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Mark Robert Halper is a successful LA commercial photographer specializing in celebrity portraits. I’ve enjoyed his podcasts on StudioLightsource and decided to attend a day-long workshop with him in Irvine, California about a month ago. The workshop was aimed at helping photographers understand not just how to light people for portraits, but more importantly, how to conceive an inspired portrait of somebody before picking up the camera. The outcome for me was nothing short of wonderful, as his techniques for interviewing people have served me constantly ever since. In a way, the session reminded me more of an EST psychology seminar than a photography workshop, (though the technical stuff was very helpful as well).
The reason I say this is that the core of the workshop was watching Mark interview an attractive and psychologically complex young woman before creating three distinctive portraits of her. He sat directly in front of her and started asking probing questions, which surprised the hell out of us. “What do you love?” “What’s the greatest compliment someone can give you?” “What’s the hardest criticism you can get?” “What are you emotional about?” “If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be?”
It was not long before the woman, and some of us, were shedding tears. But soon the woman (who is an aspiring actress and works in radio) grew comfortable with her emotions on her sleeve. Soon, Mark was able to discover and articulate three distinct aspects of her personality. These became the “Intent” of the three portraits that he proceeded to create before us. The first was the most successful, the intent of which was to depict the contradiction of her being a very special and lovable person, yet not feeling that others could truly love her. Mark helped pick the right outfit, lit the portrait, and began popping off images with his H2. What was striking was when the perfect image appeared on the monitor. We all knew he got it. It was the image that successfully rendered the stated intent. It looked like a CD cover for a singer who writes songs about not feeling she deserves love. Very cool and very impressive.
The other portraits rendered other discovered themes, all through the same process. Here are some quotes to be taken as rules: 1. Intent in a portrait means coming at the picture with a specific point of view — “this is how I see my subject.” If the picture doesn’t tell the viewer how you see the subject, it lacks intent. A portrait is about what you find beautiful and compelling about your subject. 2. In each portrait, commit to a single perspective of the person only. For portraits of more than one person, you are really photographing a relationship. 3. Portraits are always a portrait of you. You are photographing what you see of yourself in the subject. 4. In sum, the goal is to find a psychological aspect of the person that is worth rendering — perhaps a conflict or contradiction — or perhaps something you just like.
The workshop also covered portrait lighting with a wonderful whirlwind review of Loop, Rembrandt, Split, and Butterfly setups, all illustrated with the H2 on a large monitor. Mark uses basic equipment including a Dynalite system, Liteform panels, and a set of freznel tungstens. I should mention that he eschews the global soft lighting approach of using umbrellas and softboxes.
Mark next had the participants break into groups of two to conduct a similar interview. We had to pair with someone we had never met before and start asking questions. Some of us were better than others at this disovery process, but one thing was obvious to me. Not long into my interviews of others, I found an interesting and compelling aspect of the person that I trully wanted to photograph. The interview literally created the picture. I realized that portrait making is not about lenses and lighting and modifiers at the outset. If you know what you want to depict and have a clear and concise vision based on understanding of the person, the rest is just mechanics. Mark’s website is at www.studiomark.com