Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Magic: What You're Looking For
Moments In Between. Holly. D3/50mm. 1/200th, f/5.6, ISO 200.
I keep putting off the Model Interaction post because I realize Magic is predicated on so many underlying elements; all of which precede model interaction. Since these particulars determine the potential outcome of creating Magic, it behooves us to discuss these things first.
The problem with Magic is that everyone defines Magic a little differently. And depending on the concept of the shoot, the same photographer can look for different looks. For example, a look that works well for one concept might not work well for another concept. That being said, there are seemingly universal themes to Magic, elements that I look for in models as well as in the looks I want the models to portray. Simply put (for model tests) I'm trying to create an emotional connection with my audience. In much the same way a magazine editor is trying to capture the attention of the viewership (for greater advertising revenue), I'm trying to evoke an emotion from the viewer.
I suppose that's the bottom line of Magic. Magic isn't about tack-sharp images. It's not about perfectly–posed models. It's not even about shooting the most-beautiful models. Rather, it's about evoking emotions from your audience. Because that's the universal goal isn't it? To change someone's life with a single image. To get them to feel something when they see that image. Because let's face it. An image built upon technical perfection is emotionally hollow. It's a pretty face (facade) with no substance underneath. It's the same criticism surfers invoke when they compare a mass-produced machine-made soulless surfboard from China, to a hand-crafted one-of-a-kind surfboard from a local shaper. They're both surfboards but one of them lacks a soul.
It's why I seek to shoot the shot that no one has seen before. I've seen lots of pictures and as a result I'm hard to impress. So I'm looking to create images that are unique. Images that stir my own emotions. As a rule of thumb I try to shoot the looks that aren't already in that particular model's portfolio. This at least prevents me from recreating the obvious. For example, if every picture in a certain model's portfolio showcases her amazing hair, I'll instead shoot her with her hair pulled back and totally take it out of the equation. At least we'll have a different experience and unique results.
I think that's one big theme in shooting Magic. It's certainly not the "obvious" shot. Because "obvious" shot doesn't evoke an emotional response. There must be a unique element about the shot that makes the viewer do a double-take. I use myself as a litmus test and during the selection process I'm looking for images that make me say "Whoa..." Now, although that doesn't happen a whole lot, when it does it's very exciting. I'm hard to impress, especially when critiquing my own work. So if I do a double-take or stare at a certain image, it's usually a good benchmark for how others might respond.
Another powerful concepts of Magic is voyeurism. It's why I ask the models not to look into the camera. In fact, sometimes I'll ask them to "just be" and to let the camera (and subsequently the viewer) be a voyeur. Why? Because by creating voyeuristic images the viewer feels like they've gotten a glimpse of moments that they weren't supposed see. That's an emotionally-arousing concept. Like a guilty pleasure, the viewer feels like they're a part of an intimate moment. And by definition voyeurs derive (usually sexual) gratification from such activities so there are emotional implications associated with such images.
Can a dead-stare directly into the lens produce equally emotional responses? Sure, if it's done correctly. But the editorial nature of Magic lends itself better to not making eye contact with the camera. After all, the story-telling experience is ruined if the characters of the story acknowledge that they are simply fictional characters in a story.
Secondly, expressions... namely open-mouth expressions. In my images, I often capture models with an open-mouth expression. Without getting into the "how" portion of these expressions let's look at how this differs from a closed-mouth expression. An image of a model with his/her mouth closed mouth feels uninviting and largely unexpressive. If the goal is to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, then capturing a model portraying a stronger expression would yields better results. Beyond that, there's something more enticing and powerful about an open-mouth expression versus a closed-mouth expression. I'm sure you can still portray plenty of emotion with your mouth closed, but the types of expressions portrayed with an open-mouth such as angst, anger, fear, surprise, shock, awe, etc. are seemingly more powerful emotions. Images capturing stronger expressions generally yield more stronger emotional responses.
Motion is also a powerful tool when evoking emotional reactions from the audience. While every image (with exception of animated images) is a representation of a moment in time, the results of motion and the unusual effects that motion have on still image, can be captivating and emotionally-enticing. As such, some of the most emotionally-evocative images portray models tossing their hair, jumping, turning, walking, flailing (usually the wardrobe or some accessory), kicking, etc. The models don't move simply for the sake of moving but rather to communicate life and energy. And it's hard to look at an image with tremendous energy and not feel the least bit moved. The viewers' response to motion can range from amazement at the acrobatics, to simple awe at how all the moving pieces are perfectly in place during the moment of capture. This motion is something I look for when I'm reviewing images of Magic. And these actions are likewise important to consider when interacting with models during the shoot.
Another common theme I've noticed amongst evocative images is "tension". Tension it is not limited to the pose or a model's expression but rather a feeling. It's polar opposite would be "totally at ease". After all, how much fun is it to look at a picture that depicts a model just chilling? The body-language and expression of tension evokes an emotional and physical response from the audience. There's something uncontainable about the energy represented by a model that harnesses and expresses tension. And because humans usually mirror what we see; when we see tension, we feel tension. When we see a bored model, we feel bored ourselves. When that tension involves an energy that is imbalanced, or uneasy, or troubled, we can not help but feel moved and possibly and intrigued by that image. Sometimes that tension is a result of a certain pose that the audience knows can only be possible for a moment in time. A pose so imbalanced but yet so perfect in its imbalance that it's evocative because of its ephemeral nature and yet also its timelessness. That's the tension that I look for in the models that I shoot. That's also the tension in the images that I select for post-processing.
Similar to "tension", I try and capture the unpredictable and uncontrollable in an effort to create Magic. The last thing I want to shoot is something that looks planned, rehearsed, and posed. Why? Because artifice is obvious. Sure there are amazing images that are perfectly posed. But as reality TV has proven, truth is stranger (and usually whole hell of a lot more interesting) than fiction. Real life can't be rehearsed, can't be planned, and simply can't be controlled. So when you capture a moment that represents life in its most volatile, unpredictable and uncontrollable state, you're in essence capturing the human spirit. And there is something simply intriguing and emotionally evocative about the purity and honesty of an image of the human spirit.
Are there other things to look for when creating Magic? I'm sure every photographer has a recipe or checklist when trying to create emotionally-evocative images. This is my short-list of things to look for both in the models I consider and also the images I create. These are just some of the concepts that drive the Fashion-Editorial Master Class I'm teaching on January 21-22, 2012.
Will I ever get to talking about model interaction? Hopefully soon.