International Photographic Society Newsletter- IMF and World Bank. Washington, DC
MARCH PRESENTATION: NANCY LIBSON
"Learning to Photograph People and Places"
It felt like being back in class! Here we were, seated in the sloping rows of the IMF Auditorium, and Nancy Libson had started out her presentation by asking for lights so she could see us and ask us questions, like a teacher with her students. Nice touch — and a successful formula, judging from the active participation our teacher-for-one-night elicited.
Stepping back a bit, Nancy had actually started out in an almost straightforward lecture-style mode. Holding up a blank sheet of paper horizontally, she strode across the stage expounding on what to her was one of the basics of photography: choosing a way to fill out that blank space, and turn it into a picture.
She drew a parallel to painting, the difference being that a painter is at liberty to place the elements of composition where he or she wants. For the photographer, the elements are by and large already placed on the canvas, as it were — that is, in the viewfinder.
What is up for the photographer to decide is, in part, where to let the edges of the picture fall, how to balance the interior space and, overall, what settings to use in order to do justice to the light on the scene. And to that, referring back to the title of her presentation, Nancy added one consideration: when it comes to photographing people, they're not as cooperative as, say, nature; you have to gain their trust and engage them.
This turned out to be a focal element of her talk. And so it was interesting (and thought-provoking, to me) that she started out literally turning the tables on us, her audience, and trying to engage us into her presentation turned into a class session. The topic and exercise: a series of two people shots and how different they looked to us, primarily in terms of photographer-subject interaction.
One was a portrait of a young woman shot head-on, with the subject looking straight at the camera — that is, at the photographer and, ultimately, "at us"… The other was an unposed group shot of a few women staring at something outside the frame, some of them partly hidden behind veil-like pieces of fabric hanging from somewhere.
Nancy used this second shot as an illustration of what she called the "fly on the wall" concept: in some instances, the photographer will, instead of actively engaging the subject, try to be unobtrusive. Indeed, the women in the picture looked and behaved as if totally unaware that a picture of them was being taken. In the first picture, Nancy noted in contrast, there was an element of tension in the eyes of the woman, betraying a certain level of interaction between photographer and subject.
Interestingly, what contributed to Nancy acting more like at a teacher at that stage was that none of these first two photographs was hers. And indeed, well into her presentation she continued showing pictures by other photographers, all the while sprinkling her talk with advice-like comments on color, light, composition, framing, lines and other photo-related concepts.
It made for a very instructive evening, not least when we were told that, for all this technical advice on rules of composition and other things photographic, rules are also there to be broken… To illustrate this point, Nancy showed a picture of a young girl standing in front and ahead of two crosses. Against an almost sacrosanct rule of photography, the girl was positioned dead center in the frame — but the shot worked, in large measure thanks to the placement of the two background crosses on either side of the subject's head.
This picture, along with a score of others that followed, was the work of legendary National Geographic photographer William Allard. Our presenter used each one of them to illustrate different other rules and principles of photography,
and all were indeed both beautiful works of art and enlightening examples of technical mastery. Two in particular stick in my mind: a street scene of a building in Latin America, where the horizontal frame is literally divided into three triangular shapes positioned one on top of another; and another streetlike scene showing a woman walking past a wall covered with what looks like a partially torn billboard, her head literally framed by the tear in the poster. Each in its own way illustrated rules of composition, lighting, color balance, and timing.
Learning from photography masters has always been a personal focus as well as a lifelong passion and quest of mine, and I do appreciate it when our presenters call on great photographers to help drive their own points home. So it was with Nancy Libson and her discussion of the works of Bill Allard and, near the conclusion of her talk, of Eugene Smith. On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that she ended up a bit pressed for time and that, by getting to her own images somewhat late in her presentation, she might have somewhat shortchanged herself. We, in turn, were left in that part of the evening whizzing through her own picture sets so quickly that the quality of her work as well as the impact of her comments on it were partly lost.
Still, an engaging teacher she was, and an instructive photography class our March 21 evening turned out to be.