the eye of the beholder

As a working photographer, I occasionally encountered subjects that I had known generally, but hadn’t gotten to know intimately. Sometimes, subjects that I had had reservations regarding them. I became something of an expert at photographing people who were considered non-photogenic. From time to time, I was contacted by a local paper or magazine to photograph a politician or VIP. On these occasions, I often found lovely and fascinating people, whom I’d known previously only by way of the media, and hadn’t seen past the public persona. The differences were striking.

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Miriam dancing

This problem of photogenics came up in my last post, and there were a couple of comments on the subject, so I thought I’d go back to it today. One of the problems of photographing a portrait, or a human face, is that the photograph is usually an exposure of a split second. To be specific, it is usually an impression taken in the space of one hundredth of a second, which is a very short time. When we talk to someone, or look at them, we see a number of expressions that are radiated from the face. These expressions are not a constant. They’re always changing. And what’s more, some time elapses between one expression and the next. It is as if the person was sending out messages from his face, and they come in pulses. Some people project such vibes ten or fifteen times a second. Others can send out their radiation a hundred times a second. If we manage to catch them just as they are broadcasting their vibe, we will get a picture that is very much like the face we know and admire. But if we catch them between expressions, we are liable to get a ‘dead face’ or an unpleasant one. What is most important to understand, is that being photogenic has nothing to do with beauty. I have known men and women who were beautiful to look at, but were not photogenic. And the reverse is true too.

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However, there is a parallel problem that one encounters, when photographing portraits, and that is people who are not pleased with their own appearance. It is quite common for a person to be critical about the way he looks… but sometimes this self criticism gets out of hand. Since I worked at times with professional models, I could tell you many stories of beautiful people who had a problem with the way they looked. Sometimes it’s the job of the photographer to help the person come to terms with his own appearance.

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Professionally, I had to relate, occasionally, to subjects that hadn’t interested me previous to the photography. But usually, while photographing, I would find much of interest that I hadn’t previously noticed. I always hoped that I would have the opportunity to photograph sports. But since I didn’t know much about that aspect of life, and since there were professional photographers who specialized in that sort of photography, I’ve never done that, up until now, at least. I suppose I could have taken the initiative, but I’ve always been so busy… one reason or another, I never got around to it.

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I do enjoy the theater, though. And enjoy on stage performances of music. I learned to see the theater differently though, after I started photographing stage performances. Seeing through the camera helped me get to know a reality, slightly different, from my impressions as a member of the audience, expecting to be entertained. There are always considerations, when doing commercial work, that are not present when creating an image for the sake of art. After I had been working for a number of years, I would be offered a job, from time to time, in which the customer would specifically ask me to do it ‘my way’. Such assignments were always especially exciting for me. These photographs of Miriam, a young dancer, were photographed in such circumstances. They are special to me because they belong to one of the first projects I undertook to photograph digitally.

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Most often, my customers had an idea of what they wanted before I went to work on the project. Often, they would show me pictures of what others had done. Or pictures of other performers, or performances, and say, I want something like this… or I don’t want that. Sometimes, it wasn’t at all easy to satisfy them. Because they already had an image in their mind, of what they wanted to see, and it was hard for me to guess this image. But there were also those that knew and liked my work. They were interested in seeing how they looked through my eyes. In such a case, it was a bit of a collaboration between the performer and myself, and usually turned out to be a great pleasure. There were also times, when I felt that I had missed something, or that the final results did not equal the impression I had when observing the performance live. In such cases, I would tell the person I was working for, that I would have to have another go at it. I was never willing to compromise, if I wasn’t satisfied with the work.

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77 responses to “the eye of the beholder

  1. these are beautiful photos, Shimon. You certainly captured the beauty and movement of both the dance and the dancer.

  2. Lovely photographs Shimon. I’m grateful to you for your very clear analysis of the art of the portrait photographer.. I have said several times on my blog that ‘I don’t do people’. This is mainly due to being very unhappy with the few portraits that I have done. I can imagine it is a very rewarding side of photography and one that perhaps, having read your piece, I will not abandon completely. Thank you.

