Art Show Portraits

A couple of weeks ago, my Aunt told me about an art show they were having at one of the residential aged care facilities where she works. The residents who were having their art work displayed were going to have photos to go alongside their biographies, and she asked me if I would be willing to take them.

I went today, and while I can’t show any of the photos for privacy reasons, I thought I would write a little bit about the experience, because it was so different to any other portraits I have taken. So I apologise if this ends up being a bit TL;DR with no photos to break it up. I’ll try and be succinct!

My Aunt met us (her sister, my Mum, came along to see my Aunt and to watch me work) with a list of the residents who agreed to have their photos taken. I brought as little as possible, my camera and my 85mm f1.8 “portrait” lens. It’s a prime lens, which on the one hand means I would be constrained to the one focal length (can’t zoom in or out, it’s fixed) but on the other it opens all the way to f1.8, the widest aperture on any lens I have. So I decided to go with that one.

My Aunt would go into each of the rooms and ask the residents how they were feeling and if they were up to having a photograph taken. A couple said no, they either weren’t well or weren’t comfortable enough. With the residents who agreed, she would tell us we could come in and then she would introduce me.

Everything I’ve ever read about taking portraits stresses the importance of connection, and making sure the subject is relaxed. This would be doubly as important when the subjects were elderly, and it was sort of a disruption and a bit invasive for someone to come into their rooms and start taking photos. Each room was like a miniature house, filled with bits and pieces of their lives. I made sure I sat or knelt down in each room, so I wasn’t looming over them with a camera. I asked both Mum and my Aunt to help by talking with me and the subjects about the art they were putting in the art show. Immediately, this worked with almost all of the residents. They started to relax, and point to their art on the walls or even pull some out and show us.

I keep saying it over and over, but if you can get someone to talk about themselves or something that they love or are interested in, their whole posture will change and their face will relax and often light up. They talked about their knitting, their crochet, their painting, their sketching. Some of the art work was truly incredible. The residents all seemed genuinely flattered at people giving them so much attention and wanting to take their photos. Some were a bit stiffer than others, and it was kind of heart breaking because a few said they never take a good photo, and it struck me to know that kind of self consciousness never really goes away. I made a point of telling them they had a lovely smile, or took a good photo, and the thing was I wasn’t lying. They all did.

I tried to work as quickly as possible. The facility was quite bright and airy, but some of the rooms were smaller and darker than others so I was working at changing the settings a lot. I wasn’t going to ask them to move around to suit where the light was best, but luckily when we got around to each room mostly they were seated in their chairs by the windows, which allowed me to use the natural light so I didn’t have to rely on boosting ISO, or compensating by opening the aperture to its widest. Although the lens does open to f1.8, that is an incredibly shallow depth of field and can make it difficult to focus. All lenses have a “sweet spot” which is usually a few stops above their widest, so for the 85 that would mean around f3.5, so I worked around that as much as possible.

As far as editing went, I kept it fairly simple and went for a matte look, which wasn’t as harsh as having the inky, stronger blacks. This gave an overall softer, more gentle feeling to the photos. I went through and tried to find photos were the residents looked the most relaxed, often smiling and with emphasis on their eyes.

Overall I was really proud of the photos. It was actually an emotional experience, being allowed inside quite a personal, private space to take portraits like this. But it taught me a lot, and I’m extremely grateful. They were all lovely, lovely, subjects.


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