Blending subject and context to communicate

The environmental portrait: blending subject and context to communicate

Philip N. Douglis

Pat Snyder, newsletter editor at Boyd Coffee Company (Portland, Ore.) sent us the two photos of an employee who helped develop a best-selling instant cappuccino, and asked which one I would have published. She chose the vertical version, showing us a woman smiling at the camera while holding a spoon over a container. “I thought her expression would draw readers into the story,” Pat said. Her boss, however, preferred the horizontal shot of the employee actually working. I agree with Pat’s boss. While the vertical shot is well organized, it fails to make a point. It is just an attractive picture of someone having their picture taken. Posed pictures of smiling people pretending to work are contrivances. The unposed, horizontal version places less emphasis on the person and more on the work at hand. It doesn’t say very much about either the person or the work, but at least it is honest, less self-conscious, and thereby more credible to viewers.

While I prefer to see unposed, candid reactions in editorial photography, there is one approach to photojournalism that can be posed: The environmental portrait. Such portraits blend posed subjects with their supporting context to symbolize jobs, capture personalities, and ultimately communicate something about them to readers.

Bill Mueller of Anheuser-Busch (St. Louis, Mo.) does this in his portrait of a brewery employee. This man is not pretending to work. He straightforwardly confronts the viewer in a work setting. Fully aware of the camera, he displays a relaxed, natural body language indicating self confidence. The huge kettle behind him symbolizes the large scale nature of his job.

The most effective environmental portraits, however, can go even further to make their points. For a story on “Mr. Paperless Office,” John Draper of The Frank Russell Company (Tacoma, Wash.) runs a half-page, strikingly incongruous, overhead environmental portrait of a manager surrounded by chaos. We see why this fellow earns honors for “the messiest desk at Russell.” Draper visually slams home his message: This company chums out more than two million pieces of paper every month. And most of them seem to come to rest on the desk of the very man charged with the job of creating the “paperless office.”

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, director of The Douglis Visual Workshops and widely known photographic consultant and critic, offers his introductory Communicating with Pictures workshops twice each year in Sedona, Ariz. He also continues to present special seminars on photo. graphic communication on a sponsored, in-house basis to companies, associations and IABC chapters. For information on either, call (602) 493-6709. Douglis also welcomes tearsheets for possible use in this column. Send to: The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85028.

COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators

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