Excuse Me, Can I Take Your Portrait?

Perhaps this isn't so much a "professional" post as I have it categorized since this blog entry is really just an affirmation that I believe I'm in the right line of work. If there's one thing I learned about myself last spring when Joel and I traveled to Italy, it was that the very core of my being is a portrait photographer, and that photographing landscapes and architecture is painfully laborious. While I have a huge adoration for the latter type of photography, it's not what I gravitate to when I have a camera in my hands. While traveling throughout Italy, we were overwhelmed with the colossal beauty of centuries old architecture. The charming streets with cobble-stone roads and laundry hanging outside the terraces were right out of a movie. The rolling hills of Tuscany and the dramatic landscape of the Amalfi Coast were perfection. I wasn't inspired to photograph these things though. I did of course because that's what you do when you're on vacation with a bag full of camera equipment and you want to remember every detail, but my muse was something else. It was the people that stirred my soul. I just wished to take everyone's portrait... as they were. I wanted to encapsulate the humanness of strangers... glorifying the beads of sweat on their foreheads and celebrating their messy hair. I wanted to strictly do portrait photography... street photography to be more specific. That's not why I was there though, so only on a few occasions did I ask for permission to take strangers' photos.

This Roman, for example, was sweeping the steps of Santa Maria Aracoeli Church.

There were 124 steps to the top... the prize of course being the breathtaking interior. For me though, those 124 steps to the top in the high sun and heat were all about meeting him.

His weathered face and the pigeons flocking around him left a stronger impression on me than the 50 chandeliers that hung inside the gorgeous church he was maintaining. He didn't speak a lick of English, but was gracious enough to let me photograph him.

He gave me 30 seconds of his time so you and I can ponder his story in his squinting, tired eyes with his unruly don't care hair. What's his story? Who has he loved and lost? What has he gained and squandered? Whose forgiveness is his withholding? Who has he sacrificed for and blessed?

I kick myself when I think about the missed opportunities to photograph people who have stuck in my mind ever since... an elderly woman sitting on a bench in a tattered dress with knee high socks smoking a cigarette in a small Tuscan village... I can't shake her... the Giro d'Italia bike racer who came in second place and kicked his bike after hours of high speed racing through the cobblestone streets of Rome... how I wish I could have photographed that passion and defeat... the hunched-over homeless woman on the Spanish Steps whom I photographed begging but wish I caught her eyes... wish I asked to see her face. She cackled like a witch when I dropped change in her cup and I've yearned to put a face to that uncomfortable sound ever since.

My greatest subject in Italy, however, was one I didn't miss. Joel and I were having dinner at the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, and I couldn't resist asking the bartender if I could take his photo when we were done eating. His name was Michelangelo and he was kind and eccentric and never stood still. He was gracious enough to let me set up some off-camera flash and to boss him how to blow the smoke from his vape and pour his drink... all inspired from watching him earlier in the night.

I experienced more satisfaction shooting him in this quiet bar than capturing the pristine coastline of the Amalfi Coast. Why? Because he has a heartbeat. He has a story, and he gave me a moment so you and I can share it.

A landscape photo causes a different kind of stir... perhaps a yearning to go there... perhaps peace. A portrait, however, is personal even if you don't know the person. A portrait conjures up all kinds of emotions and reactions like trust and distrust, compassion, disdain, intrigue, infatuation, jealousy and comparison, judgment, respect, fear, adoration, and desire. In my opinion, a well-executed portrait, whether that be a photograph or a Rembrandt painting, makes you feel more deeply than any other type of art. I suppose that's why this depiction of the perfect Italian bartender is immortalized in a 24x36 wall portrait in our cellar.

It's my hope that this love for photographing people shapes my portrait and wedding photography business here at home. People are my muse. I experience the same elation every time I have the opportunity to catch someone's eyes during a session and draw out who they are. People are what inspire me to pick up my camera again and again.

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