Monday, 21 February 2011

PnP Exercise 5: Eye contact and expression

In this link, one of the ways suggested to take ‘stunning’ portraits is to play with eye contact. Eye contact has significance in many cultures – in some eastern cultures direct eye contact with a perceived superior is seen as an aggressive act. In the UK it is rather more context sensitive – it can be seen as particularly intimate, something expected between individuals who trust each other or directly confrontational.

The opposite is also true – in western culture and some eastern cultures averted gaze is seen as a sign of modesty, concealment or simply disinterest – in western business circles avoiding the gaze could even be considered shifty and untrustworthy.

The aim of this exercise is – as far as I can tell – really about exploring these dichotomies. Clearly this can only be achieved in the context of western culture – given that is my background.

I chose my youngest daughter as the subject – largely because she is comfortable in front of the camera, but also because we know each other sufficiently well that there is little need to work on the rapport while using the camera.

First up is a full-on eye into the camera shot – one in glasses and one without

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a                    Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

In the ‘glasses’ shot Naomi is comfortable in front of the camera, and (happily) comfortable with me. There is clear trust between the subject and photographer, and in truth no evidence of aggression or confrontation (again happily). There is an interesting contrast with the other shot where she has removed her glasses. In this example she looks considerably less comfortable and sure.

Looking from the sides of the eye has different impacts depending on the head position and whether or not there is eye contact

Naomi: PnP Ex 7b         Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

For example in the leftmost shot Naomi looks distracted – there is almost a sense of a candid shot to it, whereas in the right hand shot it is clear the subject knows she is being photographed – perhaps even enjoying the attention.

The sense of a candid photo is emphasised even more when the face as well as the eyes are moving away from the camera.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

Eye movement in the vertical direction has other meanings. First off a full face with the eyes raised skywards and no eye contact tends to suggest exasperation – perhaps a little exaggerated in this example.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

On the other hand, dropping the head but keeping the eyes raised leaves an entirely different impression – one of shyness, perhaps sharing a confidence.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7b          Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

In the right hand shot, the effect is emphasised by the extra tilt to the head and the sideways glance. A raised head gives an entirely different impression.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

As a final combination I tried a lowered head and no eye contact. This emphasises the impression of shyness, and instead of a confidence shared we are left with a feeling of a secret concealed, lost in thought in or isolation. In some cultures this could be interpreted as a very submissive pose while in others it could be seen as worthy of sympathy – I tend to the latter.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7b

Interestingly this was my daughters favourite from the set.

A particularly famous example of this kind of pose is Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ The lowering of the head is less pronounced than my examples but the pose and lack of eye contact demand nothing but sympathy. By contrast Walker Evan’s shot of Allie Mae Burroughs is to my mind much less engaging because of the confident, full on pose and gaze. It is suggested in Angier’s book that this is in part due to Evan’s choice of a long telephoto to take the photo – but I am inclined to think that a different pose would have engendered more sympathy irrespective of the lens used.


To my mind there is clear evidence from this exercise that it is possible to manipulate a viewer into a particular reaction by careful choice of pose, because of the power of eye contact in human culture coupled with the cultural significance of head position.

No comments: