Portrait Photography, the Old Fashioned Way
One of the nice things about living in a college town: A couple of Saturdays ago I had a chance to take a free, three-hour workshop on portrait photography from a faculty member in Penn State’s School of Visual Arts.
The Palmer Museum of Art offered the workshop in conjunction with the Steve McCurry exhibition, which is pretty much portrait photography at its finest. There were about 15 of us, plus the instructor, Lonnie Graham, who spent about half the time talking about McCurry’s work and the other half showing us his own approach to shooting portraits.
It’s impossible to summarize a three-hour workshop in a short blog posting, so I’ll just show you a couple of photos from it and give you the high points.
He said he wanted to “demystify” McCurry’s work a bit, so he had us stroll around the gallery and look at McCurry’s portraits a while, then we gathered again and he talked about things like shallow depth of field and making sure you’re at the subject’s eye level—as well as more esoteric concepts like “a profound fascination with these levels of humanity.”
One thing that stood out for me was a discussion about the fact that not all of McCurry’s images are tack-sharp. Seeing them blown up that big, and being able to get nose-to-nose with them, you discover that in some cases the subject maybe moved ever so slightly at the moment McCurry shot the photo. It was interesting for me to realize that a gorgeous close-up of a human face can be a world-class piece of artistry in spite of being a tiny bit out of focus.
The way Lonnie Graham explained it was this: “Of course you want it sharp, but you’re shooting in low-light conditions, with no depth of field. And no matter how much you hold your breath, you can’t stop your heart from beating.” After all, he said, “we’re just big bags of water.”
For the second half of the workshop, we went outside, and Graham demonstrated his own approach to portraiture—which, I think it’s safe to say, was unlike anything we’d ever seen. He borrowed one of the participants from the workshop as his subject, positioned him where he wanted him, and proceeded to pull all kinds of old-fashioned-looking equipment out of his bag: a gigantic tripod, a large-format field camera complete with the accordion-style bellows, a black cloth to drape over his head while he looked through the viewfinder, the whole bit.
He took out a pack of white powder—sodium sulfite, he explained—and mixed it with a bottle of spring water, pouring the resulting solution into a Rubbermaid food-storage container. He opened a pack of 4″x5″ Polaroid black-and-white film (Polaroid no longer makes it, though you can get it on eBay) and stuck one of the pieces of film in the camera. After he shot the image, he pulled the film back out, peeled the negative away from the print, and stuck the negative in the sodium sulfite solution to preserve it. He gave the print to the guy whose portrait he had just shot.
Graham swears by this method, and has used it all over the world. He has an exhibition in San Francisco right now based on this kind of portraiture. We found the whole thing very fascinating. But I think one participant summed it up best when she looked at the entire production out there on the plaza outside the Palmer and said, to no one in particular, “I’m never going back to film.”
Tina Hay, editor