Portraits and Inspiration / by Ron Cowie

I admit it, I always wanted to be the next Richard Avedon and I’m old enough to not care who knows it. Yes, I know he could be pretty egocentric and grandiose. I don’t care. You don’t go trotting around the world with an 8x10 camera without an inflated sense of self. He’s the guy who got me into making portraits and I still get inspired by his work.

I love Richard Avedon’s work because it is bold and timeless. He’s playing with public figures and stripping away the veneer of fame. We see famous people as vulnerable and open. I like that. He’s playing with the idea of fame and also making himself larger than life. 

What is a successful portrait? One that reveals something universal about the person to us, the public, and reveals something hidden to the subject. We all have secrets, some are just closer to the surface at any given time. I don’t think a portrait is an x-ray machine into someone’s soul. I’m just a photographer, not the NSA. I like making portraits that look like a natural pause in an interesting conversation has just occurred.

I don’t have a lot of rules about my portraits. I believe in great light wherever it may be found. Sometimes that’s with electric strobes, open shade, direct sunlight, or single naked light bulbs. While we are surrounded by light, getting it to fit the mood and moment is what makes the work I do both a challenge and calling. 

Large format photography has a whole other layer of complexity to it. There is nothing quick about it. I have to manually focus underneath a dark cloth, when I get the composition and focus right, the subject has to be still while I close the lens down, load the film into the back, pull the dark slide, and make an exposure. The slight variations I get between telling someone to hold still and making the exposure is interesting. Enough time passes for something unexpected to show up in the sitter’s expression that I couldn’t have planned or orchestrated on my own. So, the sitting becomes a collaboration, an unspoken conversation between the sitter and the lens. 

This was how they used to make portraits and this is how I want to make them today. Call it “old school” if you want, I can’t escape what I love and what interested me the most about photography.