Exercise 4: A No-Camera Portrait
Just look from a distance, then start writing what- ever comes to your mind. Tell a story about the person. Make it up.
Is it an older man sitting on a bench in a mall while people swirl past? Busy shopping, they don’t see him, don’t see his neat dungarees, his black work shoes, white socks. Something about the way he combs his white hair into high waves is slightly foreign. His hands are rough, but they’re clean.
What might these things tell you? Listen to the voice in your head. Start writing. Don’t try to write it well.
He tripped on a paving stone in Budapest in 1956, running from Soviet police, and somehow fell forward to Dayton, Ohio, to a factory job that never changed during forty years while the world moved past him. Now he has come to live with his daughter. But there’s something about the house he can’t stand, and he has to get out. Not to anywhere, just out.
Go on for a page or two. Look it over. You don’t have to set out every thought clearly, just impressions. Once it is written you can usually take a few things out to eave space for the imagination to fill in.
Whenever I’ve given this exercise to a class, people protest they can’t write. Fine, don’t spend any energy on the writing. That’s not what this is about. Just get it down.
OK, go off and do it. Once you’ve done one, do another. Then set them aside.
Later—a day or two—take them out and read them over as though someone else had written them. And finally see if you can get everything down to a single paragraph that is the beginning of a short story..
Here is a biography one student wrote:
She sat in the corner booth, white hair in place. Despite her faded features her carriage and high cheekbones conveyed an air of elegance.
Her arctic blue eyes stared into the distance, then narrowed slightly as an unpleasant image surfaced in her mind, an image she had been trying to suppress. Relentlessly her inner eye turned to the trunk of the gray Oldsmobile parked outside the café…and to the bundle in the trunk.Soon, she was sure, acquaintances would notice that calls to her husband went unanswered, that he had not been seen for days.
The cup in her hand quivered slightly as her mind began to race….
My name is Bonnie. I was born and raised in N ew York and summered in the H amptons, where I learned to sail. I was the junior sailing champion at the Hampton Yacht Club for many years running. I got my law degree at NYU and practiced for 10 years with Bretz & Coven LLP on Broadway. I hated it.
I met my husband Twig on vacation in St . John, US VI, where I took a day tour on his boat, the 65′ schooner Heron, and fell in love with the boat and eventually him. I quit the law firm, got my captain’s license ,and now we co-skipper day trips from Rockport, Maine, three months of the year and from S t. John six. Sounds like a perfect life, right? Well , almost…
Twig is the perfect partner, and his easy-going attitude is a tremendous asset to our business. But, despite working with tourists for over 10 years, I am not what you would call a “people person.” I’ve had a history of anger and depression since I was a teenager. It is painfully difficult for me to interact with other people and to make small talk. And I get uncontrollably angry about things that are not my responsibility and do not affect me directly. For example, that older couple that climbed through the open window of the Harbor Master’s Office to take a shower really set me off.
My therapists have suggested variously that my problems stem from my alcoholic mother or from being ostracized as a teenager for being too tall and too smart (for a girl). Or maybe it’s a deeper kind of mental illness. No one seems to know for sure where it came from or where it will go…. But I will get up tomorrow, do three cruises and do my best to keep my passengers safe, even if I can’t smile at them.That’s all I can manage right now. Do you know the madrigal by Thomas Morley, “My Bonnie Lass She Smileth?” That is the one thing I cannot do.
( Molly Johnston)
This is usually the first assignment in a workshop, and people are surprised because it sets aside photography, the very thing they’ve come to learn. The next surprise comes when they read the stories that they have come up with. They are invariably lively, well seen, even inventive. The writing is mostly simple, direct, and very evocative. I once had a book editor in the class who said, “I don’t see this much good writing in a year.”
Why is that? I think it is because we’ve removed any need to have the writing come out well, and in- stead people simply set down what they see without trying to dress it up and make it “good.” And that is the beginning of good writing.
Once we have read the stories aloud in a class, I ask this question: If you had taken a photograph of the person, would it be as good as what you’ve written?
And after a moment they shake their heads, no. Why not?
