Portraits

Le BonBon Paris Portraits by Emilie Brion

Paris is one of the those iconic places that you don’t want to get sucked into because it’s so well known (like Las Vegas), but there’s a reason that it’s so popular. No matter how much you may think it’s a cliche to stroll down the Champs-Élysées, it’s still a unique experience. The Effel Tower simply does not get boring, and I’ll never pass up a trip to this wonderful heart of Europe. The last time I was back there I met up with Emilie Brion, we know each other from an eternity ago in Michigan and I promised to look her up next time I was Incognito in Versailles. We killed a few hours at a cute cafe near the Opera and we got into some heavy conversations about photography, portraits, and the Decisive Moment. She appreciates the capture of a singular moment in time, which can never be relived or improved upon, I say that I produce decisive moments in the studio when I decide to. In truth there’s a never a way to relive a photograph, either from a darkroom or from the computer, and it was excellent when I regained this sense of fleeting time captured in a camera after our conversation. Since that time Emilie has started shooting a portrait project with Le Bonbon magazine, which features portraits of people from the different districts of Paris. I wanted to write about her project, my mind freshly finely tuned for some prose after watching the trailer for the Rum Diary (the novel by the late Hunter S. Thompson) with Johnny Depp playing Paul Kemp. But to be honest, some things are best left in their perfect natural state – and no post processing or editorial drama is necessary. So I present here, in Emilie’s own words – her portrait project of the 6th and 7th districts of Paris for Le Bonbon.


The online version of her portraits can be found here pages 48-49:


Le Bonbon Juillet 2011 Rive Gauche

In Emilie’s words…


Le Bonbon, ‘the candy” in French, is a local free Parisian magazine by arrondissements (for each districts of Paris) made for and close to the locals. It includes information on what’s happening in each district and promotes local restaurants, stores and events. Each magazine includes two pages dedicated to 32 snapshots of people from that district. Since I love to take pictures, I was asked if I wanted to take the pictures for the magazine for the 6th and 7th district of Paris. I thought it would be a new challenge and interesting project.


Since the pictures are snapshots, I did not want to use a digital camera but simply use my iPhone 4 so that when I would approach people to ask for their permission to take pictures, I wouldn’t be a photographer – but like them, a pedestrian walking on the street with an iPhone in her hand…. Less intruding I find…


Shooting street portraits of strangers is challenging. Often when you see a stranger you want to photograph, you can’t seem to ask them for their photo. For my part, I don’t want to intrude and I have the fear of the rejection. The struggle to shoot through the fear is worth it as when you get a spontaneous approval then you get excited and want to shoot more.


The reaction varies, either you get a firm “no”, or a spontaneous “oh, ok” or some people ask you numerous questions s as they are intrigued by the reason they were chosen and what the purpose is. Approaching people on the street is quite a sociological and psychological experience in itself…


The light is my biggest challenge… I walk around and find someone that I feel represents the districts or I am just struck by their face but I don’t want them to pose and position them to get the best light. I prefer the “instant” moment as these are not professional photos but snapshots so I often disregard the light and the one thing I want to capture with every portrait was that ‘unguarded’ natural look… that look that moved me in the first place when I spotted them on the street… I want to avoid that usual snapshot smile… you know, that smile that you’ve smiled a thousand times whenever you’re in front of a camera that “forced and fake smile and posture”. I want it to be REAL and spontaneous.


This project was a challenging and rewarding experience for me. I remember each and every encounter I’ve had with all these strangers: how I spotted them, how nervous i felt, how they reacted to me, and the rewarding feeling afterwards knowing that I just got one more keeper in a set of a hundred keepers I was aiming to get. Now I feel so lucky having been able to connect with these people even for just a few seconds. Different faces… all of them beautiful in very different ways with whom I have had a brief encounter that I tried to capture to its best in its instant.


As Marcel Proust said: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”


A Person is not a Subject


It’s been a fun year of photography so far, and running the Web Portraits Zurich project has given me reason to reflect on the process of making cool portraits of interesting people. I’ve contrasted my findings with the ramblings of professional photographers and teachers of the internet (where I learned a lot abouot photography), and have come to the conclusion that most internet sources don’t really have a handle on the portrait process, or they simply like to focus more on gear and dehumanizing people into subjects with gear talk rather than having a conversation on who is in front of our lenses.


