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Observation point

by Gary Grealy, 14 June 2016

Why Portraiture? I have always gravitated to the figurative, the human form and, ultimately, the portrait.

The Art Lovers – Noah and Savannah 2015 by Gary Grealy
The Art Lovers – Noah and Savannah 2015 by Gary Grealy

I must confess at the outset that my photographic hero is the American photographer Irving Penn, who was still working until his death in 2009 at the age of ninety-two. He was a master of many subjects, from still life to fashion. However, for me, it is the portraits that are captivating; it is the simplicity of a plain background and beautiful lighting, with the subject as the hero.

This approach has been my intent over many years! I will always opt for a simple background rather than complexity. As with most rules, this is occasionally broken, maybe at the request of a subject, or simply that I find on a rare occasion that the background adds something. It is all about the subject; they must be the hero! I want to be within an arms length of the sitter. I am looking for the character, the history in the roadmap of the face. I want intimacy between the lens and subject. Hence, a lot of my portraits are quite closely cropped.

Another element to my approach is the need to research my subject. I read as much as possible. I will view every video I can find. On many occasions I have listened to a radio interview or seen a documentary on an individual, and this has been the catalyst to contact that person to ask if they will sit for a portrait. If possible, I like to meet with the subject prior to the sitting; generally this is only a brief hello so they have met me and I have a sense of the person and their environment. This also allows me to establish the equipment I will require for the sitting.

The process of visualising the image begins with a drawing. With this technique, I find the composition quickly becomes clear. On the day of the sitting I want a completely resolved image in my mind; I don’t want my subject twiddling their thumbs while I play with lights. To this end, I pre-light every portrait I make. I photograph myself in the lighting style I intend to use for the portrait. On the day, the lights are set and I begin. Some sittings may require fifty frames; many take ten.

Why portraiture? I love the interaction and the collaboration! Why portraits of artists and people from the art world? I think it is the smell of oil paint and the exhilaration of being in the presence of creativity!?