Placing a subject within a context using a wide angle lens for portraiture.

When I started photography back in the early 1970s, I was very much attracted to the “Life” magazine style of photography. The trouble was that I was only about 14 when I started, and I didn’t really understand what I wanted to say photographically. I favoured using my 135 mm lens, because I was so target fixated upon the subject. I used to like the way how the short telephoto lens isolated the subject from the background because of its lack of depth of field.  I just loved the way how there was a sharp face against a non-distracting blurred background.

I was once asked by an 18-year-old fellow student, when I was in design school in my 40s, if it was true that one became smarter as they got older. I replied that I didn’t think we got smarter, rather that we had more experience that helps us understand what we were experiencing a little more clearly. I suspect that we’re a somewhat like computers, in that we have the raw processing power of the main chip (our brains), but we need to have something (life experience) in our hard drives to work with.

I have a bit of a theory about how our understanding of the world changes as we get older. To try and simplify what I’m trying to express I will use the cube as a metaphor. I suspect that when we are young and we see something like my metaphorical cube; our lack of experience in the world leads us to perceive it almost 2-dimensionaly as a mere square.

As we get little bit older, we start to realise that the square has in fact, another dimension, and we start perceiving it as a three-dimensional object. Then, further along in our lives we start to see the texture of the cube’s surfaces and where that cube sits in the world.

Now, as I get older, I have noticed that I am more interested in photographing people within a context and I am no longer as satisfied with portraits taken with telephoto lenses that decontextualize the subject.

On Sunday, when I went to the sculpture by the sea exhibition I found myself looking at the people on the beach as much as I was looking at the artworks. 

After all, some people are artworks in their own right.

A gracious subject within a context

When I saw the fellow in the photograph above, I knew I had to take his photograph, so asked if I could take a shot of him.  Years ago, I would have been more interested in emulating Cartier Bresson by standing back and trying to take a picture surreptitiously with a telephoto lens, without asking so I could capture a “pure”, unstaged moment.

When I asked permission to take the photograph, my subject asked me what I was going to do with the image. I told him that it was for my own use, and that I felt a certain responsibility to record the age in which I live. I also explained to him that I was using a very wide-angle lens (10mm) and I was going to get quite close to him (I didn’t want him freaking out or anything).  He then asked me why I was using such a wide-angle lens (he had a video camera with him so he understood such things). I explained that I wanted to put him within a context. I wanted, not only a shot of him as the subject, but also the environment in which I encountered him.

I found the whole experience of explaining what I was doing, to my subject, quite pleasing and I know the fellow that I took the photograph of was glad to know what my intent actually was. As you can see from the image above, he graciously gave his consent and co-operation.

Another outcome of asking for permission to take photographs of people is that one gets photographs of them looking at the camera.  I’m always very interested in the expressions on people’s faces as they look into the camera, because it’s all about how they the deal with engaging with strangers.

10 thoughts on “Placing a subject within a context using a wide angle lens for portraiture.”

  1. First, I think I need to move to Sydney. If McCain wins the election, I was thinking of requesting political asylum to Canada, but looking at the ocean and the bright sun in your part of the world, I may ask Australia to accommodate me.

    Second, you know how I feel about wide angle portraiture. I see your point from a journalistic stand, not from a portraitist’s. We’ll have to agree to disagree… for a change 😉

  2. Nat

    Sydney is a great place and I’m sure you’d love it here and Sydney would love you right back.

    As for what is portraiture, I think you may want to take a step back and think about this in a historical perspective. Let’s look at 19th century photography for example. Although people like Julia Margaret Cameron attained some fame for her portraits, her images don’t tell us much about the world her subjects lived in, other than the clothing fashion of the day. I’m willing to bet that historians will find images of people in a context, like those of John Thomson (such as the famous “The Crawlers”) much more valuable (in an intrinsic sense) than portraits of people separated from the world they live in.

    Portraits aren’t just records of what people look like, they can also be about the world that people live in as well.

