It’s been a long time since I last wrote an emergency *ooof* – a first response kind of reaction to a new photo that has turned up. Let’s see if I still have got what it takes…
This new image has turned up on HBO Spain; I discovered it via Isabella Misceo on Twitter. It’s a classic character photo, aimed at creating an impression of a character from a TV show, more or less summarising the character in one single shot. To this end, the photographer focusses on the character by presenting him in front of a neutral backdrop: Daniel Miller is pictured in front of a grey, gradient backdrop. His left shoulder turned forward to the camera at almost 180 degrees, Daniel has turned his head towards us. Both eyes are clearly visible although the face is predominantly in shadow, yet we are still getting a half profile of the character’s nose.
The set up is fairly simple. What is complicated about this image, is the lighting. I can discern three different light sources in this photo, and they essentially create the mood that makes the image stand out. The most obvious light source is strong directional light from the back left (our perspective). It catches the subject’s right hand side of the face, leaving white highlights from his hairline down to the upper edge of his beard. The effect is of a harsh white line, marking the interface between the dark background and the sitter’s head in the foreground. It also works as a point in the resulting image to draw our gaze to. Secondly, there is slightly softer light from above right (our perspective), illuminating the top of the subject’s head, his left ear and his neck. I can tell it is softer and directed from above because it does not leave as harsh a white rim on the exposed skin as the light from the left. Lastly, the subject is illuminated from the front with a large soft box (visible in the catch lights in his eyes. If you look closely enough you can even see the silhouette of the photographer in front of the light in the reflection.) This light is much less intense than both light sources from the left and right, creating just enough illumination to eliminate the dark shadows that would otherwise obscure the subject’s face.
As you can imagine, set-ups that involve more than just one light, are always more complicated than simply illuminating a sitter with one strobe. It involves putting your subject in the frame and then individually testing the various lights until you get the effect you need. However, every change of pose will upset the effect, so there is plenty of testing involved until you get the desired shot. (Now imagine doing this for a group shot, and you’ll understand why photographers nowadays prefer to shoot their subjects alone and then amalgamate the individual shots into a group shot in post-production.) Three-light set-ups are nonetheless the most common set-ups in studio photography: A key light illuminates the most important part of the picture, the sitter’s face. It is the strongest light, and usually strongly directional. A fill light eliminates the shadows that have been caused by the key light; but it is a complementing light source, therefore not as strong as the key. Typically, the third light usually is back light, shining from behind the sitter either in order to define the silhouette by creating a rim of light, or in order to lighten up the background.
However – and this is what I find exciting about this image – this particular three-light set-up rather turns the idea behind the three lights upside down. The key light here is much less intense than the back light (from the left) and the fill light (from above right). I suppose you could argue that the key light is actually the light from the left rather than the soft box from the front – a very unusual decision for a portrait. But it really makes sense when you know the portrayed character in the context of the show. Have a look at the following gif where I am contrasting the (dark) original with an adjusted version where I have lightened the shadows:
Which of the two images do you think is more appropriate for a character in a spy show? Indeed – the shadows make sense, because they imply something: They evoke a sense of danger and ambiguity. The viewer is (literally) left in the dark over some of the sitter’s features. Knowing that this is a portrait of Daniel Miller, CIA agent involved in some shady [sic!] undercover operation, the lighting choice adds a metaphorical dimension to the image: Just like we do not see everything clearly in the portrait, we also do not know everything about Daniel’s activities/character. We may have been given the general outline (!) of his character, but we do not know the details. – When spelled out, the strategies behind image-making almost sounds too obvious, don’t they? I find it endlessly interesting how photography can prompt, or enhance characterisations just with the mere mechanics of light…
However, I will admit that all of photography’s subtleties would not work if the sitter didn’t play ball. And Mr Armitage is doing his best in this image to act Daniel Miller. Because that is clear – we are not seeing a portrait of Richard Armitage, but a picture of Daniel Miller.
Or even Trevor Price? The sitter is looking straight at the camera – and boy, does that gaze pierce! The direct gaze communicates assertiveness, possibly aggression. And is in many ways much more honest than a smile. Because more often than not, smiles in photographs are masks – put on for the photographer/the viewer. While this does not fully apply to an image that is not a portrait of a *real* person, but “acted” as part of a fictional character, it is still an interesting point. A smile would probably say less about Daniel than this intense, determined look. He has also squared his jaw, closing his mouth tightly, as if to say “I have nothing to say” *haha*. This is, the photo tells us, a man who is not going to waste time on words, but who will take action. The slightly inclined head is not a gesture of submission but also a sign of aggression. In German we have the wonderfully descriptive expression “jemandem die Stirn bieten” – literally: to offer the forehead to someone – which translates into “to defy, to affront, to face an enemy, to brave opposition”. This is exactly how I see this pose with the inclined head that makes the forehead the (literally) most prominent part of the head, in combination with a direct, unsmiling gaze: Daniel is challenging the viewer, not shying away from conflict, but actually communicating his readiness to fight or argue or take action.
Lastly, a word on composition. I don’t think there is any inherent message in presenting this character portrait in square format. A portrait format would have worked equally well. But since this image has turned up via Instagram, the format is a given. Nevertheless, within the confines of a square frame this particular pose works actually particularly well as it creates a diagonal sight axis that makes this most balanced of formats more dynamic than usually. It is possible that the inclusion of the Berlin Station logo in the bottom left corner, and the HBO Espana logo in the bottom right, may have determined the crop of the image, i.e. leaving enough space to fit in the logo on the left and right without them obscuring the subject. At the same time, the subject’s torso remains (more or less) in the center of the frame. But thanks to his pose, and the shape of the body in general, there is a visible, diagonal divide between the subject filling the imaginary triangle on the left, and the negative space on right (see picture right). And do you see the really fascinating thing? The diagonal line goes *exactly* across Daniel’s pupil, as well as the seam line of his jacket. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I assume the photographer did not use a rule and set square to consciously work this out but intuitively cropped the image. But the finished composition proves that our visual preferences, our sense of “what is most pleasing to the eye”, is determined by rules of geometry.
As for “most pleasing to the eye” – that could possibly be said for *any* image that the TDH actor is in [fangirl mode]. On a personal note, I have been finding it intensely interesting to ponder my reactions to Daniel’s new incarnation in BS2 – which seems more assertive, active, powerful and confident than in BS1. And while this image is definitely not Trevor (no ratty khaki coat or bomber jacket in sight), there is a hint of danger in the subject. That glint in his eye, the slightest of furrows over his right brow, the determined set of his mouth, scream “keep away” to me. As does everything about Daniel’s alter ego Trevor – his radical side-crop hairstyle, his neo-Nazi uniform of army boots and tight jeans, his dog tag “jewellery”, his manipulative, aggressive way of speaking. And yet, there is something primevally attractive in that. It doesn’t appeal to my brain, but it really speaks to my gut. It’s a reaction I first noticed when I came across Guy of Gisborne, and lately when I watched Pilgrimage. There is something troubling in that reaction, tbh. It does not fit my view of men – or my view of myself. Attracted by danger? *ooof*! That’s probably a topic for a post of its own. For the moment, I’ll shut off my brain and simply enjoy that Daniel just got more dangerous.