When is a photograph more than just a photograph? When it’s a work of art. But this transformation doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes a skilled photographer to discern the nuances that define the subject and to capture those elements in a single moment of time, and then to render that photograph in a tangible form as a print.
John Mitchell is such a photographer.
I spoke with John to get his views on the art of photography and how he uses it to illustrate personalities.
A Fascination With Photography From An Early Age
Jules: Please tell us about your background. How did you get started with professional photography?
John: Strictly by accident. My grandmother had a couple of old box cameras, and when I went to visit her I was allowed to play with them. I was probably no more than about four or five years old at the time. That was when my interest in photography started.
Later, when I went to visit my great uncle, there was a painting on his family room wall of an old gentleman sitting at a table with a mug of beer. I always loved that painting. I would look at it and think, who is that person? Is he the town drunk or is he the town doctor that’s had a rough night? That developed my interest in people and faces and the stories behind them.
As I grew up I’d go to get my hair cut by a barber in Preston by the name of Harold Morrow. Harold’s passion was watercolor painting, and when he found out about my interest in photography, he took me under his wing and taught me everything I know about composition. As he was cutting my hair he’d have a painting facing me on one of the customer chairs and he’d quiz me. How many triangles are in that painting? How many colors? How many repeat themselves?
When I was in high school my mother would get my report cards that said, “John would do better if he’d leave the camera in his locker.”
I loved photography, but I also loved observing faces.
I’ve always been a fan of Karsh. I love the story of his portrait of Churchill, the interpretation, the expression, the way he makes a statement about the subject. Before photographing Churchill, Karsh made a point of being in the gallery in the House Of Commons when Churchill was speaking. He was there to observe Churchill’s mannerisms. How did he move his hands? What did he do with his head? Where was the weight on his feet? He was looking for all those little idiosyncrasies that told the story of Churchill, so that when Churchill walked into the room Karsh knew what he was doing.
I also spent eight years on the regional police force as a forensics photographer. I was one of the first two civilians to graduate from the identification program at the Ontario Police College, so I got a background in using photography to exhibit evidence and facts, and that’s had an impact on my approach to portraiture as well. It’s art, but it also has to bring across the truth.
Jules: How does this compare to a style like composite photography?
John: I’m not a fan of composite photography. It’s art and I appreciate it. There are some great composite photographers and I love some of the work that they do. But none of their work represents reality; it’s fantasy. And I think that there’s enough beauty in life and reality that I don’t need to create fantasy. I think that photography is a wonderful tool to illustrate and tell a history as it really is. So I like to use it to tell the true story, because in three or four generations who’s going to know what today’s lifestyle really was?
As an example, during the Depression era, the Farm Security Administration commissioned several photographers to photograph the southern US and it’s people. Dorothea Lange was one of those, one of the great photographers of that era, and she created those beautiful images that tell the story of the hardships of the farmers and the homeless people of that era.
Jules: On your website you say that you illustrate personalities. What does this mean for you and how do you do it?
John: A portrait is a picture of a person, but a person is more than what they look like. You’re not what you look like; there are other factors that have to be considered.
First, who is the portrait for? If it’s only for the subject then the only consideration is the subject’s desires, whereas if a gentleman is having a portrait done for his wife how does he want her to feel when she sees that portrait? So you have to first understand who your audience is. Then you have to understand who the subject is.
I believe everybody has – I call them – the loves of their life. What’s the reason you get up every morning? Why do you do what you do? What really turns your crank? For me I love a sunrise, I love my wife, I love dogs.
Then I want to know why are those things important to you. I want to know how you want the viewer to feel when they see the image. The most important smile in a portrait isn’t the one in the picture, it’s the one on the face of the viewer when they see the picture. I think that knowing the viewer and knowing the emotion that you want to create is the most important thing.
Jules: So when you do a portrait, it’s not a case of come in, sit down, take their picture. You have to learn all of this about them first?
John: Ideally, yes. I do an in-person interview with them. Today it can be done on Zoom provided you’ve got cameras. I am talking to them in person because their response in gestures are as important to me as what they say. I’m watching for how they hold their hands, how they tilt their head when they say a certain thing, which way their eyes go, how often they close their eyes. So I’m looking for all these different features that may point out little idiosyncrasies about them. Quite often during a session we will continue the conversation from the interview and all of a sudden they’ll do something and I’ll shout, “Don’t move!” All of a sudden in that conversation they have put their hands … I could never pose their hands as naturally as they just did. So I’m always watching for that little idiosyncrasy that sets them apart.
Lighting Sets The Mood
Jules: Today, everyone is walking around with a camera. What are they missing?
John: I think they’re missing three things: the lighting, the rules of art, and knowing who their audience is.
Lighting sets the mood. In a theater, the lighting technician can control the mood as to whether there’s a thunderstorm going on in the background or whether it’s nighttime, just by changing the lighting. My job as a photographer is to create that mood with the light.
If you ever look at a Rembrandt painting the face is always lighter than any other part of the painting. If there are ten people in the painting, Rembrandt always had one person lighter than the rest; that was the main subject.
Jules: So you don’t have a standard lighting setup?
John: No. I have to know what the mood is that we’re trying to create and who it’s for. I have to look at the subject, do a facial analysis, consider their skin texture, how deep or shallow set their eyes are, what their skin color is, and what props are in the scene.
Then I have to decide, do I want to light this for hard lighting to bring out the texture, or do I want a soft lighting to create a more romantic look? I need to know the mood. I need to know who the portrait is for and what we want that person to feel when they see the picture. Then I have to create that mood, and the mood is created with the lighting.
