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The Role of Personality in Documentation

The Role of Personality in Documentation

According to Michelangelo, every block of stone already has a statue inside it, and it's the task of the sculptor to set it free by brushing aside the excess stone surrounding it. I've always been fond of that interpretation towards creative intent, because it illustrates what I believe is the clearest approach to creating something. That is, inspiration or deciding what to do is often self evident, and expressing it begins with recognizing what's already there.

For the most part, what's already there is usually what one sees. No surprises there. So it's no wonder the typical approach to photographing people tend to be just that - a straightforward capture of a person's likeness. To be fair, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. However, limiting the scope of documentation to just the likeness of the subject can put the image capture at risk of becoming as visually compelling as a run-of-the-mill head shot, like a passport photo.

Fortunately, in most photo worthy cases, the documentation is not limited to just the likeness of the subject. In most cases, there are ways to improve the composition of a photo. Take location for example. When it is included in the image capture, the documentation can benefit from the addition of environmental detail breaking up the negative space in the background. Moreover, location can also add context to the visual narrative of the image capture. 

On location with Judit's version of roof-topping. 

Climbing down...

Sure footing outside the frame.

Climbing up again. Her idea.

Still climbing...

Sure footing... well... almost.

With that said, what's so special about a documentation of likeness shot on location? From the perspective of Michelangelo, that doesn't seem to rise up to the standard of what's inside that block of stone. To be fair, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it. But when you think about that kind of documentation, how is it really any different from your typical proof-of-pilgrimage vacation snap? 

Personally, I believe there's much more to people photography than what one normally sees. Yes, I still optimize likeness; and yes, I still use location for environmental context - both of which I regard as building blocks in documentation. But to rise to Michelangelo's standard in brushing aside the excess stone, what I believe we're really tasked to do is capture the subject's personality. When photographing people, that's what's inside the block of stone.

To some, the role of personality in people photography may not seem to be all that consequential or even apparent at first. But when you think about how the subject's personality can add to an image's visual appeal, its significance begins to make more sense. Personality is that intangible trait which makes a photo come alive. In doing so, it makes an image capture appear more inviting than one appearing absent of life.

Judit fixing her hair

Ready at attention...

Hanging on to a rusty pole.

Now, with some hair tossing.

Now looking over too.

That was fun ☺️

So what exactly is personality? In the context of people photography, it's a visual display of an individual's physical, mental, emotional, or social characteristics. Usually, it is captured as a facial expression, body gesture, or an execution of action. Because of that, personality in documentation can be static or dynamic in nature. And expressing it can be at varying degrees of intensity, from the very subtle all the way to the very obvious.

Thus, documenting personality can be as muted as getting a simple look from the subject, or it can be as involved as the subject interacting with the surrounding. But regardless of how it is displayed, the addition of personality in documentation will initiate interaction with the viewer. As a result, the use of personality can be viewed as a documentary tool to promote discussion of the captured image.

This is how personality makes a photo come alive. It gives them a life of their own beyond the conventional use of communicating three dimensional content into a two dimension frame. In other words, it's no longer about what's in the picture, but what's happening in the picture. Consequently, the viewer's appreciation of the photo will lead to questioning of the visual narrative, the subject's captured state, or even the photographer's intent.

Going down from the roof. Muted but still engaged.

Still going down. Still muted and engaged.

Under some wiring. 

Still going down.

In front of a fuse box, and other miscellaneous meters. The look of waning patience as I try to make focus under the most atrocious light above Judit's head.

Exiting the building. Looking very natural.

For my part, I have always sought for personality in documentation. To reach that end, an active effort on my part is exercised to draw it out from the subject - which by the way isn't a particular hardship. It is already there inside that block of stone. However, trust still needs to be fostered, in order to provide the subject a reasonable level of comfort. Once established, those facing the camera's scrutiny will bring down their guard to unmask their true selves.

I've often found the end result of presenting people as they truly are to be visually gratifying. In my opinion, capturing personality is substantive in supporting a photo's sense of integrity. This can be appreciated as added meaning beyond the superficial intent that is normally attributed to your run-of-a-mill head shot or typical proof of pilgrimage. It's what makes a picture relatable or even significant - whether between close relations or to a wider unrelated audience.

Personally, I just believe the documentation of personality completes a photograph. It closes a gap that is left open by passport photos and vacation snaps. In doing so, the use of personality places the subject inside the visual narrative, as an active participant of the documentation. It might not seem like much, but that extra effort in revealing the subject's true self can make a photo appear more authentic in presentation.

On another rooftop with sun in her eyes.

Looking towards Hong Kong harbor.

On the edge with Hong Kong harbor behind her.

Pulled back.

Sitting on the edge. 

Closer up

Take my word for it. Always consider personality in documentation. It's really what Michelangelo meant all along, with what's hidden inside that block of stone... which I'm sure he'd admit if he were still alive. Personally, I believe the use of personality makes all the difference in the world between capturing something forgettable and something eye catching. It's just a matter of recognizing what's already there.

Anyway, it would appear I've written extensively on my opinion regarding the documentation of personality. However, there's still more. This photowalk is a double header, to use the American baseball expression. I started it with Judit, going up to her two favorite rooftops in Hong Kong. Then after that, I finished with Anna after sunset, who brought me to her rooftop. However, the view isn't quite the same, once the sun is down.

By the way, it's not as if I have something against smiles and sunny faces. However, there is just something very artificial when people smile with all their pearly whites exposed for no better reason than reacting to a camera with a Pavlovian response. I mean, did the Twelve Disciples at the "Last Supper" face Leonardo with big beaming smiles? Not even Signora Del Giocondo dared to show her teeth to the great master at her sitting of the "Mona Lisa". Just something to think about.

From a different angle.

A view of what's below.

Pulled back.

In front of the Excelsior Hotel.

Down one level from the roof. Next to a window.

Now, more in the shadows.

All images have been optimized tonally in Lightroom. Some images in the third set have had their color balance edited. All images photographed on the Leica M10 + Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux.

Last, thank you Judit one last time for filling in. You will be missed. Wishing you all the best in Singapore.

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