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Photography – fiction and truth

(If you are offended by an adult, naked bottom, do not read on.)

When I first started out in photography, more than thirty years ago, I bought a big book to learn about the technical and creative aspects of my new hobby. I was intrigued by one section about ways that some photos had to be created because of the difficulty of doing real things in photo studios. One was ice cream – which won’t stay the right consistency in a photo studio, so mashed potato was used instead. Another was of boiling vegetables in a glass pan – again too difficult to set up a working oven, and then steam is a problem for camera lenses. So the bubbles were air blown through a tube behind the veg to the bottom if the pan, and the steam was smoke. The book showed how it was really done, and also the finished photos – both of which were entirely convincing.

The point I want to explore the extent to which such photos are both fictions and truths. That is how ice cream and boiling veg really look, and if you want to convey that look in photographs, the photographs have to be a fiction.

I think about the concept of “truth” quite a bit in my work. I have two specialisms as a lecturer – criminal psychology, and research methodology.

On the psychology side we talk about lie detection, and on the way to that, the slippery concept of what is ‘true’. Motives and explanations are often disputed, and no one version is necessarily the true one. Then on the methods side we talk a lot about whether we can directly know the world, or whether we always have to consider that we can interpret our world only through our human eyes and concepts, and the reality that we describe is some kind of human construction. Weighty stuff, perhaps, but all these ideas feed into how I think about photographing a person (not just a person, actually, but lets go with person here). “Truth” is not as easy as we might first imagine. There are different truths.

I’d love to be better at what I do, and I won’t make any grand claim that I can achieve this, but what I aim to do is convey something of personality in a portrait shoot. There are other things I’m doing too – most people understandably want flattering photos, and ones that are aesthetically pleasing. Well, if I did only those things I’d probably end up taking more or less the same photos of everyone, but if I want to convey personality too then that will lead me to make each shoot as unique as the person in front of me.

So I like to talk to people about how they want to appear. Bold and confident? Demur? Happy? Pensive? Shy? Sexy? With attitude? OK, so we settle on some moods or traits that should be in the photos. It’s then typically my job in the studio to make those come across in the pics. As I say, I’m not claiming to have nailed this, but it is my goal to get better at it.

Hopefully the moods and traits that we agree are ‘true’ versions of the person I’m photographing. They probably have other moods and traits too, but in the photos we’ll go for one (or maybe several, one at a time).

I don’t typically work with pro models, and most of us freeze a bit when someone says “look pensive” or “smile” – they’ll have a go, but that won’t be enough to carry the photo. Typically they’ll want me to guide their pose (where they look, where they put their hands, sit, stand, etc). Plus there are other things that feed into that mood – where the lights are, what camera settings I use, where I position the camera, and a whole bunch of settings – which are my domain.

If you’ve ever been in a photo studio you’ll know it’s pretty hard to be ‘natural’. The walls don’t look like ordinary walls, and there are big, bright lights that don’t exist in other settings, probably quite close to you, and there’s someone like me with a big black camera pointing at you and asking you to move your arm, look over there, etc. Quite a lot of what I do isn’t technical, but is talking to people, building a rapport, to relax them.

What should happen though is that after all this, the resulting photo not only looks natural, but also conveys the mood it was meant to. Almost certainly that mood didn’t fully exist as the shutter clicked. The photo is a fiction. But it’s fiction that conveys the truth – the person really is like that fiction – that’s a truth.

When the Queen movie, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, was popular, fans discussed all the inaccuracies in the story. There were many. Things in the wrong order. Important things missed out. Things that never happened. OK, in that sense it wasn’t true, but perhaps it was true in a different sense, that when you watched the movie it left you with an idea of what Freddie Mercury was like, and how he related to the band. Given two hours to tell a story, not only have you got to miss things out, but you’ve got to edit (change!) things to help build the impression, the story, that you are trying to convey to the viewer. You couldn’t do that as effectively if you just told ‘facts’. Another writer and director would have made a very different film, because their story of Freddie would be a different one. Just as ‘true’. If you ask two friends to describe you (as a person) they’ll each create a different version, but both will be recognisably you. If you just listed your key life events and choices, that would convey something about you, but not as well. So I’m more forgiving of that movie, and all ‘true story’ movies, for moulding facts to the story they are telling. You have to do that, else it is bland and uninteresting.

The fiction (and it is a fiction) conveys a truth.

That’s what I try to do in the photo studio. Here’s an example. In a photo shoot we wanted to create an erotic photo of a naked bottom. We wanted to make it look perhaps like someone sunbathing naked in a hot, exotic environment. Well, no matter how much I turn up the radiator in the studio, it isn’t going to be that.

We wanted beads of sweat. There wasn’t any real sweat, so we had to add it. OK – water spray. Every tried to spray water on your skin? It doesn’t look like beads of sweat, certainly not for many seconds. A little Googling later, the technique emerges. Rub baby oil on the skin, then add some kitchen glycerin to the water which helps it form better drops. Lift the models bottom by putting a pillow underneath. Oh, and, next time Andy, next time, warm the water a little. So this photo hopefully looks like it’s meant to but the reality was an uncomfortable, giggling, squirming model with bright lights shining down, and me crouching nearby, water spray in one hand, camera in the other, also giggling and trying to get the angles right. Not one bit exotic or erotic. Uncomfortable, undignified, hilarious, and in a cramped black room surrounded by light stands.

A fiction that tells a truth – how she can look, and what she wanted to convey in the photo.

©Words and pictures Andy Sutton, 2021