Original scan (from 6 x 7 cm negative).
Anahit, Administrator (2009)
100 x 117 cm
I’m very flattered to have received requests for posts addressing the process behind some of my photography and film work. As I have mentioned previously, I consider portraiture—the visual study of human form—to be a fundamental building block of motion picture photography, and ultimately all visual design. A case study of some of my portrait work seems entirely appropriate.
I try to structure my portrait shoots in ways that facilitate privileged moments in the photographic process: brief, unencumbered windows of time when the subject’s awareness of the camera falls away to reveal a deeper truth or transformation. Sometimes these are moments of introspection; other times they reflect a willing suspension of that which guards us. Whatever the precipitating event, the effect presents itself as emotional transparency and intense candor, and these inevitably alter the subject’s physicality in ways that I find very revealing. These moments are not always possible for the photographer to achieve, but careful planning, diplomatic acumen, and trust help create environments that encourage their realization.
A few years ago I undertook a year-long Fulbright project to produce a series of photographic portraits in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. My goal was to present the South Caucasus photographically in a non-journalistic mode: to provide viewers an opportunity to meditate on the post-Soviet condition not through the usual narratives of war, poverty, and decay, but rather through a quiet study of human form.
Finding appropriate subjects for one’s work is of course an important part of the photographic process. One month into my project I asked the music conservatory in Yerevan, Armenia, if I could spend a few days photographing at the school. My hypothesis was that the conservatory population, immersed daily in such an emotive medium, might be more available to the camera. But after three long days of shooting I still hadn’t achieved images I was happy with. On the last day, when I was on the verge of giving up, I found the subject I had been looking for: the shy administrative assistant who had been accompanying me from classroom to classroom to provide introductions. After several hours of entreaties, and a private consultation with her female colleagues, she agreed to be photographed.
I chose a wing of the school that was not in use: the long, empty hallways gave us total privacy but also ferried the sound of a dozen students practicing Chopin. Triangulating from what I knew of her personality, the light in the corridor, and the rapport we had established over the last few days, I immediately recognized the potential for a strong photograph. As I began to shoot we talked openly about our lives in that way that only strangers can. We exchanged future hopes and fears, and she spoke candidly about the difficulty of losing her father the previous year. As this tragic story emerged I found myself altering the composition of the images, allowing more headroom than normal to suggest emotional displacement and imbalance. I lessened this effect a bit in post-production but still left a slight hint of unconventional composition in the frame.
Over time her preconceptions about her role as a subject fell away and she began to pose for the lens less and less. Our conversation grew intimate and meditative: deeply personal ruminations punctuated by patient silences, themselves broken only by the sharp release of the shutter and the distant sound of a dozen Chopins.