I’ve been working toward what I think is an honest and enduring style in the past couple years. I’ve been concentrating on street portraits while traveling as a method of gaining access to places and people I wouldn’t otherwise. As I’ve aged I’ve found there’s a flowering beauty in seeing things just they way they are; untouched and true. It’s easy to pull this off with strangers. They don’t have much of a say after granting permission since I’ll be elsewhere when the photo is finished. What happens when I try to apply this harsh light to those around me? Those I value most?
I’ve been working a lot with the Rolleinar close-up filter set for my Rolleiflex with what I consider to be good results. It’s an intimate and honest portrait without the smeary retouching that’s in vogue these days. I’ve been in the habit of adding a light green filter to these sessions because the photos seem to be more authentic.
Historically, the green filter was used in portraiture to show the “experience” in a subject’s body, and mostly with men. Freckles, blemishes, wrinkles, bruises are all rendered in contrasty detail. Women were usually treated to soft filters and heavy retouching in hopes of covering up details that make us all human. Sometimes these details are reminders to both sexes that we are all aging (at an alarming rate) and lack the perfection we’re all told to aspire to.
I come to take the reverse opinion, that these are intimate and personal details that make each of us who we are, but quite the opposite of what we’ve come to think of as a “flattering portrait”. I’ll leave sexism in portraiture gear selection for another post.
Typical portrait lenses are over 100mm on 135 film (150mm on 120) and ideally lack the resolution of the standard and macro offerings. This puts the photographer further from the subject while overlooking embarrassing details, optically flattens the features by reducing the relative distance between features and makes people appear more “beautiful”.
The trouble I’ve come to have with this sniper’s approach, while requested and profitable, is that it tends to smooth over personalizing details. Your best friend’s freckles, you parent’s nose-pores or your lover’s scar are secrets reserved for only their most critical bathroom-mirror sessions. I don’t see my wife or father or daughter in the same way through a long portrait lens as I do through a standard with a modifier to make the working distance more intimate. I’m used to dealing with these people inside arms length, and as a result that’s how they’re most familiar to me in photographs.
Strangers are easier since I can be completely objective. I can evaluate a friendly person at face value without knowing their back story and how that relates to their body image. It’s not that I’m insensitive to their feelings, but I’m not as invested. I’ve been trying to get inside arm’s reach for these people in hopes of getting the “intimate stranger’s” point of view. It’s hard, but I’m enjoying the challenge.
Recently, I’ve started to use the Rolleinar 2 instead of the Rolleinar 1, especially for loved ones. Our eyes are “normal” focal length, and have a very close working distance indeed. I’m finding the people I’ve shared my life with are in much more familiar perspective. I’m assuming this is what people have to take issue with, since a close and detailed portrait betrays all the things your friends or family have come to accept through love. Appraising somebody right after a hug is how we instinctively see them best.
Buck the trend, if you can stomach the challenge. Get closer to the people you care about. Get closer to strangers you happen to connect with. If I take a photo and my subject says their hair isn’t right, they don’t have the right makeup on, or they need to shave, or they look too heavy, or their shirt needs changing, it’s hard not to smile and say that’s what I wanted. That’s you.
That’s why I love you.