Albert Puntí

Group Portraits

 

In his book The pencil of nature (1844), Henry Fox Talbot writes that, for the camera "Groups of figures take no longer time to obtain than single figures would require, since the Cameradepicts them all at once, however numerous they may be." This statement that nowadays seems only too obvious wasn’t so at the time, since people’s experience on image creation was based on painting, where the price of a piece was determined by surface and the number of figures portrayed.


Surprisingly enough, although Fox Talbot’s words are obviously true, when we look at artistic portraits made by both painters and photographers we find that most photographs are individual portraits, while the proportion of group portraits in painting is much higher.


This is because despite the camera’s ability to depict several people and even automatically organize the characters and objects into a conical, monocular perspective, the camera itself cannot provide a coherent composition. As Talbot points out, the photographer aiming to portray a group of people will have to learn how to conveniently place each character in order to create a harmonious composition.


Most photographers are used to taking real life shots and do not have a knowledge of compositional techniques. Thus the abundance of individual portraits showing a single character in the centre of the picture, or group portraits where the characters are placed side-by-side, facing the camera, without any interaction or subordination between them, without a tale.


COMPOSITION/GESTURES/FACIAL EXPRESSION


The first element to take into account when creating an image is the composition, often disregarded in group photographs. The aim should be to create compositions where the characters interact between themselves (whether in a hierarchical fashion or not) and with the space.


The second element would be the gestures, as once the characters have been distributed in space, it is necessary to link gestures and looks between them, so as to create our “scene”.


Finally, there is the problem of facial expression. Unless we have good actors at our disposal, it is extremely difficult that unprepared people will be able to display the sought emotions for the camera. On the other hand, on everyday life everyone is capable of naturally showing emotions (happiness, pain, sorrow…) through facial expression. Thus, the basis for this project is to capture spontaneous expressions of people on the street and taking advantage of the tools of photo-edition software, build characters of which we can modify the gesture and place them into a pre-organized composition.


GUIDING THE EYE


David Hockney in his text “On Photography” (1982), as well as Salvador Dalí in “50 secrets of magic craftsmanship” (1948), study the differential treatment of different areas of an image according to their interest. They remark on the fact that when an artist paints a portrait, he or she does spend the same time and effort on the eyes than, for instance, a sleeve. In an image, in this case a portrait, different elements have different importance and thus the artist has to direct the observers gaze towards the key elements.

The camera however, is unable to make this distinction, showing all nearby elements with the same detail. The photographer has got few tools (diaphragm, reserves…) to focus selectively. Fortunately, while in analogical photography the key step was the image capture and the possibilities for further image modification were very limited, in digital photography the options for image modification are almost unlimited. This gives us the chance to modify each element investing the time an effort required according to the element’s importance and the project’s characteristics.  Thus, in this series I have used digital painting software in order to direct the observer’s gaze towards the principal elements on an image, regardless of size and distance.


ILLUMINATED-THE PROJECT


The “Illuminated” series is a group portrait project, not in the strict sense of homogeneous group portraits, but images with several characters that may or may not interact amongst themselves but where composition plays an important role. Each picture arises from an initial idea, which is then assembled from independent images of spaces and people. Thus the final picture is not a reflection of a real situation (as in documental photography) but of an imaginary scene.


The series’ theme is everyday life events, which involve several characters either in interior or exterior spaces, and where light plays a crucial role unifying all the elements (thus the series title).


All in all, it is an ambitious project, where light is used to provide a certain atmosphere to a group portrait and where the underlying message is the proposal of a working method that relies on craftsmanship as much as on digital tools.