Portraits in the Landscape

Posted on February 19, 2013

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I’ve just got back my developed film from the trip to Wester Ross. I made several portraits with the 4×5 using Kodak Portra 400. The film is a lacks punch in the dull conditions and seems to have a blue cast. I clearly need to search for more interesting light!! However, that said this was very much a test of my handling the camera in the field and this respect I was pretty happy.

The film worked well for the shaded shot of Babak at Dundonnell which is my personal favourite of these. I just wish I had shown a little more of the tree to the left of the frame. With the 4×5 it is essential to work out the composition in advance….its hard to move the camera far!! Here are five portraits which I think worked out quite well.

Open Workshop 2013-1

Babak, Dundonnell February 2013

Open Workshop 2013-2

Robin, Laide February 2013

Rebecca, Loch Maree February 2013

Rebecca, Loch Maree February 2013

James, Loch Maree February 2013

James, Loch Maree February 2013

Stefan, Laide February 2013

Stefan, Laide February 2013

Addendum 20/02/13

My intention was to picture my subjects against backgrounds which he/she had just photographed as landscape subjects. This is the case for these portraits, except perhaps for the one of James who is shown alongside the tree of which he’d been making detailed studies. I wonder if this knowledge adds to the understanding of the people depicted? It certainly adds context. The landscape coupled with their clothing and equipment certainly marks them out as landscape photographers. But does the specific landscape add any further information about them? In the cases of Babak and Robin, they seem to being swallowed up into the landscape. The trees are reaching out to embrace Babak and Robin is dissolving into the water. It is almost as if they are part of the landscape, which in a metaphoric sense a keen landscape photographer is.

I was also exploring the idea of when does a portrait of someone in the landscape cease to be a portrait and become a landscape with human interest. Kress and van Leeuwen make the point that the size of framing of the subject changes meaning…the choice is between close up, medium shot and the long shot (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006, pp 124). They define the long shot as when the subject is about half the height of the frame. They suggest that if the subject is more than 13ft away (this is a very exact figure) then people are seen as having very little connection with ourselves and that ‘portrait distance’ is between 4 and 8 ft. On this basis Babak and Robin (particularly Robin) are on the fringes of not being regarded as a portrait subject. But this does not seem to be the case. The reason for this is their direct engagement with the viewer. Were they to have been pictured looking away our engagement with them would have been different.

So it seems to me the issue is not simply one of spacial arrangement it is also about whether the gaze of the subject is direct or indirect. A human figure in the landscape looking into the distance is of course a device which was used by Romantic landscape painters such as Casper David Friedrich. Friedrich’s ‘Ruckenfigur’ (literally ‘back figure’) was intended to place the viewer in the landscape so that they would take in the awesome and sublime scenes depicted. Elina Brotherus has also explored these ideas in some of her studies of models in the landscape (see here). Having thought about this I now wish that I had taken two shots. One looking directly at the viewer and one looking into the distance…..this is something for the long run perhaps….

References

Kress G. & van Leeuwen T. (2006) Reading Images the grammar of visual design Oxford:Routledge

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