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Documentary Portraiture
by Tom Chambers

To make a documentary portrait of an individual that has impact is not as easy as some people might think. Numerous factors have to be taken into account, and Chambers conveys this textually and visually in the following lesson.

"Of course, the first thing that needs to be mastered is exposure in order to provide a fine print for viewing. My rule of thumb is to overexpose one f-stop, and underdevelop thirty to forty-five seconds. This approach will render a negative that is similar in nature to the Zone System.

Putting exposure aside, since I'm mainly interested in helping you capture a portrait that has impact, let's take a look at four images from my 'Dyer Street Portraiture' series: These images would probably fit the 'street shot' category, but they are staged in the sense that the subjects are posed in relation to their surroundings. A 20mm lens (extreme wide angle) is used to 'condense' the view, and show the backdrop/background. The subjects' posture and expression come across as natural, but their 'look' is manipulated through constant encouragement. They're not smiling, and in my opinion, a documentary portrait should not include this kind of expression. As soon as a subject smiles for the camera, he or she breaks character. This action dilutes the nature of the image, and it becomes nothing more than a standard studio portrait."

Documentary Portraiture (by Tom Chambers)

DSP-1 shows a young woman wearing headphones, and tuned-out to her surroundings, oblivious to what's going on around her and possibly to the portrait session as well. She is Hispanic, and stands in front of a wall advertisement in Spanish. Her portrait is staged in front of this advertisement to enhance the ethnicity of the image. She's positioned right to allow the backdrop/background to come through with this ethnic message. The words in the advertisement 'race' across (left to right) the image to provide excitation. This image is not just a portrait, but also a visual statement about ethnicity and oblivion.

Documentary Portraiture (by Tom Chambers)

DSP-2 shows an old man in his failing nightclub. His business has dropped-off, and he feels isolated. His portrait is staged indoors, and he's positioned right-foreground to show the emptiness of his club behind him. He sits alone at a table that should be filled with customers, and his hands-posture conveys reflection and contemplation. This image is not just a portrait, but also a visual statement about isolation and loneliness.

Documentary Portraiture (by Tom Chambers)

DSP-3 shows a young man in front of his 'Headstand' shop. He's positioned low-center -foreground to allow the shop sign (above) to overpower the image, and convey the 1960s -1970s era. His posture, expression and attitude are in direct relation to the word, 'Head' in 'Headstand'. He's making a stand as well, and the advertisement signs to his left and right convey sales to perpetuate a bygone era. This image is not just a portrait, but also a visual statement about attitude and perpetuation.

Documentary Portraiture (by Tom Chambers)

DSP-4 shows a young man in a blood bank. He's positioned left-foreground to show the advertisement sign, 'This man is a paid blood donor.' He's down-and-out selling his blood to survive, and his circumstance is in direct relation to the sign. His posture and expression convey a sense of concomitant pride and humility. This image is not just a portrait, but also a visual statement about survival.

"A portrait is just a portrait, but a documentary portrait makes a connection between the subject and his or her surroundings. And this connection conveys a visual statement about the social condition."

A response Chambers received from a reader: "Just completed the Photo-Seminars series concluding with your piece on Documentary Portraiture. The subject content on the human condition presentation by your 'Dyer Street Portraiture' series was somewhat disconcerting; these photos were definitely not the cotton candy glamor queen shots. Assessing the concept of creating a studio portrait vs an ageless portrait is evaluating the selection of the appropriateness of one of the facets of the gesture of a smile vs non-smile gesture leans more depth and ambiance to the portrait. The overall impression of your portrait lesson left the impact of a haunting punch.

I Believe my preference is your masterfully delivered "jab" of enlightenment! Perhaps with a slight upper cut (a short swing blow from beneath to the opponents chin).... your portraiture article helped me to condense and to fine tune my portrait style into "in your face" defined more precisely as close up and personal, simplify, crop out the surrounding unnecessary clutter and to utilize the look and non-smile gestures to the advantage of the moment while seeking the authenticity of the moment being photographed. At the moment your e-mail was being generated, I was reflecting upon the following quotation: The so-called past is the top of the heart; the present is the top of the fist; and the future is the back of the brain. Zen saying."

About the Author: Tom R. Chambers is a documentary photographer and visual artist with over thirty "real" world exhibitions in the United States, Zimbabwe and South Korea and several "virtual" world exhibitions. He is self-taught with numerous photo/visual arts workshops and arts public programming to his credit. He founded and directed a photography gallery, Viewpoint, which catered to nationally-known photographers and was mentioned in American Photo Magazine. Many of his projects are now a part of various archives around the world, and he's currently working with digital manipulation as an art form under the namesake of New Directions. He's heavily involved on the Internet, having initiated and coordinated two hyperlinked photo exhibitions for PhotoForum and under the auspices of the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's also teaching documentary photography at various Web sites.

You can see more of Tom's work at his website:

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