Luisa Dorr at work

Above: Luisa Dorr at work. Credit: Time.


Through the Summer of 2017, Luisa Dorr shot for Time magazine a series of forty-six portraits of influential women for a cover-story (the editors eventually used a number of different photos from the series as a set of collectable Time covers). The notable thing about these commissioned portraits was that the photographer took all the photos using only an iPhone and available-light.

Dorr: "I bought my first iPhone in 2012. It was just a complement to my work back then. But the expectations as a user were growing exponentially as new models come out. Now, my heavy camera is the complement. I went from carrying a camera only when I was on assignment, to carrying a camera on my pocket every single day. Suddenly I was able to make great pictures anytime, anywhere, without the stress of carrying a bag full of lenses, cards and batteries. Also, it feels less intrusive to the model [i.e., sitter] when you ask to take a photo with your phone. I liked the practicality, and of course I liked the resulting images."

I do have some antagonism towards this neat quote. On the technical side I whole-heartedly disagree insofar as I shoot portraits with a 180mm lens open at f 2.8--functionality that an iPhone will probably never offer, but this is not my purpose here. My interest here is Dorr's proposition that photo-portrait sitters feel more at ease if the photographer just pulls out their smartphone. To her, an iPhone is "less intrusive to the model." Sure, maybe, but, an intrusion of some kind, is actually basic to any worthwhile photo-portrait.

A photo-portrait is, above all, a coaxing--having created an initial rapport (connection), the photographer slowly begins a process by which the sitter reveals something of themself to the camera-lens. This is the job. Otherwise you just get one of the sitter's stock facial expressions, the press-release photo. And what is the point in an iteration of that? (Perhaps that is what Dorr was told to go and get, because that is what she did get).

Given this requirement for coaxing, it can be argued that the entire set-up--the setting out a range of paraphernalia, the light-meter readings, the repositioning of lights and tripods, all the tweaks and tests--are just aspects of the photographer's ruse. All of these things are props--they are useful in a process which leads up to the required revealing moment. All these small things aid in the greater outcome: the sitter accepts that a bona-fide photo-shoot is taking place, and tends to relax into the experience; the sitter gets rather bored of all the preparation and tends to let their guard drop, etc. None of it may really be technically necessary, perhaps so. But psychologically necessary? I would say, yes, necessary. A worthwhile photo-portrait session depends upon psychology, and all the paraphernalia is crucial in effecting the sitter's mood--holding them somewhat captive in space-and-time. A portrait photo-shoot is intrusive for a reason: the sitter will usually cling to their stock face-expressions rather doggedly, and the intrusions push back against these.

For me, wafting an iPhone in front of a celebrity or other public figure in order to get an interesting portrait is a joke--it's a PR-stunt pure and simple.

(26 September 2018)