Portraits are an interesting and very specific aspect of the photography medium. It would appear to be such a regimented genre with very little breathing room. Everything, from the pose of the subject to the illumination of said subject, is predetermined based on centuries of aesthetic history that predates the camera itself. Even informal portraits seem to be more or less derived from current trends. So where’s the fun? Where can we experiment?
Anywhere and everywhere.
This week, we feature a simple portrait of a dog: A photo titled Puppy, by Matthew Wilkey. First off, Matthew reminds us that even animals can pose for portraits. “Anything with a face,” my old mentor used to say, “can pose for a portrait.” Matthew’s puppy, however, only seems to have half a face, and so I guess we have half a portrait….
I just, of course, but at the root of that lighthearted humor is a contradiction to the truth. In the absence of data, our human mind will fill in the blanks as best as it can. Naturally, we don’t assume that the dog’s face ends at the edge of the frame. Our mind is able to provide some semblance of what the rest of the dog’s face might look like. And so this sort of portrait framing – or any framing where the face is not included in its entirety – serves well to keep the mind occupied.
If one were to play by the rules – and we should all know by now that I loathe the rules – this portrait would break a lot of them. One could argue that the composition follows the golden mean or the rule of thirds, but the clear subject is still the face – the eye, the nose – and those elements do not follow such a rule. The so-called “get close” rule would technically apply here, but isn’t that about filling the frame so that there aren’t any potential mistakes? Then what about the focusing rules – shouldn’t everything from the eye to the nose be tack sharp? Sure…if you wanted to remove all sense of softness, comfort and wisdom (or that tiny bit of mystery) from the photo.
If nothing else, Matthew’s photo of this (his?) dog teaches us a very important lesson: Rules are not the creative answer. Creativity is defined by Dictionary.com as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns….and to create meaningful new ideas…” Extrapolate from such that the rules should, in turn, be transcended. In other words…break them.
I find portraiture in photography to be challenging and rewarding for all of the history that stands before it. Sure, there are times where the posed head-and-shoulder shot is called for and is appropriate. And there are times when such photos are expected of you. But while you have your subject, why not try something out of the ordinary – out of the box. If your experiment turns out well, you could just earn a dedicated fan, or maybe a few more sales. But if it doesn’t turn out well, just chalk it up as a failed experiment – you already have the posed shot that was expected of you. You’re safe. The thing that is fantastic about portraiture is all those rules become a well defined envelope around the genre. That envelope deserves to be pushed…it’s asking for it. So push away. Throw out the rules…and shoot your pets (or your human subjects) in non-traditional ways. The results will be rewarding.
Matthew just recently joined Flickr in June. His photostream is young, but already packed full of great experiments shot from the heart – not a rule book. We look forward to seeing what new things will get shared by Matthew in the future.