“There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” Yousuf Karsh
Boris Yeltsin, 1992 by Yousuf Karsh
“Most of my photos are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out experience etched on a person’s face.” Steve McCurry
Kuchi shepherd, Srinagar, Kashmir, 1995It is common for Kashmiri men to use henna dye on their hair or beards. As can be seen in this portrait of a Kuchi shepherd, they also wear clothes of vivid shades. A subtle mix of colourful fabrics surrounds the man’s slightly pink watery eyes, while his beard, like a flame, flickers from his chin.”A Kuchi shepherd in the Kashmir Valley migrates from the highlands during the fall. Often these nomadic herdsmen spend many weeks of the year looking for the ideal climate and grazing conditions for their flock. This man had colored his gray beard with henna.”.- George Eastman HouseMagnum Photos, NYC27327, MCS1996002 K126Phaidon, Portraits, Looking East, Iconic Images, final book_iconic, final print_milan Kuchi Shepherd, Srinagar, Kashmir, 1995. “A Kuchi shepherd in the Kashmir Valley migrates from the highlands during the fall. Often these nomadic herdsmen spend many weeks of the year looking for the ideal climate and grazing conditions for their flock. This man had colored his gray beard with henna.” – George Eastman House
MALI-10004, AFRICA-10018, Africa, 1987 Boy, near Timbuktu, Mali, 1987McCurry photographed this boy outside Timbuktu on the Niger River. ‘His parents were harvesting rice,’ McCurry recalls. ‘He was just horsing around and there was a lot of mud, because the rice is in water and the mud had dried on his skin. It was right around dark and maybe he could feel the chill.’ Magnum Photos, NYC9468, MCS1987002 K100Phaidon, Portraits, Iconic Images, final book_iconic
In my study of portraits I want to explore light and the expression of the subject and I found works of Yusuf Karsh and Steve McCurry fascinating in these aspects. Karsh started working with studio light in 1930’s when he photographed a small group of amateur actors on stage with studio lighting. Before this, while working for H. Garo in Boston they had to wait for hours in the studio for the ‘right’ available light. The possibilities of manipulating artificial light to create moods, draw attention to features was endless and Karsh through his technical mastery and creative vision created iconic portraits. In John F Kennedy’s portrait he has lit up his face and hands whereas in another one of writer, Francois Mauriac he used a reflector and available light from a french window to photograph his silhouette. In McCurry’s portrait of a boy in Mali, the shallow depth of field draws the viewer into the photograph and I want to explore that concept. While researching works of contemporary photographers I looked at works of several photographers and found photography concepts of Rineke Dijkstra and Hendrik Kerstens interesting and thought provoking.
Most photographers draw their inspiration from art and learn about composition and light from studying old masters. Karsh studied Dutch artist, Rembrandt and Spanish Baroque painter, Diego Velazquez to understand light and composition. Italian artist, Caravaggio’s paintings are renowned for their play of light in portraits and are a major influence on photographers work all over the world.
Rembrandt: In his portraits and self-portraits, Rembrandt angles the sitter’s face in such a way that the ridge of the nose nearly always forms the line of demarcation between brightly illuminated and shadowy areas. A Rembrandt face is a face partially eclipsed; and the nose, bright and obvious, thrusting into the riddle of halftones, serves to focus the viewer’s attention upon, and to dramatize, the division between a flood of light—an overwhelming clarity—and a brooding duskiness. Also notable are his dramatic and lively presentation of subjects, devoid of the rigid formality that his contemporaries often displayed, and a deeply felt compassion for mankind, irrespective of wealth and age.
Velazquez: He possessed a miraculous gift for conveying a sense of truth. He gave the best of his talents to painting portraits, which capture the appearance of reality. Some of Velazquez’s work bears remarkable similarities to Caravaggio’s painting in a number of ways especially in painting subjects with an intense naturalism, dramatic effects of light and dark and composition.
Caravaggio: His paintings combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting. His style had a formative influence on Baroque painting. He preferred to paint his subjects as the eye sees them, with all their natural flaws and defects instead of as idealised creations. Caravaggio is known for making the technique, Chiaroscuro (contrast between light and dark shadows) a dominant stylistic element, darkening the shadows and transfixing the subject in a blinding shaft of light.
