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Friday, May 2, 2014

Nude Pantyhose and Alien Skin

It's like this with me, drought and then flood. I know I just finally posted yesterday but I've been thinking since then. Some of what I have been thinking has been, "Why the heck can't my kids learn not to slam the door?" But that's not really all that relevant here. 

My other thought was this: Do you remember when there was a crayon color called 'nude' and it was supposed to be flesh tone, only flesh comes in so many different tones that it really wasn't particularly similar to what most people see when they are nude? The same thing used to be a name for pantyhose. Helpful if you were as certain shade of Caucasian but didn't know how to match it just by looking at the color but not a great marker for match for anybody else. I'm not about to wax nostalgic for those days, instead, they helped me frame something that I've only just realized. A sort of blinding flash of the obvious.

Different skin tones require different exposures and different filters and affects. I've been using this great PhotoShop plug called Alien Skin in and it tells me that a particular Kodak Portra film was low contrast and therefore great for good looking skin in portraits. Generally, the people I shoot portraits of are members of my family who, although we are each a different nude, are on the lighter end of the spectrum. Yesterday, I shot at a rally attended by a broad spectrum of dark to light skin and when I was working with the images later, I applied the low contrast filter and just felt that the pictures looked dead. That's when I realized that the filter that says it is good for portraits really meant that it was good for portraits of light-skinned Latinos and Caucasians. It simply forgot that there are people who are darker than that who also might want to look good in pictures. 

It threw me for a loop.

I played around with a lot of different filters and realized that the low contrast film filters make dark brown skin have a grayish undertone - an unhealthy one. It clears up the red from white faces (or as my daughter calls them pinky faces) but is disastrous otherwise. I have done almost all of my work in black and white up until now and so I was really focused on contrast rather than color but maybe one of the reasons I have like black and white so much is that I couldn't ever get the right feeling when the faces are brown. 

This caused me to think back to a lesson I saw on Lynda.com - I wish I could remember who had given it - about portrait photography. This particular photographer was using an Indian model and shooting in natural light outdoors. He mentioned that he generally underexposed a bit for darker skin because otherwise it tended to overexpose and lose its rich beauty. I also found in post processing that each time I figured the exposure, I had to move it back down about 1/3 of a stop or the skin just became shiny and plastic.

It also made me think about old movies and old paintings where people of color were depicted and something was just a bit 'off' about them, something I just couldn't put my finger on until I realized that they had used white models or white actors and then just dolled them up with the superficial trappings - generally something to shape the eyes or just face paint. It never looked right but I guarantee you that those painters and directors hadn't spent anytime contemplating the faces of Latinos or First Nations people or Africans. I have really been doing the same without thinking about it. Just as I had been doing without really thinking about it - assuming that a visual representation of the very surface which marks us would be the same despite the difference. 

I need more information. A beginning search on Google led me to a really interesting essay by Monte Zucker called "Photographing People of Color." It turns out my approach is still not right and it's going to take a lot more looking to really get this right. Recognizing this lack of skill on my part was a first step, realizing that other people have begun to talk about it was another step. The camera can't do everything, the photographer has to know what she is doing AND she has to remember to really see what or who she is looking at.

The institution of portrait photography needs to be broken open a little bit so that rules about how to photograph people really means all people. We need to talk about the gradient that exists not as an exception (which makes being 'white' the 'norm') but as a state of existence in which we will always find ourselves and that we would be foolish to ignore if we want our portraits to reflect the individual that can be clearly seen without them. 

Never let a photograph get in between you and an opportunity to see someone beautiful.