[After a pep talk bts and a quick poll, I have gotten my arse into gear. Maybe blogging about Armitage is not *quite* redundant yet? I’ll give it a try, because I still get a thrill out of the man’s pictures. I hope, you do, too.]
Do you realise that it has been two years since we last had something that resembled a photo shoot with Richard? (Not counting press nights and premieres here.) And you know what? When something like *this* ends the long drought, then I don’t mind. Because this is right up my street. Intense, honest, real. I am jumping ahead, because I can’t contain my excitement at these images. So much so that I ws willing to launch into the research and write of an *ooof* at 20 to 11pm.
Unfortunately I ran out of steam, so it has taken a week and a half to finish it. But still, the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. I love this. And I’ll tell you why.
First of all, let’s have a quick recap of what we see. Richard Armitage. *le sigh*
Ok, just kidding. It is the gaze of the sitter right at the lens – and by extension at “us” – that initially draws us into the image. From this starting point, we begin to interpret the pose of the sitter, as it dominates the image. Leaving the forearm porn aside for the moment, Armitage is pictured in a classic, extremely appealing pose. Resting his chin lightly on his exposed forearm makes for a restful, calming impression. And with the gaze directed at the lens, we perceive this position as Armitage focussing his attention on whoever is sitting vis-a-vis. This impression is intensified by the slightly leaning head and the strong, alert gaze. The sitter has not switched off and glazed over, despite the relaxed pose; he is awake and right there, in that particular moment, as if he is listening to what the imaginary person opposite might be saying, or studying his imaginary partner’s face. If I look at this image long enough, I can almost see his shoulders softly move up and down with every breath, his nostrils flare, and imagine his eyes switching back and forth while he is staring at the face of whoever sits opposite him. We have been in such situations before
– regrettably not with Armitage himself – and thus are very familiar with how it looks and feels to be sitting closely opposite someone, staring at each other. I think it is this familiarity with a true-to-life pose, that makes this image so successful.
It obviously helps that we are also shown a little bit of skin, covered in light hair. Even in a two-dimensional medium such as photography, texture is an important visual element. We may not be able to “touch and feel” the contents of a picture, but we can connect what we see, with our mental library of “what this feels like”, and enhance our experience of looking at an image that way. The lines on the skin, the discernible wrist bone, the tendons in the hand are emphasised by the light. Did you catch yourself following those lines with your fingertip on the screen? Don’t worry, it’s a natural reaction, and even if not intended, it certainly means that the photographer created something that not only appeals to your sense of aesthetics, but that it also evokes curiosity and the temptation to touch. It makes a two-dimensional piece of art become three-dimensional in your imagination, tempting you to touch even though the sensation is only in your head, not in your fingertips.
There aren’t that many pictures that instantly get my approval – and it is usually images that have very little background and are shot in studio that receive my praise. Location shoots often result in distracting backgrounds; and since I am a no-frills person, I prefer unfussy, simple set ups. Just like in this picture, which was obviously shot on location, after the AOL Build Q&A, I presume, just based on what RA is wearing here. That implies that the photographer did not have the usual shebang at his disposal, but that he had to work with what he was given. A little bit like photographer Lefteris Pitarakis in London when he shot Armitage during TC run. And photographer Reto Sterchi really uses the set-up to his advantage – which is something that I admire greatly. Improvising, making do – and arriving at an image that pleases and excites the viewer, that is quite a feat. Let’s have a look why this image does exactly that.
Without delving into the technicalities of photography, what stands out to me first of all, is the pleasing colour matching in this image. The petrol blue of Armitage’s shirt is matched with the greyish blue of the curtains. The white walls take on a blueish hue – because they are not illuminated directly – which again matches with the predominant colour in the frame, giving the whole image an organic, whole look. This is – presumably – pure coincidence. For all intents and purposes, the curtains on the premises could’ve been bright orange. But Sterchi notices the complimenting colours and incorporates the curtains into his image.
He serves another purpose with that: He frames his image in such a way that the surrounding environment enhances the portrait of his sitter. Including the curtains in the frame adds to the overall composition of the image by not only breaking up the background, but by providing depth to the picture: We can clearly distinguish the background from the foreground, and we even get an impression of distance or depth from the image.
This feeling of depth is further enhanced by the photographer’s use of a shallow depth of field. He has shot this portrait with a large aperture, which makes Armitage’s face and forearm appear in focus, while everything behind him falls off and is blurred. Again, this draws our own gaze to what the photographer thinks is the most important component in the image – the face. And the sexy forearm hairs, of course.
Top marks to Sterchi also for his lighting choices in this image. Admittedly, this is obviously a personal preference of mine. But even though I love the technicality of setting up a studio shoot with different lights, I am usually a no-fuss photographer who prefers to shoot with what is already there, rather than complicate matters by setting up artificial light. And Sterchi does not mess around with on-camera or off-camera flash, but instead knows how to arrange his sitter in order to get a shot that is interestingly lit and illuminates the essential parts of the sitter: He is shooting with available light (I think). He has deliberately placed his sitter at a 180 degree angle to the light source. A window? In any case, the light catches Armitage from the side and properly illuminates only the right hand side of his face. And that is enough – we can see all that we need to see: the eye, the crinkles, the strong vertical line along the angular forehead, the straight line of the nose, the stubble, the surprisingly brown highlights in Armitage’s hair, the strong nasolabial fold. We even see the little scar between Armitage’s eyebrows, a mark which I like to think of as a memorial to Thorin, or to the long and unforgettable time Richard spent working on TH.
