AP writer and aspiring photographer, Jennifer Kay, took the time to reflect on two different books devoted to the art of documentary portraiture. Iris is encouraging photographers to compare styles,approaches,and to deconstruct how, why, and to whom images are made. Here are some of her thoughts.
Both books are examples of black and white documentary portraiture, but the photographers’ have different philosophies about what that means. Each definition suits the assignment before each photographer. The images freeze the subjects at specific moments in time (in the athletes’ cases, at the height of their physical powers) but there’s a timeless quality in both projects.
Griffin was tasked with shooting 50 portraits to accompany interviews with various members of the Miami community, who were asked to reflect on some aspect of the city’s history or culture. So, there is a soft, reflective quality to these deceptively simple pictures. The subjects are quiet, at ease, and Griffin finds the light for each face. Each composition clearly informs the viewer about some aspect of the subject’s personality or profession or niche. It’s as if each subject just paused -- not posed -- in the midst of some routine in a familiar landscape. Turning each page, the reader turns a corner and finds each person as they likely would be had a camera not been present.
Leibovitz’s images are explicitly posed and directed. Tension pulses in each image, as each image is designed to display the build-up before the action, that moment before the muscles flex. The sharp lines of the sports equipment and in the athletes’ poses reflect the alignment and perfection that sports demand at the Olympic level. The formality of the compositions mirrors the discipline of the athletes, to whom form is so important. Each composition may not be a true “natural habitat” for the sports featured, but the images do show that each athlete’s “natural habitat” is really something internal or something found in a team.