft light is very complimentary to the female face and form.  In the natural world the sun creates soft light on an overcast day or in the very late afternoon during the "golden hour".  The light is diffused and flattering.

Hard light on the other hand, like some facts, can accentuate the features and blemishes in a photograph.  To a certain degree hard light is more typically used in male portraits.  Hard light is created by a small light source at a further distance from the subject.  In the natural world the sun creates hard light on a clear day during the middle of the day.  The light is sharp and focused which often makes it not very flattering.

Facts just like lighting can be used, manipulated, or modified to influence our perceptions and experiences.  The subject or object of our attention is what it is but through the skillful exploitation of light or even facts, people's perceptions and sense of reality or "truth" can be greatly influenced.

During our time together in Boston, we got to take photographs of a Playboy model.  This was a new experience for me.  She is a professional model.  Unfortunately, she did not provide Model Releases and asked that we not share our photographs because of her current employment.

She is a very attractive young woman but more importantly she is a very skilled model.  For our photography session, we did not go to any specialized studio.  For our photo shoot, we did not have 2, 3, 4 or more studio lights. We used on studio strobe with a large soft box attached to it.  The photographs were taken downstairs of the Boston photographer's South Boston apartment.  We utilized a seamless paper background behind the model with a single chair or no chair at all.  Many of our photographs were actually poses in the apartment back doorway leading out to a small garden area along with parking.  The lesson learned here was that you don't necessarily have to have an exotic location or sophisticated equipment to take excellent photographs. The Boston photographer stressed that often in photography you have to make do with what you have.  The skill and art of the photographer is to communicate his vision  with the environment and circumstances that he is faced with for the shot.

We were very fortunate to have a professional model to work with on that afternoon.  With very little direction, she worked to provide us with interesting opportunities.  I informed her during one of my sessions that I wanted to focus on her eyes and lips.  Yes, it is absolutely true - when photographing a model in lingerie - I was focused on her eyes and lips.  That was my vision of her.  Of course I saw other things but at that moment my vision was of her yes and lips.  She listened to me and focused on what I wanted to accentuate in my photos.  The shots came out great and it all seemed quite easy.

Being a professional model, in addition to being comfortable posing in front of a camera she also had a very good understanding of makeup.  In reviewing my shots I was very impressed with her makeup.  However during post processing of her shots as well as shots that I have taken of my wife, it was very apparent the effect of light has on a person's complexion.

First of all I am not aware of any adult who has a perfect complexion.  We all have some degree of blemishes, spots of different colored pigmentation, and "character" or "smile" lines commonly referred to as WRINKLES.  To a certain extent these identifiers can be minimized with the proper application of makeup.  Soft light is also of great benefit to minimize and obscure these details.  On the other hand, hard light can accentuate these details as well as highlighting any efforts that were made through the use of makeup to eliminate them.  Facts can also be used to obscure or influence our sense of reality - hard facts can cast a disparaging light on a person if not tempered by additional soft or more flattering facts.  The person remains the same in both lights but our sense of realty regarding them is heavily influenced by the balance between hard and soft facts.  We react to the facts from our personal perspective and experience to create our own "truth".

During the Playboy Model shoot some of the light accentuated blemishes to her complexion.  It was the same model with the same makeup as before but with the different light, the photographs were not flattering at all.  Well, the photographs did end up being flattering in the end - through the use of post processing software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements to remove offending details.

Last Sunday I attended a historical recreation of a Revolutionary War Thanksgiving.  As part of the celebration an authority on the French involvement in the Revolutionary War read excerpts from contemporary diaries from both sides.  When the French first arrived in the Colonies they were not very welcomed.  The Colonists did not have much experience with Frenchmen.  The view who knew of Frenchmen their experience was from that of being adversaries during the French and Indian Wars - wars that the Colonists and British Army fought against the French and their Native American allies.  At the onset of the Revolutionary War, Great Britain attempted to split the developing alliance between the Colonists and French by capitalizing on old prejudices and fears. However, once the Colonists actually had the opportunity to meet, socialize, and do business with the French, they realized a new reality - the French were not like their fears and prejudices had lead them to believe.  For their part the French diaries are filled with the praises of the people and lands of the colonies.  The Frenchmen wrote of wonders and marvels that were all so strange and different to them but ordinary to the Colonists.

So I find myself often doing when I write of life in Isaan; writing of wonders and marvels that are all so strange and different to me but common everyday life to the Lao Loum people.

 To the extent that I can provide a glimpse into the life, culture, and beliefs of Southeast Asia to give a different perspective to the readers of my blog and viewers of my photographs, I am pleased to provide facts that will allow others to form their own reality.

I will always remember that every picture tells more than one story and that facts only tell part of the story - until all the facts are known and their context understood, the story is not complete.

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