What makes a good portrait? Can we really expect a single image to reveal a person’s character? Or even a side of their character? And does the quality of the image matter – do we need to see every wrinkle and skin blemish? Can black and white still do the business?
Many portraits we see today are in colour and made with high resolution digital cameras. See, for example, the portraits submitted to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize.
I decided to see if I could capture a series of portraits of my old friend Andrew using 35mm black and white film and a 50mm lens (well actually 60mm). Why this combination? Well, in the past this combination worked – see Jane Bown’s superb collection of pictures taken for The Observer newspaper using an Olympus OM1 and a 50mm lens.
I chose Silvermax 100 developed in Silvermax developer, and my Leica R8 (with winder) coupled to the ‘legendary’ 60mm Elmarit-R. I’m not sure if the 60mm is actually a legend – was it Salgado who brought it to fame? Anyway, I picked up mine from the lovely people at the West Yorkshire Cameras.
The portraits were shot in shaded sunshine and Andrew’s partner kindly held a soft reflector to minimise harsh shadows. The results you can judge for yourself.
As to the questions I started this post with, it seems to me that the portrait is a static object and the dynamic element comes from the viewer. So it follows that different viewers see different qualities in the person who is portrayed. In these images I can understand that Andrew’s family might see their husband/father. I see a lifelong friend. His co-workers would see a trusted colleague and partner. But, here’s the thing, each of these viewers would be seeing ‘their’ version of Andrew in different images. In other words, I’m not sure that one single image captures the ‘whole’ Andrew, but the series seen together just might.
As to quality and the absence of colour? The quality of the negatives would easily give a decent 10×12” print, and the Silvermax excels at delivering skin tones. I am doubtful colour or medium format would have added anything. I do have to admit the camera and lens combo I used is heavy, and I opted for handheld rather than a tripod. But, on balance, I preferred the fluid approach handheld gave me.
If you enjoyed this post please head over to michaelscottfoto and thanks for reading.
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