Written review by
Photography consultant, photo editor. Curator and educator.
Portrait photography is a specialization within documentary photography that is often underestimated. It requires next to photographic skills something special of the photographer: empathy, curiosity, patience and the courage to come close to people.
When the subject of the photograph is a famous person who is used to being subjected to the photographers gaze these people often strike a pose they know benefits them. Unknown people on the other hand don’t have that experience and knowledge. Most of the times they are very aware of the camera and therefore difficult to get into a relaxed state. The attitude of the photographer is essential in this, the capacity to get people at ease and to open up in front of the lens are crucial.
Molly Harris is a photographer who is trying to build up a relationship with her subject and capture them in an emotion and in this way tell the viewer something about the person who is portrayed. This is an endeavor that is not easy. How do we get to know people by looking at their image? What in the photographs reveals us something about their personality?
Molly used in the series that is a result of the portrait workshop with Richard Dumas different approaches to that. The people portrait are unknown to me, and I guess also to Molly before she photographed them.
The first thing that usually builds up a relationship with us, the viewers, are the eyes of the person depicted. Eye contact suggest a relationship and I say on purpose suggest because this is not as simple as it sounds. The simple photographers’ question ‘look into the lens’ is not enough to establish this relationship.
In the majority of the portraits in the series the subject looks into the lens. And if you look long enough you see that the expression in the eyes is completely different in every portrait and gives the impression it reveals something of the character. The eyes of the young boy are half closed. Maybe it is just the result of the light that is shining in his eyes, but the feeling I get from this is a mixture of sturdiness with shyness, especially in combination with his mouth. The boy is looking at us, but also very much aware that we are looking at him. He is not giving away everything, the expression is characteristic for a boy of his age. By the fact that is so self-conscious I get the impression that I learn something about the kind of boy he is.
Completely different is the photograph of the black woman sitting in front of a dirty door. We don’t see her eyes, she is staring to her left at something we can’t see. I interpret her look as being sad. This is not only because of her facial expression but also because of the background of the shabby door. The light is falling on the underside of her face, I guess on purpose, not to highlight her eyes.
In the following photograph in the series I am confronted with the portrait of a smoking woman. This one has the most clues to what kind of person she is although her eyes are a half closed and partly hidden by the smoke.
The tattoo on her finger, some wounds on her hand holding the cigarette, the fact that she is smoking, everything adds to the idea that she is an addict or homeless person, living in the margins of the society. If this is in fact the case I don’t know, but we ‘read’ these kinds of signs to build a character. The risk of this is also that you fall into the trap of the cliché and stereotype. Sometimes it is far more exiting to portray a person in a completely different surrounding or pose you would expect.
The setting in most of Molly’s portraits help to interpret the kind of person we are looking at; the young boy with a cap worn backwards in front of the skate track. I think that even without the background I would have understood what kind of boy he is.
The boy in the Nike red shirt is also easy to read. I see anger and toughness in his eyes, and I can concentrate on that because the background is undefined.
Another photograph: A woman half hidden in green with her eyes closed. The light shines on her face and the pattern of leaves on her face create a romantic dreamy atmosphere. A nice photograph, a little bit out of tone with the rest of the series.
In every portrait Molly tried something else. For me the strongest portraits are the simple ones, where the focus is on the person portrayed and not too much on the surroundings. The way the light is used is a strong point I noticed in a lot of images. I recognize a reasonably experienced portrait photographer in this series who is in control of technique and knows how to build up meaning in a photograph. I see also the risk of using this to give us the impression that we get to know the subject when in fact we don’t. I think that the best portrait series are the ones in which a great deal of time is spend with the subject and when the photographer is able to ‘catch’ this person in a moment that he or she is not self-aware. This series is a bit in between, the people are very conscious and self-aware, and the presumption that we get to know them might not be truth. In fact, Molly herself explains that she asked them to express different emotions. Assuming that these portraits were shot in a short period of time during a workshop justifies this. Because it is almost impossible to reach that level of getting to know the portrayed in a short time.
When I look on Molly’s website I see that she is very capable of getting close to people and making them feel at ease. And that she follows her subjects over a longer period of time. People seem to trust her and open up, even in very private moments.
Sometimes the iconography is a bit stereotype, I would encourage to find meaning sometimes in the less obvious. I appreciate Molly’s photographic skills and her obvious compassion and interest in her subjects.