Why portraits matter: Reflections from 4 East Coast photographers
In celebration of World Photography Day, we explore the power of a portrait
In celebration of World Photography Day on Aug. 19, CBC Creator Network on the East Coast wanted to explore the power of a portrait. Freelance journalist Jerry-Faye Flatt spoke with four photographers: James Wilson, Stewart MacLean, DeeDee Morris and Eldred Allen. Here are their stories.
James Wilson, Saint John/Hampton, New Brunswick
To veteran photographer James Wilson, a good portrait has a sense of mystery.
"Sometimes it's right there to start with … other times it's something that happens in the process," he said.
Wilson, born and raised in Saint John, N.B., grew up wanting to be an artist. From the age of 11 he was taking photos, and even remembers the first roll of film he shot on a Brownie camera. It was of the Percé Rock, a giant rock formation at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec.
Now, in his early 70s, Wilson still loves photography. Since 1993 he's been working on his own business, and living as an artist with photography as his medium.
Wilson's most recent works are part of an exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery titled Social Studies. About 25 years ago, he started documenting New Brunswickers from all walks of life. The decades-long project has resulted in 48 large format black and white photographs, and a book.
The portraits themselves are each taken in front of a neutral background, and bathed in natural light. The effect this gives forces the viewer to really look at the human being, said Wilson.
Wilson's advice for budding photographers is to keep in mind the camera is a time machine. Take time into making each portrait a good one, because in 50 years, it will become more valuable to the person's family.
Stewart MacLean - Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Stewart MacLean of Charlottetown, P.E.I., says while a good portrait is subjective, he believes it's a blend of how the light, composition, and subject blend together.
When MacLean takes someone's photo, he goes through a checklist in his head.
"Is it a nice composition? How does the lighting look? [Does] the subject, and how they're surrounded in their environment, look interesting?"
MacLean likes to experiment with contrast in his images. He uses bright and dark colours, and plays with light and shadows.
MacLean spent the majority of his youth travelling South America and volunteering at an animal rescue centre in Ecuador. He was drawn back to the Island in 2019 and decided to advance his self-taught skills by enrolling in Holland College's Photography & Videography program. The 2020 grad now has his own photography business, and works in the local film industry.
MacLean's tips for taking a good portrait are practice, research, recreation, and experimentation.
"Never get stuck trying to learn new things."
DeeDee Morris - East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia
When DeeDee Morris looks through her lens, she sees the joy and beauty of her subject's life.
"I go as deep as I can with my subjects right off the bat … so that when I do photograph them, all I'm seeing is the beauty and the joy that is them, or their life, or their connections with the other people they're with," said Morris.
The full-time professional photographer remembers picking up her first camera at 11 and becoming infatuated with photography, and film.
Morris says for her, a good portrait contains an emotional element.
"I need to personally feel connected to an image to find that it's a good image," she said. "It can be lit perfectly, it can be a technically good photograph, but if I don't connect to it, I don't really care."
Morris hosts bi-annual weekend workshops for new and experienced photographers who want to push their boundaries called the Creative Soul Retreat. She said the best advice she has for new photographers is to be as vulnerable as possible, so your subject is able to be vulnerable as well.
"The more that you are just yourself when you show up to a session, the easier it is on your client, because they're going to relax and be more themselves."
Eldred Allen - Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador
Eldred Allen of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador has had a highly successful career in a short period of time. The self-taught photographer purchased his first handheld digital camera in 2018. Since then, it's been a "whirlwind." Allen's been in close to a dozen shows across Canada, has had pieces purchased for permanent collections, and is represented by two galleries.
Allen had his first solo exhibition last fall, titled Resemblance, which displayed portraits of elders from his community of Rigolet.
The name for the exhibition came from Allen looking at his subjects through the camera, and oftentimes seeing someone's brother or grandson.
"People look so much like their family members. It was so interesting to see that," he said.
Allen started the documentation process for Resemblance in 2019 with the goal of photographing as many elders in Rigolet as possible before they passed away.
Allen said because his community is so isolated, he turned to Facebook to post the photos of the elders for relatives and friends to see from far and wide.
Family members began pressuring their parents or grandparents to visit Allen and have their photo taken. "They mean so much to the community."
Allen summed up his advice for budding photographers in one word: access. He said photographers should think about the people they have access to, or the people they have a certain rapport with, and how that allows them to obtain a certain level of comfort with their subject — one that makes them let their guard down and show themselves as they actually are.
Allen's access to people in his own community has allowed him to take 49 portraits so far. He plans to keep it going.
"It's a project I won't see the end to."
About the CBC Creator Network
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Photo essays from the CBC Creator Network