The environmental portrait: blending subject and context to communicate.

Author:Douglis, Philip N.

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...

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