Of the many things I loved about Uncle Tip was the fact that he was a hero in World War II, which, as a black man, had special meaning because the prevalent belief in the military during that time was that African Americans didn’t have the guts for fighting. After enlisting as a private, Uncle Tip rapidly distinguished himself. He ended up pushing the Red Ball Express, the predominately black unit that ran hundreds of convoy trucks, twenty-four hours a day throughout war-torn France supplying General Patton’s troops.
During those years at war, Uncle Tip experienced the worst hell threw at him. Trucks getting blown up. Dead bodies. Loss of friends. Still, he and the Red Ball Express got the job done. They didn’t fail Patton or the men on the front lines who counting on them to get the supplies through.
I imagine no photo would be capable of capturing the spirit of this man. Or anyone else, for that matter. Yet, as portrait photographers, we try. We work to get a living, authentic connection between that two-dimensional moment captured in time and every future pair of eyes gazing upon it. We want the person looking at our photos to feel something emanating from that face in the image.
Like most creative artists, I often find myself battling against the common misconception that what I do is mostly a technical process. I suspect this belief hangs around because the medium itself has become diluted by mediocre photographers whose mediocre work has been passed around as being something when it is not.
Great photography, the kind that is outside of time, always has creative insight behind it.
More than not, I have been told by those who run art galleries that my work needs to be grittier. “Put in some of the dark side. Some of the ugly.” Problem is that I don’t see human beings that way. When I look through the lens, I see that individual’s unique beauty, dignity and nobility. The person could be a skid row drag queen and I would want to make them be photographed the most noble skid row drag queen. I want people to say, “Wow. Look at that. That’s beautiful.”
I am this way because….? Too much dope? Who knows? I am simply the external optimist. The glass half full guy. I am the ant that dropped the rubber tree plant: I am the ram that knocked down the dam. To me, there is beauty in every human being.
To see it, though, means you have to lose the mask.
Yet, here in Los Angeles, everyone wears a mask, some with designer labels. As a portrait photographer, I want to capture the person hiding behind a mask. So, with humor, patience and understanding, I work with my subjects to help them lose some of their self-consciousness, at least long enough for us to capture the real “them.”
I understand that the choice between having a root canal and having a picture taken can be a tough call. My goal is to create an environment and atmosphere that allows make my clients to feel safe enough put down that mask for a fraction of a second. To let them be themselves. Which is a beautiful thing. If I am prepared for that moment, which I will continue, jokes and all, until I am, we will capture them.
It can take time but the results are worth it.
The vast majority of my clients – even those with the guts to stare down a growling assistant district attorney at twenty paces — bulk, squirm and dig in their heels when having their portrait taken. Others turn into something that belongs on Mount Rushmore.
One tactic that often works is humor. I am a strong believer in that time-proven, make-‘em-laugh routine; the theory being that if I can get them laughing at me, a guy who is completely comfortable with the fact that I am not the most beautiful person in the world, then they just might be themselves. The stiffer the client, the funnier I get. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.
“George, I would rather have a root canal than get photographed.”
“Hey, my sister is a dentist. I keep a stack of her cards right here. You can get that root canal and have your portrait taken at the family discount rate!”
That usually melts the some of the frost. Even with those who are searching for the fountain of youth.
“Please. Call me George.”
“Mr. Deloache. Listen. I do not want to look old.”
“Ma’am, I will make you look so young that you are going to get carded.”
Cross my heart and thank Photoshop. By the time I get done, you will be ten, maybe fifteen years, younger.
Then you have the average Joe like me.
“I like your work, George, but come on, man. Look at me. I am 6’4.” I’m big, fat, old and bald. I hate every picture taken of me.”
“I specialize in guys who look just like me. Old. Fat. A little out of shape. If I can make me look good, I know I can make you look good. After all, look at this face.”
“Dude, you’re no Telly Savalas, but, hey, if you have a bald head, wear it proudly. Get it out there. Let everyone see it.”
“Think so?” they invariably say, taking a glance in the mirror. Maybe the sky isn’t falling after all.
“Let it shine, man”
“Maybe you’ve got a point, George.”
Even though my sense of humor might appear goofy for an A-list portrait photographer, I understand the natural resistance that human beings have to being photographed. It is rare to find children who are told that they are beautiful. Adults, even more, fall into that category. In a culture where beauty is among the most highly valued attribute, the definition of what is actually beautiful leaves most folks, including me, out in the cold.
So, with humor, patience and understanding, I work with my clients to help them lose some of their self-consciousness, at least long enough for us to capture the real “them.”
I understand that the choice between having a root canal and having your picture taken can be a tough call. My goal is to make my clients feel safe enough put down that mask for a fraction of a second. To let them be themselves. Which is actually a beautiful thing.
If I am prepared for that moment, which I will continue, jokes and all, until I am, we will capture it.
Truth is, when the masks come down, I have yet to find an ugly face. What I see is the spark. The life. I see the real you.
Old, bald, fat?
Perfect. Let it shine.