Well, not until last week.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew portraits had been taken in environments, I’m no fool, but I didn’t realise it was a genre with its own name.
Environmental Portraits are portraits that have been “executed in the subject’s usual environment, such as in their home or workplace, and typically illuminates the subject’s life and surroundings”.
It turns out that one of my favourite portrait photographers, Arnold Newman, was it’s father of Environmental Photography. (Although he hated that description.)
He didn’t believe in trying to capture someone’s inner-child or put their psyche on film, he thought that was all bullshit.
“Any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense.
The inner man is seldom revealed to anyone, we can only show what the outer man reveals.”
He decided that a person’s personality can be seen as much through their walls as much as their eyes, that “the surroundings had to add to the composition and the understanding of the person. No matter who the subject was, it had to be an interesting photograph”.
So he set about trying to arrange people and their environments in ways that best represented each individual, sometimes spending months getting to understand that individual.
It obviously informed his view of photography being “1% talent and 99% moving furniture”.
The result is that the portraits are very diverse and totally bespoke.
DIANA VREELAND. Editor-in-chief of Vogue.
“Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.”
ROBERT MOSES. Public Official, New York.
Public official doesn’t really do him justice, he was responsible for 2,567,256 acres of public parkland, 658 playgrounds, 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges.
(There’s an amazing book on him by Robert Caro, for all you people interested in the lives of American public officials.)
IGOR STRAVINSKY. Composer, pianist, and conductor.
It’s always interesting to compare the rejected images to the chosen one.
They all look pretty good, but this one looks like the runner-up; Igor disappearing into the darkness of the piano lid.
But once cropped this one really stands out.
It’s a very famous, iconic image, I’ve always liked it.
I liked it’s graphicness, the big black shape, the piano lid, and the fact that the sitter looks bored stiff.
It turns out that others read more into the shot than me.
“The overall tones are almost monotone, (flat – pun intended, and likely intentional on behalf of Newman), and are dominated by the stark duality of the white wall with the black piano.
Newman realised that the open lid of the piano “…is like the shape of a musical flat symbol—strong, linear, and beautiful, just like Stravinsky’s work.”
The geometric construction of the image instantly captures the eye and the aggressive crop makes the final composition even more interesting.
In this case the crop was a fundamental part of the original composition as shot, but it was not uncommon for him to find new life in images with different crops.” – Pat David.
Here are some more examples of how he captured personalities and their various worlds.
THE ART WORLD.
Georges Segal.Adolph Gotlieb.
Sir Henry Moore.
THE WORLD OF PHOTOGRAPHY.
Henri Cartier Bresson.
W. Eugene Smith.
THE WORLD OF DESIGN.
THE WORLD OF POLITICS.
Ben Gurion.Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
John F. Kennedy.
Lynden Baines Johnson.
Senator Wayne Morse.
THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT.
Edward R. Murrow.
Sugar Ray Robinson.
Sir Lew Grade.
Tom Stoppard & Harold Pinter.
Sir Laurence Olivier.
Pps. Arnold talking.