When we were showered in a series of RA portraits by photographer Robert Ascroft way back in 2013 and 2014, I wrote a whole slew of photo analyses. (There are 12 of them in total, and you can find the links to them on this website in the List of Armitage photoshoots section when you scroll down to 2013.) I loved them all, even though they are highly glossy and posed. In a way they are classic Hollywood portraiture, as practiced by greats of the genre way back in the hey-day of the Hollywood studios. But they make no bones about being somewhat artificial; they are made for a particular purpose, and they achieve their objective very well. It now only seems fair that I now treat the An Le Studio images the same way, seeing that at this point about 15 to 20 images have trickled down to us. Moreover, we had an interesting discussion in the comments yesterday about the objective of the An Le Studio shoot, and I did a bit of digging. But we will get to that later. First of all, let’s have a look at the image that I have
autocratically and subjectively chosen as my *ooof* today.
We have here a colour image of the sitter dressed formally in a plaid suit and shirt and tie. The sitter occupies the left half of the image and is shown from head to about elbow, with part of his head outside the frame. Crouching forward slightly, the subject is looking down while reaching with his right hand to scratch his beard. He is smiling widely, showing teeth and crinkling his eyes, apparently laughing about something that has just been said. While most of the subject is in sharp focus (apart from his left arm that is already appearing out of focus), the background has fallen off. It depicts a red brick wall of a building, which is angled away from the subject. Despite the shallow depth of field, the grouted lines of the brick wall are clearily visible, as are horizontal lines created by recesses in the building’s wall. (We can also just about make out a person walking into the shot from the right.)
The photo appeals to me because from this current shoot I prefer the images that look less posed – like this one where the subject is not looking at the lens. Caveat: Just because a sitter avoids looking directly at the lens, does not make a photograph “unposed”. That goes without saying and becomes clear when you think of shots like the “deep thinker dressed in blue velvet”. However, it is the external experience and knowledge we bring to an image as the fans and the viewers, that makes me believe this image here is slightly less deliberately posed and more authentic: Pictures of RA with wide smiles that show his teeth are few and far between. He apparently prefers to be pictured with more ambiguous and serious facial expressions. The fact that we see him here with a big smile (even if half concealed because he is looking down and reaching up across his beard with his hand), makes me think that this is a glimpse of a moment “between shots”, where the sitter has relaxed for a moment, is not putting on his “photography face”, but is genuinely laughing about the situation or something that has just been said. Conjecture, of course, as an acting professional can just as easily create this scenario for the camera.
Moving on to the hard facts, let’s have a look at the composition of the image.
I know you love this kind of stuff, so I have applied my old grid line game again. In terms of composition, the image is very pleasing. Marked by the sharp focus, the subject is obviously the most important component of the shot. It figures then, that he should take up most space in the resulting image. Following the classic “rule of thirds”, the sitter occupies two thirds of the image, while the background is relegated to only one third of the space. It also appeals to our innate sense of order that the sitter – to our gaze leaning from left to right – should occupy the left two thirds of the image, while the background fizzles out on the right-hand third. This also works well because that way the small f number chosen for the aperture lets the background appear further out of focus the farther we look to the right. (The background looks more defined on the left of the image because it is closer to the camera. But since it is mostly obstructed by the sitter, it does not distract too much.)
The grid line game always exposes interesting underlying facts that may be the reason why an image appears so pleasing. If we look at the whole picture divided into thirds, some interesting regularities become apparent.
We can see now that the “empty” space (i.e. space without sitter) in the top left corner is balanced out by an empty space in the bottom right corner. Equally, the empty space in the top right corner is balanced out by a space with less visual interest and monochrome-ish content (basically just “suit”) in the bottom left. The main content of the image is concentrated in the middle section of the vertical thirds – the face and hand.
It becomes almost eerily exact when we look at the vertical and horizontal half lines. If you draw a line down the middle of the image, the line goes pretty much exactly through Richard’s right eye and the tip of his nose. The horizontal half line cuts just a tad underneath the tip of his nose. As a natural starting point for perusing an image, the picture immediately draws our gaze to what we instinctually react to as humans – a facial expression, especially as smile. What also works out incredibly well here, is the alignment of the ledge in the brickwork with the horizontal line, in the same was as the vertical third lines aligned with some of the architectural details in the background.
Also very pleasing: The sitter’s lower arm and hand create a diagonal line that lead the eye into the middle of the image and to the smile. In general, all the defining points of interest are placed on various intersections or lines of this imaginary grid of thirds and halfs.