Below are some attempts at test shots in class with basic lighting. When I attempt my final portrait in the studio I have to pay close attention to the mood, shadows and light I want to recreate.
I did some more test shots in class with Daiva as my model trying to recreate from my earlier research the portrait of Rembrandt’s son, Titus (Below pics1&2) and Yousaf Karsh’s portrait of Francois Mauriac (Below pics3&4).
For my final portrait I decided to go with neither concept as I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome in terms of mood and light. Also I wanted to use an apple as symbolism but discovered it was being used as a prop in portrait and still life by others in class so I moved away from that idea.
The concept for my final portrait came from the thought that people go through life wearing different masks i.e. having different personas and I wanted to do a portrait of a ‘Woman in a mask’. I researched and liked the images (above 1, 2 &3) and decided to recreate something similar in the studio. I set up black background and had two soft boxes on either sides. I played around with the power of the lights but the mask did not fit well on Daiva’s face even after fiddling around with it (below pic4). After initial shots my idea developed a into ‘Woman behind the mask’ and we started playing around with Daiva holding the mask at different positions and changing the jewellery she was wearing. To add mystery to the shot I used only one soft box to create split lighting (below pics1,2,3).
I was shooting with my Nikon D810, 50mm f1.4 lens at aperture f8 as I wanted to keep the focus sharp on the face as it was a close up portrait and a bigger f number was not really needed.
Regarding health and safety there were no trailing wires or tripod in the studio where I was working therefore no trip hazard. But I had to be careful handling the soft box as it gets hot with use.
Final portrait. Woman behind the mask.
I selected my final image based upon the sharpness of the image, my model’s expression, the angle of her body, the way she held the mask (as though she was revealing her true self which was behind the mask), the way the light created shadow on her hand, shadow created by the bracelet on her arm and the shadows on her face. I could have had a reflector on the right side of the model to decrease the shadows a little bit.
To prepare my final selection for print I increased the exposure and clarity in Camera Raw before processing it in Photoshop. Although I am quite confident using Camera Raw but Photoshop was quite daunting for me. I saw some online tutorials and sought help from my class mates in learning a few techniques. I used the Spot Healing Brush Tool and cleaned the skin carefully to remove spots and blemishes. I then used Dodge tool to lighten the shadow under my model’s left eye and with the same tool I lightened the whites of her left eye to make it sharper. I applied a slight Blur tool all over her facial skin only to even out her complexion being careful not to blur out facial features.
I was quite happy with the final outcome of my portrait. Although it was a struggle initially with the mask on but with a change in the idea with the concept remaining the same I achieved my portrait of a Woman Behind the Mask. I have printed my final image in 18″ by 12″ Lustre.
Cruel And Tender
My starting point for the project was to explore the idea through the Cruel and Tender photobook which I picked up from the college library. Cruel and Tender was a significant exhibition at Tate Modern which showcased work of some of the most important and prolific photographers of the century. One photographer who captured my attention was American, Fazal Sheikh. Through his documentary photography he brought the faces of displaced people into focus and brought to light various humanitarian and social issues. He has photographed Sudanese and Somali refugees, immigrants crossing and recrossing the border between Mexico and the US, ostracised women and girls in India, indigenous people of Brazil and many more. I particularly liked the black and white images of refugees staring directly at the camera all naturally lit, subjects holding photographs of loved ones all conveying a personal narrative.
My idea for Cruel and Tender germinated after a conversation with classmate, Shoresh, a Kurd living in the UK and this led to further research for my project. Kurd’s are the world’s largest ethnic group in the world – about 40 million- without a country of their own. They have a separate language, culture and history but currently live, sometime without recognition, across the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Their culture and identity have been oppressed by these, primarily Arab, nations yet they are fiercely proud of their heritage. I wanted to bring out their narrative through a series of photographs; the fact that although they are living and working in the community here but they wear their identity and ethnicity as a badge of honour and hold on proudly to their traditions and culture.
