Thoughts on portraiture

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Today’s article is the first of two parts focusing on portraiture and human subjects as the focus of an image. It is not something I’m normally associated with because I rarely choose to show my work here; it doesn’t mean I don’t engage in it for personal reasons (which are usually not shared, obviously) or professional ones (I do have clients whose mainstay subjects are primarily human). Whilst curating images for a recent assignment, I had a couple of little personal epiphanies which I’d like to share with you all.

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Photoessay: portrait of a chef – Fergus Henderson

Perhaps best known for his use of offal, bones, tails and other normally discarded parts of the animal, chef Fergus Henderson is one of the innovators of modern cuisine. His dishes are derivatives of traditional British food, usually paired with French wines. However, perhaps the most impressive thing about him is that he’s actually an excellent trained architect (from no other institution than the AA) but one day decided he preferred food – and despite being awarded a Michelin star for St. John restaurant in 2009, he was entirely self taught as a chef and has never worked in anybody else’s kitchen.

Henderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1996, and has since undergone deep brain stimulation therapy which supposedly has increased his mobility in the kitchen – however, watching him work it’s clear that he wields most implements with difficulty (and in some cases, it’s just too dangerous) and relies on his deputy. However, when you talk to him, it’s clear that his disability has not diminished his ability, talent or passion for food – if anything, it’s enhanced it. He’s an animated, engaging speaker with a dry sense of humor and a disarming smile. I had the honor of running a food photography class with him once; it remains one of the most inspiring experiences of my photographic career to date.

All I can say is that I have enormous respect for the man, and his bone marrow and parsley salad (which he describes in strangely architectural terms) was quite excellent, too. MT

This series shot with a Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE and Leica D-Lux 5 Titanium.

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POTD: A classical portrait

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Nadiah. Olympus OM-D, 45/1.8

Sometimes, everything just comes together serendipitously. In this case, my wife (and muse, but that’s to be the subject of a future post) and I were attending a small function at a rather quirkily-decorated space in downtown Kuala Lumpur. I was going light, so I just carried the OM-D and two lenses; the 45/1.8 and 20/1.7. Just off the space, there was this small room separated by a partition; not only were there some nice details – like the Adams-family-esque hand – but the light was also beautifully directional yet soft. It just happened to be overcast outside, and with the sun at a low angle so the light went all the way into the room; see why I keep saying 99% of photography is light and timing? I grabbed my wife and shot a few frames to create what I think is one of the most satisfying portraits I’ve ever shot. MT

POTD: Surreal portraiture

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Floating head. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini and kit lens.

Sometimes, the atmospheric conditions – early morning haze resulting in a vanishing horizon – and perfectly calm seas make for interesting photography; the kind where you don’t mind risking a camera in chest-deep water. MT

POTD: Levitation

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Levitation. In tribute to that Japanese photographer who perpetually seems to be floating in midair…I think she’s known as the ‘Yowayowa Camera Woman’ or something. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G. MT

POTD: On portraiture

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Steve, head chef. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

Although I’m not a portrait shooter primarily, there are occasions on which one is required to rise to the occasion – usually for something related to another job. A long time ago, I did shoot fashion. If you have professional models or outgoing, confident people, it’s pretty easy to get a decent headshot. But it’s difficult to capture their personality because they’re always in ‘professional’ mode around a camera – you can’t show them for who they really are, because they’re not comfortable enough to show it around you.

The flip side of the coin is when you have a person who clearly has a very distinct character, but suddenly gets uncomfortable and shy in front of the camera.  Steve is a great guy, and very, very passionate about what he does – but completely blocks up and gets stiff in front of the lens. The trick I always use is to fire away a lot of frames until they get used to you; then go in for the stealthy kill: this shot (for a client) was not one of the hundred or so ‘posed’ frames we did; that was my intention all along. It was captured during a coffee break while he was talking to the client’s marketing director. I had the camera by my side on the chair, which I raised stealth-ninja fashion and got off a double tap to the head: bullseye. We landed up using this image for the final selection. Moral of the story: anticipate, and be ready at all times. MT

POTD: Voyeur, reflected

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Voyeur, reflected. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7