Fine Art Prints
Jules: On your website you have Fine Art Prints for sale. How do these differ from what people would print at home?
John: When most people print at home they get an image on their computer that they think looks good, and then they print it, or they send it off to a printer, and quite often what they end up seeing on paper isn’t what they saw on the screen. There are several reasons for that.
First, a screen is usually back-lit. Then, the color temperature of their screen settings may vary from what is considered daylight balance or what we’re used to seeing.
So the first thing I do is what’s called “soft proofing.” That’s where, after I’ve done all of my processing and I’ve got my image to a satisfactory appearance on the screen, I then adjust the screen to duplicate the paper. I have profiles that will match the printer I’m using, the kind of ink I’m using, and the kind of paper that I’m printing it on.
So now that image is adjusted so it’s going to match what it’s going to look like on the paper. Sometimes when you do that one color will shift. All of a sudden the sky doesn’t look the right blue. So now I have to adjust just the sky without affecting the other colors. I may have to adjust the skin tone or I may have to adjust the green in the trees in the background. So I adjust the image on the screen to match what it’s going to be on the paper.
Then, for the Fine Art Print, it’s printed with pigmented ink so the ink has got pigment colors right in it. It’s deeper, it’s richer, it’s longer lasting.
Then I print it on fiber paper, watercolor painting paper. Some is smooth, some is textured, depending on the effect you want. With the fiber paper it allows the ink to actually soak right into the paper instead of laying on the surface. So it becomes more permanent because it’s now part of the paper.
Next, I varnish it. If you’ve ever seen a fine piece of oak wood come alive when it’s varnished, it has detail, it has texture, it has shape, it has richness. The same thing is true with a photograph. The varnish enhances the richness and the brilliance of the color, particularly the shadow areas. With black and white images in particular, the blacks can be black and dull and then you varnish them and all of a sudden what looked like black is now three different tones of black.
So after we’ve printed the image on the fiber paper we allow it to breath for 24 hours so all of the gases from the ink escape, and then we varnish it and sometimes add a glaze after that.
Jules: Do you frame the print?
John: Usually no. Framing is a very personal thing. People have their own tastes as to whether they like a simple frame or a contemporary frame, whether they want one that’s one inch wide or six inches wide.
Many people don’t understand the cost of framing. I’ve had clients that have had portraits done and thought, that’s a lot of money for a portrait, and then they went to frame it and the frame was three times what they paid for the portrait.
The perfect frame for a picture is the one you don’t see. If you’re looking at the frame it’s taking attention away from the painting or from the photograph.
Jules: How do you ship your prints?
John: Our Fine Art Prints are shipped flat. After all the printing is done, we take a piece of hardboard or Masonite, clean it, and then put a layer of two-sided laminate on the Masonite. That blocks any impurities that might be in the wood from coming through into the paper.
If you go into a gallery and read the descriptions of the paintings it will often say, “Canvas on board,” “paper on board,” or “oil on board.” What we’re doing is paper on board. We’re making the Fine Art Print on paper but then fastening that to a Masonite board, to create the stiffness, to make sure it stays flat. Surfaces like matboard, gator board, and foam core can all buckle and shift with changes in humidity. Masonite isn’t going to do that.
Business Portraits That Build Brands
Jules: You also do business photography. Why are business portraits important and how do you build an organization’s brand with your photography?
John: Several things are important here. First, people forget who the picture is for, and that applies to the business portraits even more so than some of the personal portraits I do. People try to create an image for their business that pleases them, but they are not their customers. So the first thing I want to know when I meet with a client is, what is the nature of your business and who is your ideal client? Why are they dealing with you and how are you different than your competition?
Today you’ll find so many photographers who are saying that they’ll create branding photography which will include sixty different images that you can use on your website. One of the questions I was asked was, how many pictures does it take to create a brand? My answer to that is how diverse are your clients? Whereas most people look at how diverse are you and how diverse are your offerings, I want to know how diverse is your client base and how diverse are the reasons they come to deal with you?
We can, with the right photograph, brand an individual with only one image. Or it might take three or four or five or six. But it should never take more than that. We have to ask the right question as to who their client is, how their client has to feel to do business with them, and then figure out how we’re going to create that feeling, that mood.
I recently did a Google review for a company here in Cambridge that I did business with, and I said in the review that the person I was talking about, I chose him because he was an odd commodity, he was a businessman who told you the truth and that you could trust. If I was doing his portrait I would want to know what other people say about him, and if they were saying the same type of thing then how would I express that in an image that when people look at it the first thing they’re going to think is, I can trust this guy.
Too many people think they need that big cheesy ear-to-ear grin, and we’ve all heard the story about the used car salesman and the smile that he has. You wouldn’t want an undertaker who looks too happy about his job, but you want one who has respect, sincerity. So I need to know why your clients are dealing with you and then determine how we create an image that’s going to say to people, that’s the person I want.
Jules: Any closing thoughts?
John: Don’t lose sight of the value of printing. Too many people today want images on a disc or on a stick. An image is a piece of art. The great photographer Ansel Adams said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” You could give the same negative to three different photographers and get three different performances.
What we do with the output of the image is just as important as what we do behind the camera, and it’s the follow-through that finishes the artist’s interpretation of the subject. When you look at a digital file it’s going to depend on the settings on the device you’re viewing it on. Look at an image on your phone, look at that same image on your desktop, and you’re going to see two different images because the color balance settings on those two devices are likely different. Which one is right? Whereas with the paper it’s going to look the same.
If you’d like to view more of John’s work, commission a portrait, or purchase one of his outstanding Fine Art Prints, visit his site at johnmitchellphoto.com