Now, understand, it’s not their fault. It’s not embedded in their DNA. It’s just part of the mystique of this easy-lazy-art-form called photography. Cameras and photo gear became popular because it’s easier to click a shutter on a device than painting a canvas or doing a detailed sketch of what ever it is you’re looking at. When you shoot with a big camera it makes you feel important, but there’s a reason I don’t take myself too seriously. There’s this romanic ideal of photographers being like painters and artists delving with their whole soul into the artistic expression of the portrait. Photographers are expressing the inner soul of humans for all to see in the printed or screen viewed image…however…

A person is not a subject


Simple, and to the point. A lot of folks get into photography because it’s cool – like I did. I drew things in math class because it was interesting, I started with photography and Photoshop because the gear makes it easy. There’s a romantic notion embedded in the collective history of photography of capturing emotions and elements of people, which would otherwise be lost forever as the second-hand ticked over and the present becomes the past and that look is lost forever (unless captured by the photographer). But a person is not a subject. Even models have names and personalities, but photographers sometimes like to ignore those humanizing notions and instead focus on the technical process of focusing light onto an image capture surface (like film or a digital sensor).  Afterall, we’re all engineers and poets, painters and scientists. But I like photography because it opens a door to the non-technical side of life. Models are not Barbie dolls. I know of what I speak, for I shoot pictures of Bratz dolls when I just want to photography plastic people. However, this gets boring quickly, and is a subject best suited to those moments when you’re looking for a way to till time but don’t want to sit in front of a television.


Photographing people is distinctly different than taking snapshots of Bratz dolls because with people you now have the opportunity to interact with the person. If you’re into photographing people, then just think of the process as an extended conversation with some visual elements thrown in. When you start saying things like, “I lit my subject with this and that camera and photographed them with an 85mm f1.2 lens…” Well, you’ve lost the point of the conversation. If you listen to professional photographers they’ll tell you to talk to your subject. Get to get to know them, make them feel comfortable. But here’s the thing, small talk like, “what do you do” “what’s your favorite color” “where are you from” is just filler talk. You’re probably doing it so the person doesn’t feel ignored but not because you really want to know who they are. This type of small talk simply says, “I’m just interested in my camera and making an image and you’re just a body…so smile.” This technique can be effective given the right situation. But is that the more interesting way to shoot? Is it more interesting to shoot a Bratz doll (who can’t speak) or to listen to a person and make a picture of them as well?

A Portrait is just Conversation


A photo session is just an extended conversation in my mind, and if you start out talking with people with an authentic voice, then the photo session will just be an extension of that initial, real, emotional connection. If you starting shooting like a pornographer and only start talking when you notice your subject is looking uncomfortable, then the whole positive momentum of the conversation has already been lost and you need to sort of start over. Tripping the shutter is the  shortest and least important part of a portrait photo session. But it’s the part that defines the final image. The question is, how does one get up to that point? I Think of the photo session in this way:

Conversation – Lighting/Set – Picture


The more time you take in getting to know a person before you light them with a million-gazillion photons, the more natural the resulting image will be. Or more unnatural, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve, and sometimes every photo session is full of suprises. Once you understand something about the person you’re planning to shoot you can design the lighting (some call this subject driven lighting), build a set or pick a proper location, and then being planning a post-processing philosophy, all before taking any pictures. I like to spend the least amount of time possibly on actually shooting and setting up lighting. The reason is simle, the shutter trip is the most insignificant part of the process if the process was done correctly. Now, maybe you’re going for the whole Stanley Kubrik, make-the-actors-feel-uncomfortable-to-illicit-emotion-from-them deal, but that’s a whole other level of person-photographer interaction. An authentic portrait session starts (and ends) with a conversation.


Most of the technical things about photography I’ve learned from the internet. It’s been a fun time and I’ve learned a lot about light control and lenses and cameras and strange terms like gobos and brolley. But my mind became exhaused and bored with this conent, and I’ve started wondering what else is there. However, when I watch things like creativeLive with Zach Arias or attend a Strobist workshop, I’ve started to notice how technology and lights are always at the forefront, and the whole emotional connection thing is thrown in afterwards, even though people generally admit it’s one of the mose important aspects of the whole process. Those conversations are there, but they’re not focused on in blog articles like David’s article On Assignment: Caleb Jones. Technical side of the shoot is all there, but what was the emotional connection between David and Caleb?


That’s a key element that a photographer like Joey L communicates extremely well in his DVD tutorial (Sessions with Joey L). In his tutorial Joey Lawrence pushes the ideas of trust and emotional connection as being primary, and lighting and camera technology as the secondary elements of a photo shoot (or photo career). This isn’t meant to be a negative critique of Zach Arias or of David Hobby (but it could be viewd as an encouragement or suggestion). The latter two (and internet icons like Chase Jarvis) are just responding to what sells. People love the technology of photography, the lenses, bodies, radio triggers, flashes, etc. People drop big bucks on technology and then wonder why their pictures look lifeless and ordinary when they know the person has a soul and interesting story to tell (like we all do). The thing I love about the Vincent Laforet CreativeLive workshop is that he started out talking about the philosophy behind movies, the story telling and emotional elements, and then got into the gear talk. It sets your head in the right mind-set, to tell a story and to make a connection to the viewers or consumers of the media product you’re producing. That’s not to say I miss the gear talk, it just gets boring after a while.


