So this week in my photography class, we talked about the art form of environmental portraiting. What this style strives to achieve is to capture a subject in the midst of their daily activities. So say you choose your grandmother as your subject for your project. You would then work to capture her in the environment where she feels most comfortable. If she enjoyed things like gardening or cooking, you would work to take pictures of her doing such tasks. If she enjoyed activities such as jet skiing or bare-back horseback riding, you would capture her in these environments.
The thing about this style however is that the images are meant to appear effortless. This means that the pictures should appear candid; they do not need to be, you can have your subject pose for them, but the observer of the picture should think of them as unplanned and by chance. Additionally, the artist should strive to capture pieces of the background elements, or props. These pieces are meant to explain to the audience what the subject is interested in, who the subject is, and what their personalities resonate. You should be telling a story of the person in these series of portraits.
I have yet to start my own environmental portrait series, but I will be sure to share my own experience with this art form with you all next week! Instead I will share with you all the artist Sallie Mann and her lifelong work with environmental portraiture.
Sally Mann was born May 1, 1951 in Lexington City, VA. She specializes in black and white photography and uses her family and everyday household objects as her subjects. Some of her most famous shots were taken from when her children were very young. While many of the images may seem to just be capturing children doing random childish activities, many of them were taken many times in order to capture the perfect shot. Sally would see her kids doing something endearing, or dare I say ‘artsy’, and she would stop them in their tracks to capture the pose or expression on their face the exact way they had done on their own. If she did not feel that they were doing the authentic pose that she feel in love with originally, she would make them do it again and again until she reachieved that vision. In later years, her children would say that their mother never really switched out of ‘photographer mode’ but instead sacrificed elements of being a mother. In many ways, her children would cease to be children and would simply become her subjects.
The first image you see in this line up of her work is a picture that she said she had to replicate a hundred times. Her daughter continually had to run back into the water to re-wet her hair and then pose for the picture over and over again. Notice the back grounds of these images and see what you could gather from their expressions and behaviors. Do they have dirt on their face? Are they holding an object? Where are they looking?
Sally did run into some issues with her artwork. When applying for a grant to put her work in a museum, the board reviewed her portfolio and claimed that they were riddled with child pornography. Her work then became a controversy in the art world. Many claim that it is just her family’s different values that are being captured but others object her work as being art. What do you think?