Location Shoot 1
Armed with my Nikon D810, 35mm f1.8 and 50mm f1.4 lens I travelled to Dartford station to meet two Kurdish families with Shoresh as my interpreter. My aim was to capture these people in their ethnic regalia in places where they looked ‘out of place’ to drive the message of them being stateless e.g: in front of Poundland, phone booth, British Heart Foundation, Dartford Station etc. Although London is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities my aim was create photographs that raised questions. Equally when I took photographs at the family’s home it was to portray their tradition in which they are deeply rooted e.g: it is tradition to offer sweets to a guest, drinking tea is a focal point in their social gathering. The photograph of the woman showing her wedding photograph with her parents adds to the wistfulness that I was aiming to portray.
Throughout the shoot I had to think on my feet regarding technical decisions. My Autofocus stopped working early on during the shoot and despite checking all the controls and trouble shooting I couldn’t figure out the glitch. I decided to switch to manual focussing and did not find it so challenging as I have used and practised it previously. I was shooting on manual mode and was constantly playing around with the settings given the changing light conditions. In my initial shots of the woman holding the photograph and sweets there was ample light shining through the window of their home and on a few occasions my assistant (Shoresh) had to hold the reflector in front of the window to diffuse the light. I used my 50mm lens for these shots as I didn’t want a wider view. I was working with low ISO (100-200), shutter speed 1/50s and the aperture was between f2-f4 because I wanted to draw attention to the photograph and plate of sweets and blur the background i.e: shallow depth of field. By the time we proceeded to shoot outside it had become cloudy, the light conditions were quite challenging and the sky was dull grey. Since I wasn’t familiar with Dartford we explored the area and drove around for some time and then decided on a shopping mall/high street as the location. We walked around and I made my subjects pose in front of backgrounds which were clearly very British. I started with my 35mm lens to get my subjects along with their surroundings. I had to bump up the ISO to 800 for most of the shots, shutter speed was 1/100s to freeze the movement and I played around with the aperture but decided that f7.1 gave correct exposure and the surroundings were in focus too. In some of the individual shots I switched to my 50mm lens to get in close with the subject and his immediate background. The ISO remained the same (800) as did the shutter speed, 1/100s and the aperture, f7.1.
I was invited to an event at SOAS University to celebrate Sufi song and dance. A week before the event there had been a suicide bombing at Sehwan Sharif, a sufi shrine of the saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh province of Pakistan. 75 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in the deadly blast. The blast happened at the time when the popular ritual of Dhamaal (meditative sufi dancing) was being preformed in the courtyard. The day after the blast the caretaker of the shrine announced that the daily dhamaal ritual would continue as they would not be intimidated by terrorists. Following this several leading Pakistani artists and performers partook in the dhamaal as a defiant response to radical islamists. The event at SOAS was organised in response to the attack. Dhamaal follows the same concept as the dance performed by the whirling dervishes – listening to devotional music, focussing on God and spinning in repetitive circles which is seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the solar system orbiting the sun – except that the dhamaal is done to the beat of the drum (dhol) and the dancers dance in small steps gradually working up to a trance as the beat gets faster.
Location Shoot 2
I took my tripod, external flash – Nikon SB700, Nikon D810, 35mm f1.8 and 50mm f1.4. It was typical British weather dull grey sky, cold blustery with chance of rain. Light was challenging but because I was planning to work with slow shutter speed I didn’t think that would pose much of an issue. My aim was to capture movement in dhamaal and I wanted a significant blur to highlight this similar to the photograph of the whirling dervish in my research. I set up my camera on tripod and moved around with it. Autofocus was thankfully working! I worked in Manual mode with an ISO starting with 80 and bumped it up to 1250 as the situation demanded. Minimum shutter speed was 1/4s and I took it up to 1/125s for some shots. Aperture was between f4 -f8. I only used my 35mm lens as I wanted a wider perspective in this shoot. The sky was extremely uninteresting and where possible I didn’t include it in the frame. Increasingly I was getting irritated with the big pink banners that seemed to be everywhere and no matter what angle I chose they are in most of my pictures.