I love photo gear. I have more cameras than Onitsuka tigers and picked my last apartment based on how I could setup a photo studio. One reason I started the Web Portraits Zurich project was to do emotionally-driven portraits of people (I know that sounds a tad pretentious). I wanted to setup a process of including the emotion of the person in their portrait. I wanted to portray people including elements of how they perceive themselves. I shoot the web portraits based first around the person, and then as a secondary condition around lighting and Photoshop. For each portrait set we start out with a concept meeting, the people I’m shooting get to know me and I start to understand how they see themselves. This is the grounding for the whole photo session, and I see the whole process as one long conversation with some camera equipment and photoshop thrown in as an after-thought.


A person is not just a subject


A photo shoot is just an extended conversation



Lukas – Movement DJ Portrait

I shot Lukas for the Web Portraits Zurich project some time ago, and I’m finally producing some finished portraits from the shoot. Lukas runs Guzuu and is a fixture in the Swiss web community for his unique visual style. Like many people I meet in the web/startup scene, he’s not just into launching companies, but also has a creative side. In this case, Lukas likes to DJ in Luzern and runs an internet music label (LittleJig.com).


I thought for a long time about how create images of Lukas, I could have just composited in some graffiti and called in a wrap, but then the images would have looked too similar to what I created for Mathias, and my sense for photographic exploration was honed in the academic research world. In Academia the key driver is to do something different, start with what you learned from the work of Bent and Hagood on Active Fiber Composites (AFC) and do something slightly different, evolve the idea a bit. Similarly, I wanted images of Lukas which have more movement and motion elements in them than with Mathias. I wanted to take some elements from my experience dancing in clubs and other DJ images I’ve seen on Flickr, and combine it with the visual style I’ve been developing. This meant light trails, streams of light created from the headlights of moving cars and night scenes of the streets. So when I went to UXCamp Europe 2010 in Berlin, I took some extra days and walked around Berlin, shooting long exposures at Rosenthaler Platz and other locations to generate the necessary texture images for Lukas.



When I’m dancing in a club I like to loose my mind and let my body get connected to the music and the vibrations in my soul. It’s a very personel thing, rather hard to commuincate visually, but I figured I should at least try. A key here was to let the light trails and night scenes move around Lukas, not dominate his image or allow key elements to be lost in the shadows. I’m getting back into painting at the moment, so I had an eye for adding abstract visuals from the night which are probably more like brush strokes than elements from Berlin, but in my head it seems to work.


Web Portraits Zurich – The Idea

Amazee-Balmhorn


A few weeks ago I launched a project on Amazee called, Web Portraits Zurich.


The project is simple, easy to explain and painless to promote. I want to combine photography with the interesting people I’ve met in the Zurich web scene. While heading to events like the Swiss StartUp camp in Basel, barcamps in Berlin and Switzerland, as well as the WebMonday meetings in Zurich, I’ve met a lot of interesting people with interesting ideas. Then, after WebMonday Zurich #10 I brainstormed some lighting setups for an upcoming photoshoot - and then an idea was revealed in my head. The idea is to use Amazee to organize portraits of the people in the web and startup community around Zurich. Right now I’ve cut a few videos in my head explaining the Web Portraits Zurich concept and will cut them for real this week. These will both present and explain the Web Portraits concept and organization. This seems the most effective way to give people an idea of what to expect and to promote to interested parties.


But as a prelude, I’ll reveal some personal motivations behind the project. Why Web Portraits? Why organized on Amazee? After all, to just do some portraits of the web people in Zurich, I can just contacted people and shoot the portraits and than would be it. You see, with Amazee I see some inspiration to experiment with Creative Production.


The Web is also Human


The Net is also Mortal


If you shoot a portrait it might all be done by the photographer, setting up lighting, choosing a location, organizing things and then doing the shoot. In my experience the process of creating a portraits involves a few steps (or non at all): Concept Creation, Production Design, Shooting, Post-Processing, Distribution.


I want to give back, to give the opportunity to people to participate in the process of creating these portraits. Why? Because I’ve found that exercising your creative tendencies outside of your normal interests (or jobs) makes you a better, more flexible thinker and enables you to improve your ability to view the world in different ways, and that improves your ability to come up with new solutions for different problems in life.


Since the project was launched on Oct. 29th there’s been a healthy interest on Amazee, including a feature on the main page. Now it’s up to me to build on the momentum and release these videos and start shooting. If it all works out in the end there will be a sweet collection of portraits from the Zurich web scene, we’ll integrate the interesting personalities with their cool technological achievements and see what trouble we can get into along the way.

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