Last Saturday, I took the best photograph of my life. It was a bit of a surprise to me, and it took several hours for it to dawn on me exactly what I had done. It started to click that I had a special capture when, throughout the evening, I kept taking out that card and scrolling through the images to find that One.
The image is excellent in the way classical portraits are excellent. It is technically sound, of course, but it is by no means fancy or elaborate. It is a couples shot of a bride’s maternal grandparents. The grandmother is seated and dressed in green traditional Pakistani garb. The grandfather is standing behind her and wearing a suit with a red sweater vest. The pose is dictated by their tradition. It was shot in a room in a Courtyard Marriott in the suburbs, and the only light is available window light. No fancy lighting, a very traditional composition, no specific posing…just two exceptional faces, beautiful light, and something intangible.
It looks great printed on Hahnemuhle Bamboo Matte 290gsm paper.
I arrived at being able to shoot this image slowly. In general, I think I’m a pretty good portraitist, especially if I really have time to work with people. I enjoy the engagement of personalities, the conversation, the figuring out of what emotions and expressions best convey a sense of the person, and which emotions and expressions make for the most compelling images. I favor simple lighting even when using strobes, and my use of lighting hasn’t changed much over the years, because good light is good light, and good light is usually simple, warm light. A lot of posing looks unnatural to me, even if it can be compositionally dynamic, so I don’t use it too often. In short, I haven’t changed that much about how I shoot portraits. If you look at my portfolio over time, there is incremental improvement, and a strengthening of style, but it is nothing dramatic. Images flow from one to another in a nice continuum of betterment.
Then, all of sudden, something changed. I shouldn’t say all of a sudden. I took this winter, when I wasn’t shooting as much, to undertake some training (specifically, kelbytraining.com was my greatest single source of learning), so I came to my first wedding of the season certainly with some new knowledge jumping around in my mind, and it came in handy in the first hour of the shoot. I didn’t learn anything revolutionary. There was no head-slapping, heart-stopping, cloud-parting moment when the secrets were revealed (because in photography, there really aren’t any secrets, and I find the technical aspects of it to be relatively uninteresting), but there was a slow nudge toward better awareness of what I was doing and what the light was doing.
There’s a philosophical debate about change of type versus change of kind, i.e., how much a thing can change before it is no longer just a different type of the same thing, but a new kind of thing all together. My photography is always inching forward, and it is difficult, from inside, to notice significant amounts of change because they happen slowly. But this image was something special…a different kind, not just a better type.
I am saying all of this with the knowledge that I cannot share the image with you. In a way, that’s good, because wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve like this on the internet is just asking for people to jump in and say this image that I find so compelling is nothing special at all. So perhaps it is best that you be left with me just waxing poetic about it, and you just having to imagine (or meeting me in person to see it). The bride and groom have their own privacy concerns and don’t want the images on the web, and that’s just as well…as I’ve gone through this year and my print-per-day project, I’ve reacquainted myself with the importance of the printed image, and the evanescent nature of the digital image. This is an image that demands to be in print, and, in fact, it was print #100 in my project. A small handful of my friends and family have seen it, and when they have seen it, they have seen it in person, and the image has become a catalyst for storytelling. And like a good story, there is something immediately easy and comfortable about it, and something unique and challenging.
I am glad that I have to show this image to people in person, on paper. They can hold it and put it right up to their noses. The image doesn’t need batteries or electricity (anymore). And I know that, as valuable to me as the image already has become, it will enjoy another life in print, somewhere far away, where friends and family of that old couple can look at it and enjoy how much like them that picture is.