Publisher: Focal Press
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Although there are many different books on portrait photography, most of them are organized in a similar format. For example, explanations of lighting ratios are immediately preceded by descriptions of the roles of main lights, fill lights, hair lights and so forth. “FACES: Photography and the Art of Portraiture” takes a different approach.
The book opens with a short portfolio of modern-day portrait photographers, including Joyce Tenneson and Dan Winters, and is followed by a portfolio of historic portraits. The main part of the book consists of a number of two-page spreads each of which includes a portrait, a lighting diagram for most, and a narrative that points out something about the technique and content of each image. The images vary from those taken with elaborate indoor lighting set-ups to quick-catch street pictures, and use cameras from large format to point-and-shoot, and even “toy” cameras. The book ends with short essays on street shooting; preparation; modifying light; the art and craft of portraiture; and an appendix that talks about compositing a group picture, color versus black and white, histograms and lighting ratios. Many of the images have a grittiness to them that might please other viewers, but might not be to the subject’s liking.
One might expect that as one proceeded through the images, simpler concepts would be first introduced, with subsequent images building on these concepts, but the authors’ ideas seemed scattered about. I prefer a more organized approach to instruction so I was discomforted by this round-about presentation. It made it harder for the lessons to stick in my mind. On the other hand, many of the portraits were extraordinary and narratives often contained useful information.
I also found that although the authors may have thought they covered all the key concepts, they missed at least a few. For example, Biver shows portraits that use ambient light at a low level, combined with flash, and shot at a very slow shutter speed with a hand held camera. Experienced photographers should be able to figure out how to calculate all the settings. On the other hand, less experienced photographers, to whom much of the book seems to be addressed, would probably have a hard time figuring out how to duplicate the effect.
Placing the light modifiers section well after the images section means that, unless one has a very good memory, inexperienced users will have to reread the images section to benefit from the author’s pictures.
Occasionally I felt that some of the examples, although perhaps pleasantly quirky, were less successful as portraits. For example, there is a description of a complex group photograph that was so obviously a composite that it seemed to me that the description of the photographer’s efforts to make it look like it wasn’t a composite showed that he failed in his goal.
From a design point of view, I found it very difficult to read the captions on many of the illustrative photos because they were printed in yellow on a white page.
Portrait photography that is above the ordinary is difficult, and one way to learn to make extraordinary images is by looking at the work, and listening to the ideas, of a number of photographers. A photographer willing to spend the time may gain from this unorthodox presentation. However, I certainly would not recommend this volume as an aspiring portrait photographer’s introduction to the art.
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