Capturing the Essence Not Just the Seen (A Photographer’s True Story)

I was recently commissioned to shoot a portrait of a familiar too many and well-established television personality,  well-known for his erudite banter, quick witted ripostes and sartorial elegance. Those are the attributes that we as viewers would associate with him (I will not name him as that would be unfair but I will reveal that he is a ‘he’) but as we are aware many television personalities particularly experienced, established ones choose to develop an ‘onscreen’ persona separate from their ‘offscreen’ one, whilst others are who they are whatever the environment.

As a portrait photographer I have to be ready to be met by both types of situation and respond creatively and positively to the people I meet to photograph. I have no issue with this and I in fact it is an aspect of my work that I find the most challenging and rewarding.

My intention on every shoot is to try and capture a sense of the ‘real’, an insight into who a person is not just what they look like. I try to ‘find’ that image (and yes my expectation even on commission is to rarely capture this in more than one frame out of all of those I shoot) not ‘make’ a frame or ‘take’ a frame. I know that this is a contentious semantic issue for some but the concept of ‘finding’ works for me.

Anyway, back to the recent commission of the television personality. Prior to the day of the shoot, I undertook my usual online research of the persons career and personal life. I like to arrive at a shoot informed and armed with information that will either ignite, promote or sustain conversation and demonstrate the fact that I am interested in them as a person not just an object to capture in front of my lens for money.

On this occasion my knowledge about the person was confirmed and sketchy knowledge was informed, including a tragic event that had recently occurred in his personal life that I was not previously aware of. Armed with this information I arrived at his house on the day of the shoot to be met my a slightly nervous and melancholic version of the personality I had seen on television. This sense of sadness and melancholy extended to the house and as we drank tea in his kitchen the conversation was also tinged with regret concerning the past.

Casually dressed when we met he said that he would go upstairs to change and smarten up. We would use the lounge he said for the portrait, the location had been decided for me never the perfect situation.

After a short time he returned smartly dressed, as he is more usually seen on television. I preferred the casual but no problem. We went into the lounge and thankfully their was some beautiful soft light coming through some large windows and French doors, but the rest of the room felt cold, unloved and impersonal. Melancholy filled the room and it was at this point that I knew that I had to capture that sense of melancholy in the portrait. I had to illustrate the essence of the person and his environment without manipulating either him or the image to achieve a final goal, whilst retaining his sense of pride and dignity. That was the challenge.

I started to work with my camera searching for the image, talking all of the time as our conversation continued going off at unexpected tangents as we discovered more about each other. At one point he asked when we would start the photographs, he thought I was just ‘practicing’, based upon previous experiences when he had been stage managed when being photographed. I assured him that we had already started and that all was going well.

The moment I realised that I had ‘found’ the picture I told him that I was finished. He was surprised that it had been so quick and described the whole process as being therapeutic. He felt our conversation had been helpful. I said my goodbye’s and left wishing him well.

On editing the images in my studio I noticed that his mouth had never changed, it was the same in every frame from every angle; fixed, determined. His eyes were consistently sad but also fixed and determined. His melancholy evident but not dominant. I chose the image to send to the client. The image was a surprise to the client but they understood why the images was as it was.

I could of course have tried to change his mood on the day, told him jokes, made him laugh, used a backdrop or utilised any number of tricks to create a ‘happy’ portrait but that is not why I am a photographer. I do not want to create a falsity I want to find and document the reality.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2016

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