Health and Safety on location shoot 1 and 2 was particularly important as I was not working in a controlled environment. Since I was working in a public place where there was constant activity I was conscious not to block exits and entrances. I had to constantly assess where to place my subjects (shoot 1) so there was no trip/fall hazard to them. In shoot 2, I was using my tripod and I had to mindful that it did not pose a trip hazard for anyone especially since I was moving around with it.
Final selection: Dancing in devotion
After shoot 2 it became apparent that that would be my final project. Although I really liked the idea and research behind shoot 1 but after discussing it with Zig it became apparent that I needed to develop my idea further and probably shoot another set of photographs. Due to the lack of time and opportunity I knew that would not be possible imminently. But I plan to work on my idea/shoot 1 in future and take it to the next level. I knew which photographs I wanted as my final for cruel and tender and ran my selection past Zig.
The common thread in my final 7 was the flaming red colour – colours of Lal, which means red, Shahbaz Qalander, and the blur in movement except for the photograph of the sign which gives an idea of the event. I feel that my photographs are thematically quite strong. Maybe I should have played around with shutter speed a bit more to achieve a variety in the blur but that was not possible given the fast paced nature of the event. Maybe I should have worked in shutter priority rather than manual mode so then I wouldn’t have had to worry about the aperture and ISO to get the correct exposure. I tweaked my final 7 in Camera Raw. I cropped some of my images for better composition. Cropping and preparing the final images has never been my strong point and I sought Zig’s help. I wanted all my images in 18″ by 12″ size with a black border. There are two ways to achieve this. Either have a uniform crop for all photos and then ‘add canvas’ in Photoshop or crop with desired dimensions and then decide to keep one side of the canvas depth (either length or breadth) constant. I have to practise this to be confident in preparing final prints in future. I contemplated printing my project on pearl paper to bring out the vibrancy in reds since the pearl paper has embedded pearl like crystals that produce a high gloss reflectance. In the end on Zig’s advice I opted for prints in 18″ by 12″ lustre finish.
I found still life the most challenging out of the three submissions. I started researching old paintings but nothing really inspired me maybe because I do not enjoy photographing inanimate objects. However, I researched an idea I was toying with which was photographing cigars as that is something that has fond memories since my childhood up until now.
I attempted to shoot a similar image in class. I knew that I would not be able to capture the plume of smoke in image 1 (above) as that is probably photoshopped but maybe I would be able to manage something like the last image (above). Zig had warned me that I would not be able to keep the cigar lit for long due to health and safety. I added the panther in the photograph after researching as it symbolises courage and power.
My set up for this shoot was simple. Black background with soft box on one side and barn doors on the other side. I was working with Manual focus throughout. For pic 1&2 I borrowed 24-120mm f4 lens from a classmate to narrow the perspective and I shot pic 1 at 75mm f22 1/106s and pic 2 at 100mm f5 1/160s. I shot Pic 3 with my 50mm f1.4 prime lens. I like pic 2 as the cigar is very sharp and the rest of the objects are somewhat blurred due to shallow depth of field. My aim was to light the cigar and capture the plume of smoke. I did light the cigar towards the end of the shoot (pic 1) but due to health and safety could not keep it lit for a long time and did not achieve my objective. Moreover I did not like the reflections in the glass when I checked my photographs on the computer. I decided to discard this shoot and try another idea because I discovered that glass is tricky to shoot and that I would not be able to leave my cigar lit for a reasonable amount of time to shoot smoke because that of health and safety restrictions at college.
During the course of the week I read a news item that Jamie Oliver had convinced McDonald’s in the US to change their burger recipe. His claim was that Mcdonald’s beef patty is not fit for human consumption because they use ammonium hydroxide to convert fatty beef offcuts into beef filler for burgers. This spurred an idea for my still life. I collected a lot of junk food packaging and created a set of junk food galore against a black background. Lighting was simple yet again, just one soft box to the side and Petya held the reflector on the other side to reduce the shadows. I borrowed her 60mm f2.8 prime lens for the shoot.
Final selection: Junk the Junk
I liked the light and arrangement in this photograph. Clarity of slogans, ‘big on taste’, ‘finger lickin good’, ‘freshly prepared’, ‘100% grade A’ was important in the photograph because my comment is contrary to what the junk food companies advertise. Print size is 18″ by 12″ on lustre.