    • This problem of photogenics is just one of the many issues that are connected to portraits. In a school of fine arts, a minimum of a year is spent learning the portrait. And many artists, among them photographers, see it as an art in itself. The traditional portrait is one in which the artist takes full responsibility for every square centimeter of the picture. I consider it one of the most delightful challenges there are. Thanks Chillbrook.

  3. Beautiful images Shimon..I find the whole concept of “beauty” very interesting – and portraiture too, though I haven’t done much of it as yet – capturing that spark of a person in one shot is a true art..

    • I agree with you, Cath, that beauty is a fascinating study, and often difficult to explain. After a long career as a photographer, I would say that the most enjoyable work was that of portraiture. It fascinates me to this day. Thanks for your comment.

  4. An interesting read on a huge subject, as ever you bring the personal with you. And the photos are simply stunning, it must have beebn a pleasure to work at something you so obviously enjoy.

  5. I enjoyed these images, Shimon, and your thoughtful explanations — especially that entire second paragraph. Most people resort to “The camera does not lie,” which may be true, but sounds simplistic.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Charles. I agree, the camera doesn’t lie. But sometimes the photographer does. And sometimes he trips over his own feet. The tool shouldn’t get credit for greatness, nor for failure either. The value of work is dependent on the craftsman. And it happens, that people look for value… or beauty, in the wrong places.

  6. Beautiful images Shimon. You’ve certainly captured the grace of the dancer.

  7. What an interesting post! I can certainly relate to the problem of clients having a set view of what they want from a photograph or painting and it’s wonderful to be given a free hand.
    I really love the blurry pics, they are almost paintings in themselves, so mystical and beautiful.xxxxx

    • I’m so happy you liked the pictures, Dina. The images one can get from photography, can be as moving, and as beautiful as images from any other media. Usually there is a correlation between the amount of study and practice devoted to the craft, and the results. Thanks for the comment.

  8. I’ve always been so enchanted by the portraits of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Annie Leibovitz. Thank you, Shimon, for sharing your own beautiful portraits of Miriam, and teaching me a bit of how creating such art can be entered and undertaken. It has always seemed to me that portraits require a great understanding of light, and also the ability to “withdraw” oneself gently so as to enable the other to fill the space with as much of his essence as is possible. But I appreciate your description of the necessary collaboration between photographer and subject…like a dance. What a lovely post: thank you!.

    • I join you, Catherine, In the love for the work of Penn and Avedon. I find Annie Leibovitz interesting too, but she is a bit too much the Mary quite contrary for my taste. I love your explanation of the artist making space for the personality of the subject. Traditionally, the portrait is a format where the artist takes complete responsibility for the entirety of the picture. Nothing is left to chance. This is quite exceptional for photography. But even the background is supposed to be thought out. Very glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  9. These are beautiful photographs… I love dance and also to watch it. These photographs showing how great her love of dance. You did great job. Thank you, have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • Thank you very much, Nia. This weekend, we have another festival. That of Purim. So everyone is in the best of spirits. I’m so happy you enjoyed the post. My best wishes to you too.

  10. Beautiful photos, Shimon. The compositions in the “still shots” have motion implied, while the motion in the last three shots add an etherial quality to the photo. Your photos are like your writing – uncompromising in their beauty, sensitivity, compassion, and love of life.

    • Thank you so much for your very sweet comment, Ruth. I know that as a painter yourself you work with similar materials, and so can appreciate some of the challenges. And as you know, there is great gratification in the work itself. Always good to hear from you.

  11. Very nice Shimon. I envy you your model Miriam. Wonderful model. I can certainly identify with all of this blog. Have experienced it many times. Where I now live, (they call it the bible belt) it’s all but impossible to find a model. I enjoy the play between model and photographer in coming to an image conclusion where both are happy. I go for weeks and months building a shot in my head, and then hopefully realize it. I think I have some of such on my blog but it’s been far too long that I’ve been there. Maybe you have stirred my muse.
    Regards, and blessings.