    For an anthropologist, an artefact, such as those taken from burial site by grave robbers, has much less value and interest than something that was found in context.

    I think you’ll find (theoretically, as we’ll both be dead by the time it happens) that in the future, the only portraits of people out of context that will be used, will be shots of famous people to illustrate articles about them.

    The portraits that will interest people in the distant future will be those that show people in a setting that tells you something about their lives.

    For me, it’s a matter of texture and depth.

  3. I really liked this one. It seems to me to be a pretty pure photograph. The subject is relaxed, appears genuine and I like the perspective of being just a little higher up than he is.

    For me, I tend to be a sucker for landscapes or still life. For what ever reason, I almost always wait for people to be out of the frame before I click. I don’t really know why.

    -Turkish Prawn

  4. “I found the whole experience of explaining what I was doing, to my subject, quite pleasing…”

    Razz, this is the sentence I found so interesting in your post. I think when artists talk about their work, the love behind the craft comes through and not only is it pleasing to them, it can be to others as well. Is that not what your blog and others are about?

    As for the portrait itself? He literally looks like he just emerged from the waters after a long long swim across the ocean. When he began swimming it was the 60’s and when he came out it was 2008. I love it.

  5. Turkish

    Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’m usuallt the same when I take landscapes but as I mentioned, I wanted to get a shot of him, showing his “habitat”, so to speak.


    I enjoyed talking to him because he was engaged with what I had to say. He was a nice guy. I love your comment about him swimming through time.

    There are still quite a few people here in Sydney that refuse to contemporize their look. I feel that he was more in tune with the beach than most of the other people there. He was there with a young teenage guy with a skateboard who he’d been videoing.

  6. I understand what you are saying, and I’m not disputing placing someone in their context for a portrait, but when you shoot at such a wide angle, your subject is deformed. If you look at “The Crawlers”, it is in context, but the subject’s integrity is not sacrificed to show the surroundings. You can easily shoot with a 35mm, show surroundings, and not compromise lines in the process. How much beach and sky do you need to show to drive your point across? What would have been different if you had shot it with the 35mm and further away from him? How can people act naturally when you are so close to them? And where are his eyes? Eyes are the window to the soul!

    ‘Nuff said. You are preventing me from working. When I go to Sydney, we’ll definitely need to sit with a bottle of wine and argue just for the pleasure. 😉

  7. Nat

    Everything taken by a camera is a distortion of one kind or another. To my mind there is no such thing as “normal” perspective.

    His reaction was his natural reaction to a stranger getting so close to him and I feel it gives the shot a little edge.

    Like I’ve said to you before, I take shots to please myself and I don’t have to please clients. The older I get the more I’m interested in context and I love getting lots of background in a shot. Ideally I’d like to make huge prints so you could see the subject with even more background.

    You’re right, I think that some good wine would be well sacrificed, if you ever come here, discussing (not arguing) this and many other things.

  8. Why don’t you two come over here, I just got two cartons of the sweetest local Sauvignon so we can go on for a while about portraiture and stuff.
    I was never really a wide angle lens guy, for a long time my first and only lens was 80-300 mm zoom and I guess it helped to develop my eye for isolated details. Plus was never really into portraiture and preferred candid to posed shots. I even bought one of those mirror lens attachments with which you can photograph sideways.
    So I guess this would put me somewhere between you two, and somewhat on the side :)
    Currently, one of my favorite portraits is August Sander’s pastry cook, you see some of the environment and sense the rest, but enough detail in the face.
    And yes, I know, it was posed :)

  9. I am going to Slovenia next near and I’m looking forward to meeting you. I’m always keen to try out local wines, but to be honest, I’m not very keen on overly sweet wine. I guess I’m going to have to sample a lot of it to find one that suits my taste 😉 Just for research purposes, of course!

    I went through the telephoto-lens thing back in the 1970s. I even bought one of those mirror attachments (hard to use because everything appears back to front).

    As for August Sander, my favourite shot of his, is the the one with the fellow carrying a load of bricks in a hod on his shoulder.

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