After Hill & Adamson Portrait Comparison

Posted on February 1, 2013


As I said in the previous post I thought I would make a comparison of the digital ‘smiling’ version of the portrait of Gwen with the 5×4 ‘serious’ film version. Here are the two photographs side by side:

Gwen (after Hill & Adamson) digital version left, 5x4 film version right

Gwen (after Hill & Adamson) digital version left, 5×4 film version right

So how do I think these images compare. First some general observations. For this portrait I much prefer the 4×5 aspect ratio. The 35mm 6×4 ratio seems a little hemmed in at the sides. I did take some shots from further back but this then leaves a lot of space at the top (or bottom) of the frame. I also prefer the tonal range of the film version…I didn’t spend a lot of time on the digital version and I’m sure there is scope for improvement. The film version is pretty much how it came off the scanner. I added some sharpening, a little noise reduction, a small tweak to contrast and a slight post corp vignette.

But now I’ll move onto the real issue the question of how the subject comes over. In the smiling digital version what one sees is a sunny personality. Gwen’s expression is leading you to this conclusion. But is this closing off other possible readings?  In the film version the smile is gone and Gwen’s pose is more difficult to read. She seems less relaxed with a little tension in her face a little particularly around the mouth. Her expression is more neutral and her gaze more penetrating. Her mouth still has a hint of a smile (I think this is how she looks naturally). The reading of her face is more ambiguous in the film version and as such leaves open more questions about the person we are looking at. That said she still looks posed, its just not so clear what the pose is….it reminds me a little of the kind of  pose which executives adopt for corporate shots.

The tilting of Gwen’s head to her right and slightly forward in the smiling shot also seems more welcoming, almost like an acknowledgment of our prescence. In the serious version her head is very slightly tilted away from us – does this suggest a more aloof demeanour?

In the film serious version there also seems to be more tension in the fingers of her right  hand which is touching her face. The fingers are straighter and less relaxed. It does seem that asking someone who naturally smiles not to smile coupled with sitting them in front of a large view camera makes the subject more self conscious and tense.

Critical photography needs to ask questions rather than present a closed narrative or reading. The aim is to give the viewer the space to interrogate the photograph and to consider alternative readings. In this regard the smiling portrait of Gwen is more closed and is likely to result in a more superficial response  from a viewer.

Photographs  trigger memories and associations. For me the smiling version reminds me of great times with good friends.  The serious photograph takes me back to my formal working environment, which was an altogether more sobering and serious experience…