Yesterday, I got back sets of negatives and prints from two rolls of Portra 400 I'd shot over the past couple months. I've not been very good at taking the time to actually shoot lately – and, to be honest, I can see it in the shots that came out. They're fine – a couple are great, even – but overall, they're nothing special.
My first instinct was to groan and let my persistent self-pity take over, but I didn't. I wasn't sure why. Now, I realize it's because I remember I've already proven my ability to myself. It can be frustrating to shoot rolls and rolls of film and only be happy with a handful of shots – or worse, none. But it's also part of the process.
I'm thinking about this as I share the second photo in the Anatomy of a photograph series – a portrait of Mashnun, a local artist here. I hadn't been happy with my work around the time I met Mashnun to take his portrait as part of an earlier iteration of this newsletter. When I got the prints back from this shoot, I gasped when I saw this shot. I was floored, and overjoyed.
For a while, I was reluctant to jump into portraiture, not least because it seems like everyone is doing it. But, honestly, there's a reason why it's so popular and so resonant with people – portraits are so undeniably moving. It's really as simple as that. As it turns out, portraits have become one of my favorite type of photography.
What works about this photo, first and foremost, is the light source. Right before I walked into the coffee shop where I was meeting Mashnun, I noticed this incredible, peculiar light reflecting off the building. Bulbous, amorphous tendrils of sunlight bounced off a glass building onto the brick building opposite. It was perfectly weird light – it felt necessary for the portrait shoot.
The light was also shifting, and fleeting. So, while I don't normally pose people, I asked Mashnun to step into a perfect natural spotlight on the edge of a brick ledge. He's a natural model – just one of those people – and everything fell into place. (I also metered this photo, which I don't usually do, which probably helped.)
Beyond the perfect natural spotlight, I also think the composition works really well. That Mashnun is centered not only maintains the focus on him but also keeps the hard surroundings in check. It also just keeps the photo more interesting, because there's so much repetition around him (the bricks and concrete).
What also holds the focus on Mashnun are the natural lines borne of the rigid surroundings. The lines in the concrete sidewalk and the brick wall very directly draw the viewer's eye to the subject – and keep it there.
Overall, it's both an amorphous and direct photo – not unlike the light source I was so enamored with in the beginning.
After all, what is a photo but a dance with light?
For the hundreds of photos I'd groaned about before taking this portrait, the gasp I couldn't hold in when I saw this portrait made it all worth it.
I know I won't be happy with all of my photos. I know I'll have times when I don't shoot as much. I know I'll let myself down.
But I also know that every now and then, I'll flip through a set of newly developed prints and gasp once more as I did with this one.
Here's to those little golden ones along the way.
With love and consideration,
P.S. If you'd like to support my work, please consider the paid option for this newsletter.
P.P.S. What this portrait fails to do is show the breadth of Mashnun's talent. He now has a book of poetry out that you can order online.