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Portraits In Black & White

What is a portrait? Some would say that it's a simply picture of somebody but I think a portrait is something so much more than that. I believe that a portrait is an image of a person but, where the intent is to capture the likeness, personality and even the mood of that person.

As a photographer, I've found it amusing how so many people look at the camera and give that "cheese" smile as soon as they know that the camera is pointed at them. It's a normal reaction but think about what it would be like if everyone walked around with those big grins on their face all of the time? It would be strange! Nobody smiles all of the time, right? I love smiles... don't get me wrong. I love, love, love the smiles that make eyes twinkle. I love smiles that are genuine and natural. But I love serious faces just as much... those deep-in-thought looks where they are just staring off and daydreaming and those intense, stare a hole through you kind of looks. I love real expressions because they tell a little about who a person truly is. When you see a smiling face you think "they must be happy" but what do you think when you see a serious face? Do you think about it at all? Do you wonder what they are thinking about? As humans we are full of emotions... happy, sad, silly, thoughtful and the best expressions are the real ones. That is what I believe a portrait should capture.

Some of my favorite photos are when my subject isn't even looking at me. A short time ago, I was doing school portraits and had a little one that kept looking down, he was bashful and quiet. Now, when I take school portraits I am committed to capturing real expressions. I can't stray from my mission, after all. I typically spend a couple of minutes asking about favorite toys and things like that. While they talk, I snap their photos. Little ones get very excited talking about their favorite toys so those conversations are usually a hit! Not so much with little Mr. Bashful... he wasn't getting too excited. He would look at me and say, "Cheese", with a half-hearted smile. He, clearly, was not full of excitement. I tried. Truly, I did. Then he looked down and I snapped his picture... tiny little nose, chubby cheeks and those eyelashes!

See what I mean?

This picture set me on a mission to challenge myself. I started thinking more and more about what I have said all along and how expression is what makes a portrait interesting and about how "cheese" is not the making of a good portrait. Here's how it went and the results...

At first, I started with the faces that I have with me every day. I thought that I'd do about twenty portraits. I have a tiny home office and am a natural light photographer so I really don't have a designated studio space. I do, however, have a sliding glass door in my office that gives me some beautiful, natural light. My mission was to keep this simple... all black and white, simple black background and natural light. I wanted everything the same except the faces and expressions... I wanted to see what I believed to be true about portraits... no "cheese" needed for a portrait. Let me tell you, it was tough! Most of my models came in, sat down, looked at me and gave me that smile. I actually had to say, "no smiling!" When they couldn't stop smiling, even when they were trying to be serious... those were keepers. They were real.

My mission of twenty portraits quickly grew. I found myself loving portraits more and more. I wanted to take portraits of more than just my small circle of faces. I guess that I wanted to show that all ages and genders had the same reaction in front of a camera. I had started this project to show that a good portrait does not mean a "cheese' smile at the camera, but I was quickly finding that the automatic smile for a camera was something more than a habit for most people. I put out an open model call on social media and had a huge response!

I upped my goal to sixty. Yes, sixty! I took sixty portraits in just over a month. The same simple set up and all in black & white. I only spent a few minutes with each of my fabulous models and shared my original mission with them all. A few of them we even turned into beautiful surprises for Mother's Day for a couple of sneaky dad's by printing large photos and framing some of these beautiful faces, creating art for their walls and that those mama's will cherish for years to come. I loved helping with those for some sweet mama's.

Face, after beautiful face... I was learning something.

With each person, I took about five different images and we talked throughout the short session. I directed them on where to sit and posed them. I told them not to smile... "serious face", I would say. What I didn't do was coach their expressions. The expression in their eyes is all them. Although, there was one person where I said, "give me that mama bear look." I'll let you figure it out. If you know her then you've seen that look on her face before, I'm sure.

Now, a few of the little ones needed some time and the shots that I got were sneak attacks. Can you tell which ones?

What set out to be a mission to show that a good portrait doesn't have to be somebody looking a the camera and smiling taught me something that I never expected...

When you tell somebody not to smile for the camera, they get uncomfortable. Why? Because they are doing what they think they should do. When you tell someone not to smile at the camera, you take them out of their comfort zone. So, where I set out to show that a good photo isn't a "smile for the camera" grin, I realized that that smile is almost like a mask. When you take away the ability to hide behind that mask then you truly catch a glimpse of who that person is. Had I told every one of these people to look at the camera and smile, this would look very different, right? If you know these faces... what do you see? How many times have you seen that expression? I'll bet you have more than once.

Portraits were common years ago... centuries, even. Think about going into museums or older relatives homes. Portraits were what that they decorated their homes with. They were passed down for generations and they were precious keepsakes, a glimpse of who our ancestors were. In the digital age portraits have faded away. Most of our pictures get downloaded into a hard drive somewhere and you don't think about them until your computer crashes and they are lost forever... it happens. (Trust me, but that's another story.)

Most people capture milestones in portraits... school years passing, senior portraits, graduation, weddings, newborns. I can't tell you how many people that I have encountered that tell me that they haven't had their picture taken since their wedding and that was years earlier. There are so many reasons to have a portrait taken through different stages of life. Your loved ones will cherish your photographs for many years to come, a portrait helps you to see yourself as others see you and cell phone selfies won't ever capture the real you. One day when your children are great-grandparents and telling your great- great grandchildren about you, will they pull out their cell phone to look for a picture to show them? Or will they have something like this?

**This project grew and evolved as I worked through it and taught me many things that I did not expect. It has changed my photography and I thank each and every one of the sixty people that I photographed for this project for that.

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