SUBMERGED IN BEING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CANDID PORTRAITURE IS VOLATILE, THE DEAD OPPOSITE OF A FORMAL SITTING, and therefore a little scarier for some photographers. We tell ourselves that we gain more control over the results of a staged portrait, since we are dictating so many terms within it…the setting, the light, the choice of props, etc. However, can’t all that control also drain the life out of our subjects by injecting self-consciousness ? Why do you think there are so many tutorials written about how to put your subjects at ease, encourage them to be themselves, persuade them to unclench their teeth? Getting someone to sit where we tell them, do what we tell them, and yet “act naturally” involves a skill set that many photographers must learn over time, since they have to act as life-coach, father-confessor, camp counselor, and seducer, all at once. Also helps if you hand out lollipops.
Then again, shooting on the fly with the hope of capturing something essential about a person who is paying you zero attention is also fraught with risk, since you could crank off fifty frames and still go home without that person revealing anything real within the given time-frame. As with most issues photographic, there is no solution that works all of the time. I do find that one particular class of person affords you a slight edge in candid work, and that is performers. Catch a piece of them in the act of playing, singing, dancing, becoming, and you get as close to the heart of their essence that you, as an outsider, are ever going to get. If they are submerged in being, you might be lucky enough to witness something supernatural.
The more people lose themselves in a quest for the perfect sonata, the ultimate tap step, or the big money note, the less they are trying to give you a “version” of themselves, or worse yet, the rendition of themselves that they think plays well for the camera. As for you, candids work like any other kind of street photography. It’s on you to sense the moment as it arrives and grab it. It’s anything but easy, but better, when it works, then sitting someone amidst props and hoping they won’t freeze up on you.
There are two ways to catch magic in a box when it comes to portraits. One is to have a tremendous relationship with the person who is sitting for you, and the other is to be the best spy in the world when plucking an instant from a real life that is playing out in front of you. You have to know which tack to take, and where the best image can be extracted.