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In this post portrait photographer Christina Dickson tackles the topic of Urban Portraiture.
Within the photography world it is commonly expressed that the camera may be used to bridge the gap between people. In my own experience, I never fully realized this truth until this month.
This March, I have had the experience of becoming a street portraitist. Over a span of five weeks, I took to the streets of Portland for 3-5 hours every day, taking portraits of the homeless street community. I was not out to practice my portrait photography in a journalistic setting: my mission was personal.
I went out to answer a question that every portraitist must face:
Is it truly possible to capture the beauty of humanity even when one’s subject is a hardened, drug-addicted prostitute? Can I capture a portrait and cause my audience to see past the evidences of meth addiction, the multiple face piercings, and the glazed over eyes of drunkenness?
If I discovered genuine beauty in these individuals, I could prove that no one is “not photogenic” or, on the other side of the spectrum, “beautiful”.
Going into this project, I was warned that the camera would scare people away. So I went into Pioneer Square for a few days, camera on shoulder, and simply sat to talk with the people. I found out who they really were. I saw them shoot up on drugs. I carried on conversations with them as they were recovering from hangovers and highs. Very gradually, my camera became a part of my identity. Because of my relationships with them, the street people were honored that I would share with them such a part of myself.
To successfully shoot these portraits, I had to pull out every technique I learned in school. The surroundings were always different, whether inside a building or outside on the street. I took portraits in the morning, at noon, and at dusk. The weather was always unpredictable: I shot in the rain, in the snow, in the hail, and in the sun.
Here are some of the things that worked for me in this urban setting:
An umbrella or awnings blocked the water droplets. My reflector mirrored the diffused light of the sky back into my subject’s faces. My camera’s white balance was always set to cloudy for warming skin tones.
I found shade or used my reflector as a gobo to block the light. If the light was too bright for an even exposure, I deliberately shot for high contrast to achieve an emotional black and white portrait.
In just a few short moments I had to analyze the type of individual I was taking portraits of. Were they quiet and reflective, or boisterous and outgoing? Then I would try to match my subject to a fitting environment in the immediate surrounding area. A quiet person may be better suited for a portrait taken alone on a street corner. Someone outgoing could be posed in the middle of a crowd by using a small depth of field. Because of the nature of the environment, I had to always watch for distractions. Vehicles, the MAX line, other pedestrians, and even wildlife could make or break an otherwise stellar portrait.
Low light was always an issue. Slow shutter speeds and still subjects were a must for adding more light, but special attention was required for sharp focus. One technique that helped slow shutter speeds and sharp images was shot bursts – taking 3 shots in a row. Generally, my second shot was in focus. Custom white balances were also a necessary evil.
Through this project I have seen that acquiring technical skills is critical to artistic success, but that’s not the end. Master your camera, your techniques, your style, and on a deep level you can show people that they have worth and are beautiful – even when they don’t believe it themselves.
I now have 50 beautiful new portraits of the street culture of Portland. I have acquired deeper photographic skills. I also have a hundred new friends. From this time I am able to pass on this amazing experience to you:
You are able to bring out beauty in anyone who steps in front of your camera.