Sunday, April 5, 2009

Urban Portraits

This entry is inspired by my son Ryan.  After reading the first couple of entries, Ryan requested that I feature some photography from the “Urban Portraits” theme I have been developing.  In requesting this, Ryan motivated me to talk about two things.  First is the idea of selecting a photographic theme, then pursuing it.  Second, I have employed some specific composition and editing techniques to get the results I envisioned for the theme of Urban Portraits.

All of the shots in this entry are building on the theme of “Urban
 Portraits” I began pursuing in 2005 – roughly four years ago.  Clearly, I am in no rush.  The relevant aspect of talking about urban portraits is that I have selected a theme that interests me, and I am pursuing it – and, as we say in Spanish – poco a poco.
Little by little I am adding to this collection.  I find that selecting a theme for a project, whether short term or long term, helps focus attention, energize creative processes, and always provides an answer when you find yourself asking “what should I shoot today?” Selecting a theme also highlights the value of planning your shooting.  There is a significant difference between planning a shoot and simply waiting for lighting to strike.  Don’t misunderstand me; I have plenty of spectacular shots that resulted from nothing more than the luck of being in the right place at the right time.  However, planning to get the shots you want can be an invigorating challenge.

The first two shots in this entry feature my son Ryan.  He gets top billing in this entry as a nod to his request for the urban portraits.  We had a great time setting up these challenging shots, and I had an even bigger challenge in post processing.  Both of these compositions involve multiple shots.  To get these shots, I set the camera on a tripod, set the ISO to the lowest setting, and used a very aperture.  The result was exposures of up to 2 seconds, and the “ghost” images of passersby as Ryan held his breath and kept completely still.  To get the right mix of “ghosts” I took several shots and then combined them in Photoshop to get a good balance of people in motion.

The second shot involved additional post-processing to keep Ryan in color and add even more of a ghostly effect by converting the rest of the photo to black and white. Which brings me to a second theme among my urban photography shots; by keeping the subject in color and converting the balance of the composition to black and white, you bring clear focus to essence of the shot while introducing a bit of impersonal grittiness often associated with the urban environment.  The Chicago sax player and the Quito street juggler are good examples.  
When I say “street juggler” I mean it literally.  

It is common for street performers to practice their talents in the middle of the street while lights are red in hopes of getting a donation for their public service.  When you look at the picture, where does your eye go tend to settle?

The next two examples take this a step further.  By de-saturating the color, increasing noise, increasing sharpness, accenting highlights, softening the area away from the subject, and deepening shadows, you can add another level of urban grittiness.  “Orange Beard” and “Jose Tucson” are two examples…which is which should be clear.

The next two shots of a man and a woman on the streets of Quito, Ecuador, are similar in the approach taken, but without the color de-saturation.  One of the common photography practices used in both these pictures is limiting what the viewer can see and allowing the mind to complete the image.  In the case of the man, you can see a very shallow depth of field that includes little more than his face.  Much of his hat is out of focus and out of frame, and his shirt and jacket are not in the focal plane.  In each case, this leaves a number of holes for your mind’s eye to complete.  Although you are not “seeing” a full image, your mind is completing it and therefore not confused or unsettled about the missing pieces.
Man in Quito:

The Woman in Quito shot takes a similar approach with a shallow depth of field, parts of the hat and shoulders out of frame, and her head is tilted down so the eyes are not visible.  Like the “Man in Quito” shot, your mind automatically fills in the holes.  The point I am trying to make is that it is not necessary, and frequently undesirable to have the entire subject of your photograph well within the bounds of your shot.  Engage the interest of your viewer by letting them do some of the work!

Woman in Quito:

The final two shots, as most good shots, have a great story behind them.  We will call the subject of the shots Pedro.  Pedro is a very interesting man that tells a great story.  Pedro is in his 90s and is a neighbor of mine.  I first met Pedro as I sat one night on my front porch having a cigar and a scotch…I heard love ballads sung in Spanish drifting through the night air of my neighborhood.  As time went on, I spent time chatting with Pedro…fortunately I speak Spanish, because Pedro does not speak English.  Pedro is Cuban-American and came to the U.S. some 40 years ago.  Pedro is still on his game and willing to tell stories of Cuba and his experiences over his last 40 years in the U.S.

From a photographic perspective, these shots are all about the years of experience revealed in Pedro’s eyes and even more so in his work worn hands.  Like the Quito shots, both of these shots employ a very shallow depth of field limited to little more than Pedro’s face.  Looking at the second shot, you see how the background is completely blurred, while the foreground, as close as his hands, is also blurred.

As always, I hope you enjoyed these photographs and in the process learned something.  If you have any requests, or questions about photography, please send me a note.  I will be happy to share my opinion and the benefit of my experience.

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