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When I first started my studies as a portrait photographer, a friend introduced me to a photo book by Michael Franzini. This photographer created a book of portraits that inspired me to have very high standards for creating portraits that were true to my subjects and their life stories.
One Hundred Young Americans is a photo book that connects readers to the stories of 100 teenagers around the US. Franzini’s purpose with this book was to capture a true representation of American youth culture. Some of the stories are lively. Some are sad. All capture a life authentically and unabashedly.
Rarely will you come across a book that is so engaging and has such great variety of profiles. To this day I have not seen a portrait book that so successfully connects my heart to the heart and intentions of the photographer.
I learned several lessons from this book and believe it to be an excellent addition to the library of those studying the art of the portrait.
Study the things they love. Look at their favorite things. Appreciate them.
You may not have grown up the way they do. You may have different values. But for a moment, be subjective. Don’t allow yourself to be removed from their story.
Everyone has different viewpoints. Lay aside your preconceived ideas and do your best to really be true to your subject’s story.
A truly successful portrait photographer can take someone who is quiet and demure and capture that – even if the photographer is bubbly and vivacious. You add your style to the shoot, but in the end, a portrait is about your subject and not about you.
Use elements of movement and motion in your portraits – don’t be content with all your elements being still and static.
Their favorite room. Their backyard pool. Their treehouse. Their farm. Where your subject is most comfortable, they will be most natural as well.
Spitting skittles. Surrounded by stuffed animals. Surrounded by cosmetics. These are all scenes and settings from Michael Franzini’s portraits. Don’t be afraid of ideas that haven’t been done before. Those are the portraits that stand out most.
What experiences can cross over differences of age, culture, and upbringing? Focus on these to make your portraits strong.
Your subject may make choices that you would not. Your subject may come from a world completely foreign to you. What matters most is that you give respect to them and their story. If you can show this, your subject will be comfortable letting you into his or her life.
Above all, each person’s life is like a book with many chapters, many characters, and many unexpected twists. The beauty of creating a portrait is showing as many elements as you possibly can, in the most artistic way possible.
I’m grateful for these lessons Michael Franzini taught me on the Art of Story.
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