    • I have enjoyed your photographs for years now, Bob. And I can understand how difficult it is when you don’t have a model to work with. Here this hasn’t been much of a problem. On the contrary, people have actually paid me to photograph them. One of the reasons I consider myself very lucky. But I do hope you get back into the swing, and look forward to seeing some new photographic experiments. Thanks you so much, and my best wishes to you always.

  12. I love your photographs. I had never though much about “why” some faces photograph better than other. I DO know that I get the “deer in the headlights” look on my own face when someone aims a camera in my direction.

  13. What interesting comments about being photogenic. I’d never given it much thought before. It makes a lot of sense. And I love the grace and strength of Miriam.

  14. Shimon, this is one of my favourite of your posts. A striking self-portrait. The photographs are also beautiful.

  15. I learned so much from this post! I have noticed a sometimes blank look on photographed faces, but never realized that it might be the pause between facial expressions which we see changing continuously in real life. I loved your photographs of this dancer, from still poses to the full energy and movement of the dance…simply beautiful!! I am not one bit surprised that you would request a new photo session if you weren’t happy with the results of your previous efforts, I suspect that you set high standards for your work, and I wish that trait was more common in today’s world! Great post, Shimon, very interesting!

    • Very glad that you found interest in this post, Josie. You know, when we look at a movie, we are watching a series of single shots which blend into a moving picture in our brain. When we look into someone’s face, the same thing happens, we put the emphasis on what they are communicating with us, and don’t see the pauses between expressions. But the camera is a mechanical contraption, and can see things we don’t. It’s a fascinating study. Thank you very much for your comment.

  16. beautiful pictures shimon and loved the post. Very insightful!!

  17. I really like the pictures of Miriam – there is no way I would have guessed they were digital rather than film shots (motion blur in my Sony is very often horribly stylised). Also, your writing is so interesting – I’d never considered the rate of change in expression – this explains a lot about why certain images “work” and others don’t. Thanks, Shimon!

    • Thank you very much, Richard. In using any tool or utensil, we have to first learn the character of the tool we use, and then how to make the most of it. Your problem with the motion blur might be caused by stabilization, which can be turned off. As you know, I have been following you street portraits, and find many of them very interesting.

  18. I found these images very moving and I know how much technical skill is needed.Thanks for posting them for others tto see

    • It is a pleasure to meet you Mary, and I hope we get to know one another better. It’s a lot of fun for me to share what I enjoy with others. Best wishes to you.

  19. P.S.What book is best for a beginner?

    • I used to recommend a book by Michael Langford to my students, but I only have the Hebrew version here. There are new books all the time, and they can give you many different views of the subject. In my own studies, many years ago, I read the books by Ansel Adams, and to this day consider him the greatest authority of all times… though his writing deals only with work on film. By the way, I just had a look at your blog, and loved the reblogged image of the cat sitting on the dog. Reminds me of the way my own cat sits on me…

  20. Thank you very much,Shimon.I’ll have a look on Amazon to see if they have any of those books.

  21. Delightful photographs of Miriam. I especially like the blurred fluidity of motion.

    Hope you are not getting too inebriated over Purim 😉

  22. such gentle tender loveliness captured here, shimon. isn’t it interesting how a photo depicting virtually no detail can tell such a compelling story? such beautiful work!

  23. This is marvelous–and inspiring! I have long thought that artists of any sort have an advantage over those who haven’t been put in the position of attempting to see the beauty inherent in any subject–human or otherwise–and needing (or more importantly, wanting) to find out and show the subject’s unique treasures. I am among those who for a very long time avoided portraiture, especially of people who would see the finished work, because *I* was very insecure about both my ability to see those distinctive beauties and more specifically, to show them. I’m still quite the novice at portraiture as a result, but a friend persuaded me to make the effort in my photography last fall and now I’m getting a little braver about it. I think I’ll take a cue from you and post about it sometime soon, too. If I do, you can be sure I’ll post a link to *this* wonderful meditation and your gorgeous photos in it, if you don’t mind it. Thanks for more beauty!

