13 May 2020

My Top 3 Passions Part 1 - Portraiture

Hanoi, Vietnam ©2020 Terrell Neasley
I have three primary photography loves in my life. They are the reason I have never been burnt out in the 15 years I've taken photo seriously. Once I bit into it, I've never had to leave photography and come back to it later. I have always had a camera. I didn't care if the money wasn't coming in and for years I would not even accept payment. I guarded my passion in that way so I never let it become a job until I was ready to turn pro.

I began as a purist with film shooting my Minolta Maxxum 70 before seeing a Jerry Uelsmann book in a Vegas library and then jumping in with both feet by purchasing the Canon Elan 7NE kit and the 75-300mm MEGAZOOM lens. I have never looked back or regretted spending thousands on a camera body or lens. After shooting a myriad of different genres and subjects like cars, diamonds, apparel, fashion, weddings, and events, I always come back to these three arts to soothe my soul and calm my mind. The Portraiture, The Nude, And Landscape. This blog post covers Part 1: The Portraiture.

Hanoi, Vietnam ©2020 Terrell Neasley
It's the human face. That's where it all began for me. Back when I was maybe 5 years old, my Uncle Ulice Ray asked me to take a photo of him and his friends. All I had to do was hit the button on this instant film camera and I think it may have even had flash cubes. That was a big deal for me. I knew I had to get it right. I looked through the viewfinder and could see everybody in the scene. I hit the button and waited those daunting few minutes until the reveal while my uncle fanned the photo back and forth. The look on his face told me I had failed. I cut off everyone's head and did not understand why.

I have always been intrigued with people's faces. They are all different. Even identical twins, because despite the similarities, no two people experience life the same. Life will leave a mark on you and that is different for everyone. In addition, the same experience is perceived by individuals differently. The camera gives me an opportunity to read the story in a person's life. It may not give me the details, but it still tells me a story as if I'm watching a movie or reading a book. The difference is, I get to record that story and tell my version of it.

Hanoi, Vietnam ©2020 Terrell Neasley
The first thing the portrait illustrates is the beauty potential in every story that crosses my viewfinder. An aging face, a dirty face, a baby's face all have their own potential that demonstrate the power of persistence and survival, effort and achievement, or growth and change. In addition, I am a fan of evolution. Time of day and time of season may present a different perspective from one moment to the next. A man or woman can have one face to start the day and then give me a different story at the end of the day. One of optimism and expectation in the morning. Another face of weariness, yet satisfaction, all in a state of dishevel later that evening. And understand me, there is something great there.

I have done portraits of life and death... of the young and the old. I can tell you that a measure of healing was afforded to parents of a deceased newborn or baby. I was able to find the beauty in this art form and capture a portrait that allowed them to see their baby in more than just the perspective of sorrow and loss. I say this illustratively, not boastfully. I'm sharing my experience as a 5-year volunteer photographer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an organization that does remembrance photography for parents who loose a baby. Thankfully, I know my limitations. Five years was enough for me. I invite you to pick up the challenge for a while.

Hanoi, Vietnam ©2020 Terrell Neasley
Portraits are evidences of life, whether life present or life that once was. Life can be expressed through art in a myriad of ways. They don't have to all be happy smiles. They don't even have to be stoic blank faces. Human emotions are an infinite analog range of feelings and this gives you unlimited options of capture opportunities from each face you encounter. Anger, sadness, joy, a smirk, absent-mindedness, looking into the lens vs looking out of frame, candids, and even a sleeping portrait (a favorite of mine) can all convey something powerful. There is a different story in each.

I love that the portrait is not restricted solely to the face. You can back up! It can be a portrait bust or even full-body. One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received was from travel editor. He wanted to use one of my shots in a travel mag. After looking further through my portfolio, he told me that no one needs to teach me anything else about capturing a portrait (his words not mine).

Hanoi, Vietnam ©2020 Terrell Neasley
HOWEVER, if I'm doing travel photography, it would behoove me to step back and master the environmental portrait. It made all the sense in the world. I had to regroup and think about my travel lens choices, depth of field choices, and poses. Ordinarily, posing is much more simple when its from the bust and up. Posing the whole body can be more challenging for your subject. What do they do with their hands? How do they shift weight or (balance on both feet)? Is my gut sucked in enough?

Another thing the portrait shows me is that it's not fair for me to negatively judge another human being. The story a portrait tells you might be one of a destitute past or someone in desperation. I understand this one simple fact. There, but by the grace of God, go I. In other words, I can be in that same person's shoes inside of a day. Be grateful and compassionate to everyone. Conversely, just because someone looks like a success, they may be more miserable than you are. This might cause you to mis-identify with your client or subject. Now they see you as someone who can't relate to them and you are not rehired or recommended. If you are snapping pics, you have a job. If you are creating art, then you must understand that the art is a relationship. It's a form of communication between your subject and yourself. If you are not relatable, you can easily come across as obscure, ambiguous, or even hostile. The story you capture will be fiction at best.

Hanoi, Vietnam ©2020 Terrell Neasley
Via my travels, I get to pass through different lands and see different people. I've become intrigued by the cultural differences of the faces I see. In a sense, I've become anthropological. No, not "in a sense". That's a point of fact. I get a chance to see the differences [from mine] dictated by what region of the world their ancestors originated from. It's glorious. It's like you grow up loving roses and are taught "Roses are Red" and then you leave home and learn there are also 150 different species of roses and thousands of variations. The Vietnamese do not look like me. But, beneath the environmental evolution that alters the skin and superficial features, they are exactly like me. Any doctor here in Vietnam will be perfectly familiar with my anatomy if they have to cut me open. They don't have to look it up or google the location to find the heart of a black man.

Everybody has a story that is different from yours but no less worthy of respect. This is what I love about portraiture. It's therapy for me. I see the spirit of human resolve when I look in someone's face. I know they conquered something in order to stand in front of my lens. They persisted and have survived the challenges life has thrown at them and this is their story... as I see and tell it.

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or a gun, like many of my childhood friends did... most of whom were murdered or put in prison... but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so.”
~ Gordon Parks

2 comments:

  1. Another great read. I love how you cut the top of the heads off as the five year old….the love of a good zoom was born right there.

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    1. That failure sent me on a quest for perfection!

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