The question is worth some serious attention.
Most photographic portraits fail because they don’t really respond to the subject. They aim to please, to flatter, or to do nothing more than repeat the subject. By contrast, neither of the written sketches here does any of that. The first is a rather sly look at a person that suggests they are up to no good, a lot of no good! The second one shows a person who is tightly wound and liable to blow up, yet it shows her with some sympathy and understanding.
But when we photograph someone, we mostly leave out that kind of thing. That’s why so many portraits are rather inconsequential, because they attempt so little.
So what is your obligation to your subject? A successful portrait does not smooth them out. You can’t necessarily see all their facets, but you can sense them. It is like a sheet with lumps under it that tell you something is there. And I certainly want both to make and to look at portraits with the marks of the life that the person has led. The clearer that evidence, the better the portrait.
The unexpected outcome of this exercise is that the writing we do shows we can really see a person. We want to use that same seeing when we make a photographic portrait. We need to allow all of what we see into our image directly, along with overtones and hints. This can set up a kind of show/hide ten- sion in the picture, and it is the tensions that ultimately make a portrait interesting, not the smoothness.
So when we turn to making a photographic portrait—as very soon we will—we need to see our subjects as fully as we did in our written observation, then we need to capture what we see with directness and clarity.
So be simple as you try this and don’t try to add interest. Just take in the person who is there. Sometimes you need to be a little artless to make good art.
Now, what’s your story?
Read over what you wrote and ask yourself a few questions.
For one thing, does it start with a physical description? If it does, see if you can take that out and reveal your subject through whatever attracted you to him or her. For example, instead of “young woman, about 28, blond hair, standing by the cash register,” try “bored waitress, would rather be someplace else, maybe with her guy … but he just moved back to Portland.” There is no story in the first example, just data, while the second offers up a few clues and starts spinning a tale.
So try just striking out physical description and starting with the next sentence. What you need may already be there.
Look at this, from Mavis Gallant: “One afternoon, Henri left the farm for good, dragging a suitcase with a broken lock, and got on a slow, dirty train to Paris. It was near the end of events.”
Or this: “He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.”
That’s the first sentence of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, and it gives us a wonderful image of this cocky boy who has been enticing readers to follow him since 1901.
Try this: “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head for- ward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”
Alright, there is a bit of physical description, but by the second phrase you have this bull/man charging you, and you know a lot about Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.
You may not aspire to be a writer, but this exercise is not about writing, it’s about seeing. As a photographer you can learn about your own seeing by writing. You can reveal character, presence, energy, find the stuff that will make viewers look…and look.
In a class we read our biographies aloud in the evening. Without fail the stories are lively and engaged and imaginative, and they give people a clear, strong sense of the subtlety in their own seeing. Some- times someone protests that they’re just making things up, and that is true as far as specifics go, but they are doing so inspired by really noticing the subtleties of the person they’re observing. You wouldn’t confuse Henri dragging his suitcase with Lord Jim.
So the second question to ask is, does your character feel true, authentic, like an actual person? Sometimes the authenticity is buried in a thicket of de- tail, but clear the brush and the seeing is in there somewhere. One of these days I’d love to go ahead and write short stories in a workshop to see where it goes, but that’s for another time.
One could certainly take this to be an exercise for writers—and so it is—but we’re doing it so that we can learn some things about seeing beyond factual observation. The kind of seeing-with-the- imagination we’re exercising here is where good writing begins, of course. Good photography, too.
Once I assigned this in a college course. There was a young man from Mexico in the class who had probably arrived in the US when he was about twelve. When I gave the assignment, he nervously protested that he could not write, so I told him not to even try writing it formally, just to note down words.
My guess is that he’d been branded as educationally deficient when he arrived in the U.S. and had carried that mark through his schooling. But what he came back with was powerful, emotional, and strongly expressed … just what any teacher of English would want. As he finished reading it the class broke into applause. The student was near tears. I have no doubt that he had finally seen that he could write in English.
It was one of my most memorable days. If I’d had a wish, it would have been that he could go back and read that story to his old teachers.