I want to state right up front that I am most definitely not an expert in painting or art history, but I have been giving quite a lot of thought lately to how some of the great portrait painters of the past had understood the basic elements of portraiture that we all need to keep learning and practicing: light, color and composition. The first two, being interrelated and the foundation of any good representational art form, are applicable to both color and B&W photography. The range of black to white tones in B&W are simply colors in a more narrow range. Composition encompasses not only the framing, the position and pose of the subjects, the background and other secondary elements, but probably most importantly it the device through which the story of the work is told.
I had the pleasure recently of visiting the new 'Art of the Americas' wing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. It happens to be almost in my back yard, but if you have the chance to visit Boston, it's a great museum and the new wing is pretty spectacular. The work of John Singer Sargent, which I had seen many times before, made an even bigger impression on me this time than it had in the past. It may have been because of the MFA's new presentation, but I think it probably had more to do with the thinking I have been doing about those three elements and how they apply to photographic portraiture.
As photographers, we tend to get a little provincial about what we do and how we do it, rather than looking back at how some of those who came before us did things. I think this applies to how and if we think of the great photographers of the past as well. Clearly, many of us are inspired by the greats: Ansel Adams, Karsh, Bresson, ... the list is long. But I need to constantly remind myself to not re-invent the wheel and to let those influences work their magic. I know that some people think that relying on such influences cause us to create work that is not original. Everyone begins doing what they do without already having the skills that come with education, practice and experience, but no one begins creating without having been influenced by those who came before them. Sometimes we can fail to use those influences for the good of our work though, relying on what we think is acceptable at the current time, in terms of technique and artistic sensibility. Think about the work that we might do to differing degrees that may be technically perfect, but while being esthetically current and accepted, is very uninteresting. I see photographic work all the time, as I'm sure you do, that is myopically photographic in style, where it is apparent that the artist thinks only in terms of "photographs" and not allowing any other ambient forces to enter in.
So back to Singer Sargent... The large group portrait called "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" is owned by the MFA, and is probably one of his most popular. It is really quite spectacular in person, being 87 3/8 by 87 5/8 inches. More impressive though is the artist's use of light, coming from a large, muted and soft source, his use of equally muted pastels, and presenting the viewer with an incredibly compelling composition. The four subjects are placed in a triangular formation, which is pleasing at an unconscious level, and while their postures and lack of movement don't necessarily telegraph any particular story, the viewer is wondering what may be going on in that foreground, as well as deep in the dark recesses of the room beyond.
Another Sargent painting at the MFA that doesn't get mentioned much, which may have to do with the fact that it is a seemingly simple, posed portrait, rather than the environmental group portrait that is "The Daughters...". Many of these paintings do not look like much on a computer monitor, and the painting called "Mrs. Charles E. Inches (nee Louise Pomeroy)" is no exception. In person, the color and light that is cast onto the subject and into the room is truly surreal. Maybe I am just blown away by the realism of the work, although I am certainly a lover of the abstract. It fascinates me though in terms of how aware Sargent was of not simply throwing light onto a subject, but rather how he seems to have carefully crafted light that both sculpted and illuminated Mrs. Inches' face in such a way that the viewer can imagine this person and wonder about who she might have been.
One more, and I promise this is my last example, is "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw", which is owned by and currently at the National Gallery of Scotland. My recommendation is to just look at this picture. The beautiful light, the incredible colors, and the casual pose and overall composition, to say nothing of the technique...nearly perfect.
So how does this all apply to photography? I think we can get caught up in camera and lighting gear, which can be a fun, albeit very expensive preoccupation. We can also get pretty wrapped up in the frenzy of people, places and things that often accompany a photo shoot. I constantly have to tell myself to SLOW DOWN. It's not funny really. I need constant assurance that my subject is not getting impatient with me. When I can do this, I can think about my ultimate goal, which is a picture that might please me. In my work, there is good and bad, but there is also a sort of intangible quality of whether it works or does not work. There's no gray area for me on that topic. The photo must “work”. That's what I am after. So just because the light is positioned at a "correct" location, the photo is perfectly exposed, and the composition is by the book, this is all meaningless. We are not "taking" a picture, we are making one, or creating a painting with digital tools in place of paints and brushes. There are rules, but there are no rules. There's good and bad, but there's also art.