It is not by accident that often, the most compelling photographs of structures and objects are associated with people. Perhaps an extreme take on this idea was when the writer and photographer Wright Morris wanted an assignment with Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and showed him a portfolio of his work. He presented beautiful pictures of barns, old houses, and weather-beaten doorways. Stryker looked at the photographs with interest but was bemused by the lack of people in them because the documentation of people was the essence of his project. Morris agreed wholeheartedly and explained that the presence of the people in his pictures was enhanced by their absence. Stryker was not amused. However, both men were correct depending on the intended purpose of the photographs. Stryker wanted to reveal the essence of the depressing times, while Morris’s intention was to show objects of feeling and emotions. His images emphasized the life enhancing rather than the life depressing.
One of my favorite books of travel portraits is ‘World’s in a Small Room” by Irving Penn. By any standard Penn, produced a wonderful series of portraits taken in Cuzco, Spain, New Guinea, Nepal, Morocco, Dahomey, Crete and the United States. The subjects were all photographed in a so-called portable ambulant studio using light from the north sky and, all had the same backgrounds. According to Penn, he did not fancy seeking out his subjects in their natural circumstances. He preferred to record their ‘physical presence’ under more controlled conditions, such as he would have experienced in his New York studio. He openly admitted that he enjoyed the artificial circumstances of the studio.
I never lost my appreciation for having been privy to enjoy the photographs of Irving Penn. However, something disturbed me. I realized that people photographed in their own environment often appear more natural and less staged. Indeed, this is not surprising as the subjects are breathing the air they are accustomed to. In essence, I developed a passion for photographing people in their own villages, their own homes or their own surroundings. I began to appreciate that different personalities required the natural environment’s lighting in which the subject lived. In essence, photographing people in their natural circumstances allowed my subjects to present themselves as themselves.
In many ways, when possible, I strive to incorporate an opposing vantage point to that of Wright Morris and Irving Penn and photograph people in their every day circumstances so that the environment enhances the character of the people, and the people enhance the character of the environment.