This is fantastic thinking on the job – making the set-up work for you. There are lessons to be learnt from how the pros approach an impromptu shoot; even amateurs can take a leaf out of their book. You may have found yourself in exactly that position – you need to take a portrait picture of someone, and you do not have a studio at your disposal. The thing to do, is this: Place your sitter near a natural light source aka a window. Do not place them in front of the window as their face will be in shadow if you photograph them like that. Likewise, do not place yourself between the window and your sitter because then your own shadow will fall across your sitter. Instead, place them at a right angle – to get a shot like Sterchi does (with exactly half the face illuminated) – or make them turn their head slightly towards the light source in order to get more light onto the half that is furthest from the light source. This kind of approach does not only result in interesting shadow play on your subject’s face, enhancing the facial features, but is also the best way of letting your camera do the work without having to deal with technicalities such as light-metering. There’s nothing better than daylight!
So much for the “incidental” parts of this image. Now let’s have a look at the composition of the portrait. From past *ooof*s I know that you really like the whole gaze line thing, let’s have a look at what the gaze does, when we come across an image like this. Studying the way our eyes roam, gives us some interesting insights into why this image works so well.
Upon seeing this portrait, my gaze first settles on Armitage’s right eye. From there, my eyes go down towards the wrist, then following the line of the hand upwards right to the knuckles. Then my gaze is guided along the forearm towards the cuff of the shirt. From here, I look upwards along the line of the curtains, then towards the brown highlights on Armitage’s hair. Lastly, my gaze moves from the hair back across the forehead to the eye.
This is how *my* gaze works – it is possible yours works differently, but my gaze line experiment certainly explains to me why this image works so well for me: I am being taken the full circle, quite literally: My visual journey through this image starts at the eye – and ends at the eye. It provides closure – and thus a sense of satisfaction.
Maybe you have a “forearm hair kink” and the strong arm porn in this image immediately attracts your attention, and yet, I am pretty certain that the gaze lines will be similar even if your starting point is a different one. And that is because of three elements: 1) We instinctively look at the eyes of any human (or even animal) we come across; that’s our ingrained way of establishing a connection or signalling the desire to make a first connection in order to communicate. 2) Our attention is caught by the brightest parts of an image. That can be a stand-out bright colour, or white. We associate white or bright patches with light = being able to discern/see, whereas dark areas are difficult to make sense of. It’s only logical that our eyes search out the parts of an image where we will be able to actually discern the contents. 3) We cannot resist straight lines; they pull our gaze along, guiding us from one visual component to the next.
These three elements certainly explain the path my gaze takes: As I look at the image, I am not only seeking for the connection with the human sitter by looking at his eyes, I am also attracted by the highlights created on his face, the brightest parts of this image. From there, the lines of nose arm and curtain draw my gaze along, all the way up to the upper edge of the image. Then, my gaze searches for a bright spot again, and the nearest are the brown highlights on the sitter’s hair. Lastly, the strong shadows created by Richard’s characteristically angular forehead leads my gaze right back to where I started, at the eye. Full circle.
Now, I can tell you with certainty that the photographer did not draw a chart before his shoot with Armitage, deciding that this was the exact composition he wanted to achieve in the portrait. He simply sat Armitage down and asked him to pose in various different ways. But it is not incidental that this image works – there are reasons why, and the various elements of the composition coming together is one reason. And more often than not, it is classic rule-of-thirds composition that makes a picture so compelling. It is interesting, that this image comes across as very pleasing to the eyes, even though the rule-of-thirds is not *exactly* obeyed. Have a look at this:
The red lines are the “thirds”, whereas the yellow lines mark a classic symmetrical composition. What I find interesting here, is that Armitage’s right eye is more or less the exact centre of the image, a natural focal point of any picture. The eyebrows almost make it on the upper third line, though, while the other focal point, the sitter’s exposed forearm, takes up the lower middle third. The fact that the sitter is placed off-centre in the composition, tells me that the photographer deliberately composed the image with the background in mind: The curtain in background left balances the sitter in foreground right. Together, all parts of the image combine to create a pleasing, yet interesting composition with strong lines, highlights, lowlights, elements in focus, elements out of focus and diagonals.
If I had to say what I like best about this picture – and “the sitter” not allowed as an answer – I would probably point to the variety of texture – from the fabric of the blue shirt, the hairy arm, the stubble, to the exposed skin. All of this gives the image a “tactile” look, it makes it three-dimensional in a two-dimensional medium. But ok, who am I kidding? If we are talking “feel”, then it is the intimate “feel” of this image – a close-up that allows intense study. There is a certain amount of stillness and calm in this, and even though some might wither under a scrutinising, alert gaze such as this, I imagine it would be quite invigorating to be allowed to just sit and stare. Blink – and you have lost. I’ll keep my eyes wide open.