So, is it all coincidence or is it deliberate? Did An Le *tell* Richard to lower his head and angle his arm at exactly 45° to create a pleasing composition? The answer is (probably) no. This is a captured moment that has been cropped into this exact composition post-shoot. Chances are that the original image was larger and the photographer has cropped it to exactly this frame. He won’t have applied a grid in his post production programme in order to create this composition; it’s more likely he simply has the experience and eye of the photographer to create an image that embodies the rule of thirds – just in the same way that we as viewers instinctively find an image composed along those lines pleasing to our eyes. But what the visualised lines show, is that the composition of an image has the power to emphasise some parts of an image over another. (Not so obvious in this image; some of the b/w pictures from the subsequent batch of An Le’s IG posts would be a better example of that.)
Of course, to the fan viewer, the power of this image lies not in its composition, but in its subject. The rare smile makes it precious; the characteristic hand gesture evokes a feeling of familiarity. The image transports a positive feeling – via the smile. It makes the sitter look lively, captured in a moment of life that feels real and that everyone can relate to. It shows an attractive, finely suited man with soft, luxurious waves of hair, a strong beautiful hand, a pleasingly curved neck and shoulder. The fact that the subject does *not* look at the camera but is frozen in a split second, makes the viewer feel as if we are right there, observing this scene with our own eyes. We feel involved and present, and close to the OoA.
Just what we want. It goes without saying that my interpretation and explanation may not apply to *every* viewer. We all bring our preferences and ideas to everything we observe. Some people don’t like Richard dressed in suits. Others have an aversion to beards. *grins* So never mind if *you* don’t see what *I* see – those interpretations are entirely subjective. You might even argue, that those who are not enamoured by this picture, have seen through the manipulative power of (this example of) photography.
Which leads me to the final part of this photo post. What is the purpose of this shoot? That was what we were discussing in some of the comments yesterday – why was this series of photographs made, who commissioned it, who paid for it, why the drip-drip-drip release of new images, and if the images have such a strong fashion photography vibe – why have we not seen them used in articles and magazines? I have a little theory on that but of course there is no way of knowing this for certain. But my hunch has been that the shoot with An Le Studio, despite its fashion photography feel, is not a fashion shoot at all but has actually been a commission by RA himself. Seven years after the Robert Ascroft shoot (the photos of which were used for publicity such as RA’s autograph pictures) it certainly was time to update the batch of images that Richard and his agent/publicist can use to provide to media and agencies for illustrating any kind of content that features RA.
The timeline of the images appearing points to them being made some time late 2019 – judging by the length of RA’s hair (in preparation for his turn as Astrov, scheduled for mid-January 2020). The first image from the shoot appeared in a Sunday Times article about Richard on the 5th of January 2020. Then Richard himself posted the running through the cobbled streets of Brooklyn on his IG on 23 January. Three weeks later another image shot by An Le Studio pops up as Richard’s profile picture on his IMDb page (10 February). Lastly, the NME accompanies a little piece on “The Soundtrack of My Life” with the picture of RA in front of a window a month later. So, all of the pictures have either been released by RA himself (23 January; 10 February – assuming that his IMDb is maintained by himself or his people), or accompany pieces in the media that are about RA himself and not necessarily/specifically about his projects. Which to me points to the possibility that the images used by Sunday Times and NME were provided by the actor’s publicist rather than commissioned by the respective media. Also, the latest slew of images have all been posted by An Le Studios on IG in July, captioned as a “fun portrait series shot with the talented actor @richardcarmitage on a cloudy day in brooklyn”. Digging a little bit deeper, I noticed that An Le Studio tags all their photos with the hashtag #nowopentv. That made me curious. I clicked around a bit and finally ended up on the nowopen.tv website.
That, combined with An Le’s caption of “fun portrait series” to me sounds as if this was not made for a specific project such as The Stranger and commissioned by an “employer” such as Netflix, or intended as an illustration for a fashion spread, but as if it was organised by the man himself. New marketing material: images that can be provided to journalists who are writing an article about him or interviewing him; head shots to accompany the promo blurb on future audio book performances or announcements of new roles; a new, current autograph image to hand out to Richard’s fans. If so and in that context, it will be interesting to see which images RA has chosen from the shoot – as opposed to the outtakes that An Le Studio is showing on his IG. – The fashion feel of the images still flummoxes me a bit, but that is probably down to the photographer’s style (and main photographic speciality). And maybe that is a deliberate decision by the “Armitage mRAketing Dept.” – new branding for Mr A? All hipster blue velvet and gritty b/w to corner a different market? Listen, whatever you want – it won’t deter me. I draw the line at fuzzy out-of-focus images, but otherwise I’ll just concentrate on the glorious smile.