Any half-length street portrait (interactive or candid, see: Making Decisions in Tamil Nadu) is often, explicit or implicit, also an environmental portrait which typically illuminates the subject's life, culture and surroundings.
There are three different ways to include, to photograph and to inform about the subject’s context in a head shot and/or half-length portrait:
(i) the relevant background: the photographer uses relevant areas or structures of the subject’s natural and/or cultural surroundings or background in order to convey interesting context information about the person being photographed; e.g. an artist in her atelier, a villager in the mountains, or a market woman at the marketplace. The background might be blurred, but relevant structures are still identifiable or discernible.
(ii) the significant detail: the photographer includes distinctive elements from the subject’s life, culture and surroundings, which can often be quite small but still significant and meaningful, especially if they are (a) parts and details, (b) symbols and logos, (c) contrasts and contradictions; e.g. the tribal nose jewellery of an Indian Adivasi woman, the masterpiece of an artist, or the camera type and lens of a street photographer. Those accessories can provide plenty of information about the subject’s context.
(iii) the facial features as such: the photographer takes only a close-up photograph of the subject’s face (e.g. an outdoor head shot in front of a neutral, heavily blurred, or even a pure black background) and acts under the assumption that the subject’s facial features and expressions, his or her gender, racial and cultural characteristics, age, wrinkles, facial tattoos, facial hair and beards, hair style, make-up, scars, etc. are sufficient clues for the subject’s life.
Below are three examples for (i) adding context by using relevant background structures:
Below are three examples for (ii) adding context by including meaningful details of the subjects’ personal lives:
Below are three examples for (iii) adding context by focusing on the subject’s facial features:
Of course, the transition from one described approach to the other is gradual, and two or all three of them can be combined within one photograph:
High-res portrait photographs with full exif data, geotags and technical details in Matt Hahnewald's
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