    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, Kathryn, and thank you for coming by. One of the things I like best about the portrait, is that it allows the artist to contemplate the many expressions that project the personality of the subject.

  24. I enjoyed the narrative, Shimon, the cadence of your insightful words…your style…and a comfortable match with your subject, too.

  25. The movement effects are palpable.

  26. It is very moving to see someone recognising the person they know themselves to be in a photograph. A fraction of a second for the camera, a deep truth for the individual. Very enjoyable writing and delight filled photographs.

    • Thank you very much, windhound. There have been many discussion among photographers as to the length of the exposure and it’s influence on the image, especially in portraits.

  27. So lovely. I like your idea of people sending out messages from the face. Some snapshots seem like single words taken out of context – they don’t look like what we expect the person to look like. I think it must take time and patience to capture a good portrait.

    • Very glad you liked it, yearstricken. Portraits are really an art form in themselves. And I believe it doesn’t matter all that much whether they are done in charcoal or with the camera. The essence is capturing the very personality of the subject. Time is important, but so is rhythm. In photography, it is important to move with the rhythm of the subject. Thank you for your comment.

  28. Shimon, I LOVE these images…..they excite me.

    Thank you so much for this most informative post. I am one of those people who doesn’t enjoy being photographed…unless candidly..in other words, when I am not too aware of it….This probably means that when I am not aware I am not trying to look a certain way for the photographer….hence it produces a much more natural result.

    Always lovely to see your beautiful work. x

    • The portrait is where all the different media are closest to each other, because what is most important is catching the personality and the nature of the sitter. I believe that candid photography has many advantages on posed. I love the work you do in this area. But portraits are most often posed. So glad you enjoyed this work, Janet Always so good to see you, and thank you very much for your comment.

  29. Beautiful pictures, a lovely result of your insightful creative process 🙂

  30. This may be one of my favorites. I read it as soon as it was posted, but didn’t comment. I’m still thinking about it. I suspect that, having totally mastered mechanics and technique, you long ago freed yourself to capture the essence. That is the indescribable element of your portraits. Your ability to move into the frame with the subject. There is a special fluidity there that is almost hushed. I sense it every time I see a portrait that you did of somebody with whom you connected. It is absolute pure art.

    • Thank you very much for your very sweet comment, George. And you’re right, the side of the mechanics is hard work, and that’s why beginners are encouraged to practice over and over again… till the brush or the camera becomes an extension of their arm… even an extension of their brain. That’s when the work turns into fun. It is very much like learning to drive. Once you’ve really learned it, you don’t have to measure how much you’ve turned the steering wheel or pressed your foot on the pedal. You just have to have your eyes on the road.

  31. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    You’re such a photographer (too!) – beautiful, Shimon.

  32. My best photo shoot was with a Jewelry designer and she planned it better than any other customer.

    You do get to know someone on a different level when you photograph them and use every ounce of yourself to make them feel good about themselves.

    I used to take hundreds of portraits a day for a company, I would see some of the greatest smiles but as the flash fired they would turn into the most haunting faces I’ve ever seen. You would see them for a split second after the flash. It always disturbed me that someone could smile so beautifully one moment and look so the next.

    My most critical client is the most beautiful client that I have. It is amazing sometimes to see how people perceive themselves. She will not tell me why either.

    • Even with the flash, there are ways to get into the same rhythm with the person you are photographing, and evince expressions that will look better in a portrait. As to beautiful women who are not pleased with the way they look, that is a well know phenomenon. I wrote an article about it once… perhaps one of these days I will write some more about portraits…

  33. Very beautiful images and thoughts Shimon!

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