My wandering notwithstanding, I've always been a portrait shooter. This has been my life-long passion, and the well from which I continually draw inspiration. The studio is my sanctuary, and the human subject my contemplation. There is nothing more beautiful. So I'm in a frame of mind today to carry a little further a discussion that arose during a portrait workshop I conducted recently, namely: who have been my most significant influences? That's always a tough question to answer -- if you leave out the guy who invented tequila, anyway -- but there are certainly two I'm always likely to mention. The two styles they represent, while producing very distinct imaging, possess one fundamental key in common: simplicity.
Phillip Stewart Charis. During my formative years I always had his books tucked under my arm. His approach to portraiture was so so pure and honest, and such a departure from the four, five and sometimes six light style I had learned in the studio in the 1970's. He used one light (sometimes with an umbrella, other times a large soft box) and a reflector. This allowed him to concentrate on the individual in front of the camera and capture something from deep down inside them, that place where real beauty abides. I had a chance to meet Charis a few years back at a professional gathering where I was about to conduct a lighting workshop, and the evening I spent with this sincere and quiet man was revelatory.
Another influence, at times nearly as profound, is a photographer I only know by reputation: a Russian by the name of Dmitry Ageev. Using simple lighting and even natural light (which I still find elusive, but fascinating) his work is more stark, personal, and spare than Charis'. I discovered him on an online forum examining contemporary portraiture a few years ago and was instantly taken by his work. He seemed the natural progression from those whose work I studied initially (Yousuf Karsh, Avedon, for example) through Charis, to the portraits I aspire to create today. I would like to share a drink with him someday.
So what advice do I hand out during a workshop where we're studying lighting and posing? Well, sure, learn technique as much as you can, but seek inspiration in every illuminated corner. I try to seek it everywhere: literature, poetry, painting. Maybe even that good tequila. Hemingway even advised to write drunk, edit sober. Hey, whatever works. But Thoreau said it best:
simplify .... simplify .... simplify.