What is an Environmental Portrait?
We live in a time where we are overwhelmed by images, and most of them are of people. There are selfies, street photographs, advertising images, and any number of genres in which people play a central part.
Then there are portraits.
Portraits are different. My granddaughter recently described them as “anti-selfies.” Portraits are deliberate—an attempt to capture an image that tells us something about a person. In the words of the NY times photography critic Teju Cole, “A photographic portrait records a human encounter. The photographer’s intent and the sitter’s agreement, and vice versa, are made visible.” Both hope that a viewer of the portrait will be able see those intents, and will see them as intended.
We humans are good at reading faces; we’re drawn to them. A good portrait tells a story about the subject. Environmental portraits give us more; they give us a story with a setting. If we can read a story into the simple image of a face, how much richer the story will be when it’s connected to a place, or an activity. I’m not talking here about portraits taken out in the woods or at the beach. Those are fine, and I’ve certainly taken my share of them, but I’m talking here about portraits where the environment actively contributes to the narrative of the portrait.
The portrait of Chantal Longo-Guess above was taken for a bond referendum campaign in support of a building project at JAX (The Jackson Laboratory). The subject of the photo was important, but the environment was equally important to the communnication objectives of the campaign. It’s a modern-looking laboratory, the kind of place that looks like it could effectively use any resources it might be given, and where, if one were to get a job there, it would be a good-paying job doing fulfilling work. Ms. Longo-Guess’s seriousness and the weight of her responsibility is evident not just in her face, but in the apparatus that surrounds her. Yet the location is anything but dour; it’s bright, open, modern, and forward-looking.
Did this portrait communicate effectively? I’ll let you decide. But they won the referendum.
A frequently-requested environmental portrait is a photograph of someone with something they’ve created, or with a tool of their trade. I was asked to create a portrait of sculptor Geoff Horguth for an advertising campaign for a Portland hospital. He might have been dwarfed by the setting, but Geoff commands the viewer’s attention. His enormous public sculpture looms behind him, but is softened both by focus and by the cool balance of color in the image, which blends its steel with the clouds and sky. The sculpture of the calf’s head he holds in his hands is allowed to fall into shadow. And with the key light standing in for a cold winter sun, Geoff commands the portrait.
One of the most brilliant examples of this genre is Arnold Newman’s classic portrait of Igor Stravinsky. In that portrait, Newman pushes Stravinsky to a tiny corner of the frame, filling the rest with a graphically-rendered grand piano. But Stravinsky is not diminished by the piano. Instead, it amplifies his musicianship. That is partly due to Stravinsky’s stature as a composer, but the greater reason the portrait so successful is that Newman understood that by reducing the piano to its simple, iconic shape, it both frames Stravinsky and represents music, both in the that it is an instrument and because its shape, photographed from the angle Newman chose, suggests a quarter note.
So what makes a good environmental portrait? Several things:
- First, it has to be a good portrait. The photographer has to get the sitter has to open up to the camera, so the viewer feels their personality coming through.
- Second, the environment has to tell us something. It’s not enough for it to be “pretty,” it has to say something about the person in the photograph. Better an authentic picture set in a messy office than a sterile smile by the front door.
- Third, the person in the photo should never be a prop for the setting. We’ve all seen the executive photographed by the company sign. That often becomes a portrait of the sign with the executive adding a sense of scale. Look for a setting that serves the sitter, not the other way ’round.
- Finally, it should be intentional. The choice of setting will say something. Make sure it says what you intend.
I like to make portraits in what I call a person’s native habitat. The places where people spend much of their time tell us a lot about them. They’re comfortable there, even if they’re not comfortable in front of a camera, and that helps you to connect as a photographer.
There are often things about a person’s native setting that aren’t right by classic portrait standards. In this example, the mix of cool natural light from the window and warm incandescent light from the desk lamp is too extreme. The light on the papers is too hot, and reflects up to underlight Dr. Bult’s face. It’s not the stuff of classic portraiture, but all those techniques were used to great effect by the legendary Director of Photography Robert Richardson in the movie JFK, and I love the result here.
Each of those elements that break the rules contribute to the wonderful energy Dr. Bult projects as she describes her cancer research, and it’s capturing her energy that makes this portrait successful. Everything about it tells us that this is a woman deeply and enthusiastically engaged in her research.
If a picture is worth a thousand words we ought to choose those words carefully. The techniques of environmental portraiture have tremendous power to shape what an image says.