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Archive for March, 2011

Today, we have more portraits in our daily life than we ever had in the history. Our hard drives, our cameras, our facebook pages overflow with snapshots, but not many people still have portraits, as in “photography purposefully arranged to depict your looks, or even your personality.”

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, portraits were a big thing, and almost everyone had one of their portraits, either a family one, or maybe a wedding one.( These were sometimes even handed out as a sort of calling cards.) Shot in an atelier, these photos were mostly a face or bust closeup, probably with some generic background.

One of the people challenging this concept was Arnold Newman, photographer known best for his environmental portrait. His thesis, basically, is that your environment (i.e. office, your tools, your room, your favorite chair…) says a great deal about you, and therefore should be depicted in your portrait as well.

“I didn’t just want to make a photograph with some things in the background,” Newman told American Photo magazine in an interview. “The surroundings had to add to the composition and the understanding of the person. No matter who the subject was, it had to be an interesting photograph. Just to simply do a portrait of a famous person doesn’t mean a thing.”

To this day, this thesis is valid for me, and I am glad I can always, when I deliberately portrait someone, look in my mind on one of Newman’s environmental portraits, and try to break few rules to get an interesting result. Try it, it’s fun to suggest and great pleasure to see the reaction of the portrayed person.

Sources: PhotoZone, Wikipedia, Arnold Newman Archive

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