Picture of the Month Woman with Beads
NYI Student Randy Basso of San Martin, California has provided us with this Picture of the Month, an excellent example of portraiture, done simply and directly with a minimal amount of fussiness. A few props, perhaps, basic uncomplicated window lighting, and so forth. The picture is proof, though, that elaborate studios, highly sophisticated (and expensive) lighting, and a sometimes oppressive retinue of assistants are not always needed. Nor seldom wanted, either.
Rudyard Kipling wrote that East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Joseph Conrad told us about the eternal mystery of the Orient in such great works as Victory and Lord Jim. James Michener enthralled us with Tales of the South Pacific. The allure of the East is never far away, Bali Hai, for many of us, lies just over the horizon.
Basso, this month's photographer, has suggested the romance of the East in his portrait. Although the woman in the picture may not necessarily be in the East the suggestion of a strange and exotic locale is evident here. In any case we can be reasonably sure that the locale does not indicate Pittsburgh.
Now, as always, when reviewing pictures we stress the famous three NYI Guidelines: choosing strong subject matter, focusing attention on the subject, and then simplifying the picture by eliminating all unnecessary items. Let's put these principles into action here.
The strong subject matter lies in the exotic nature of the photograph — the East, a land of mystery and possibly intrigue, a woman who by no stretch of the imagination is the girl next door! And the photographer did not want her to be that.
So, what did the photographer do to focus attention on his subject? He chose broad, soft, diffused window lighting coming from the left. How do we know this? Look at the catch lights in the eyes. You can see the reflection of the windows in the subject's eyes. But note, too, that this is the only light; there is no second light, no fill light. The use of a single light source strongly suggests the mysterious East, does it not? Bright sunlight out in the street, yes. But dark dimly lit cool interiors, the inhabitants therein avoiding the intense heat of the day.
Basso placed his subject off center. The imbalance created by the use of the Rule of Thirds avoids the prosaic dullness of center placement.
The woman's hands have been strategically placed, serving as a framework for her face. The lace head covering is in keeping with the suggestion of Eastern practice. The many strands of beads entwined around her hands further emphasize her origins.
The fingers do more than frame the face. They press into the temples perhaps to alleviate pain or to call forth the presence of divine spirits (or whatever). The intense, all too troubled expression reinforces this feeling.
Are we reading too much into this picture? Possibly. But then that's the name of the photographer's game is it not? The creation of illusion. The sense of the exotic. Divining the Mysteries. Exploring the unfamiliar. Getting us off Main Street and five thousand miles or more from good ol' Pittsburgh.
Turn again to Rudyard Kipling, that master interpreter of Eastern culture as seen through Western eyes. He wrote:
Ship me somewhere East of Suez,
Where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments,
And a man can raise a thirst,
And the wind is in the palm trees
And the temple bells they say:
Come ye back, ye British soldier,
Come ye back to Mandalay.
Come back, come back, come back again.
To Iraq, to Iran, to Afghanistan, to Burma, to Java, to the Taj Mahal at sunrise, to China.
Don't stay away too long.