Blip profile: The daily portrait Challenge
29th May 2012
"Mostly what I hope to capture is a bit of humanity," says Blipper Juliana Johnston. "The moment when someone lets their guard down and reveals a little something about themselves."
A keen photographer (known as "Challenge" on Blip), Johnston's taken a portrait shot every day for over a year. Come July, it will be two years, consecutively (give-or-take a couple of days).
We continue our series of Blog profiles that turn the spotlight on the Blippers themselves and catch up with Juliana to find out how she captures a portrait every day - from approaching a potential subject to the inspiration that drives her image making.
For many, portraiture - street portraits in particular - is the most difficult to get right. Not only do you have to get the shot, you have to also consider the ever-changing setting as well as finding the confidence and technique to approach your subjects.
"For street portraits, I seek out the most appealing light in any given environment first; and then wait for the subject to appear. The lighting defines the outcome more than anything else," says Johnston. "I tend to walk on the shady side of the street in order to avoid severe contrasts, shadows and squinted eyes. I look for subjects whose sense of style will add context to the image. Feathers, lace, fur, unusual make-up or accessories. I've always found that red hair set against the grey light of London is particularly striking.
"Typically, there is an open and unique quality to the subjects - sometimes it is something unknown but bewitching about their demeanour. Usually it has to do with a feeling of immediate connection, someone who I have made eye contact, someone who smiles back, so it helps if you have you camera set and primed," she adds.
"When doing more formal portrait sessions the priority is creating an environment where the subject feels he or she has permission to be wholly themselves in front of the camera. Some people take a moment to relax while others are better before they have a moment to over-think the situation."
After 18 months of shooting strangers in the streets of London she has developed a sixth sense for who will say 'Yes'. However, it tends to be a certain generation who are most open to it, claims Johnston. They have grown up in the digital age documenting their lives on their camera phones and reading street-style blogs. It is a generation who are no strangers to having a lens pointed at them.?
"I only say as much as necessary, if they seem like they are not sure what is expected I will direct them a bit. I might suggest a pose or if they seem a bit nervous I will bring them over to a wall or away from the crowds. For some reason leaning against a wall really helps put people at ease. Some of the woman I photograph are just natural models and they start posing away lke it is a Vogue fashion shoot. At times I have to politely excuse myself."
One of the most surprising dynamics to this project has been how willing people have been to participate: "On so many occasions the people I have stopped will tell me that it has made their day or that they feel flattered," she says. "I always try to make a bit of time if any of the subjects want to chat. Occasionally, people reveal incredibly intimate details of their life. One young mother was so pleased to talk to another adult after a week nursing her baby in hospital that she threw her arms around my neck and wept. It was very poignant."
Most of Johnston's photography is on location or on the street. She shoots almost exclusively using available natural light, although recently she's enrolled on a studio lighting course.
She shoots mainly with a Cannon 5d mark ii and a 24-105mm f4 lens. "I like the longer lens particularly for the street portraits as it allows for a comfortable distance from your subject," says Johnston. "A bit of personal space helps put your subject at ease. A longer lens also make the face look smoother and more compact which prevents the nose and chin from looking too large."
Despite originating from New York, Johnston says that London is "hands down" the best place to find stranger subjects: "There is such a diverse mix of faces and styles and people rarely say 'No'. I am always intrigued to see how people will react to my lens when I travel abroad. I have a moment where I wonder if I am finally going to have pushed my luck too far. But thus far I have found willing models everywhere. I thought I'd love this project best in my beloved NewYork City but it's the eccentric style of London that I miss most when I am away."
Johnston claims that stations are the perfect venue if you are looking for strangers to shoot. "People waiting around with time on their hands. Paddington's great. There are always loads of jolly workmen happy to model, it's wide open with a frosted glass roof that acts like a giant softbox."
But what does she try to avoid? "Rush Hour. The only time anyone has been properly rude to me and my lens was when I stopped a very well dressed city type as he was rushing to work. Groups of lads will get a bit naughty. Men with their girlfriends or wives can be tricky too. Now I only stop men if they are on their own. They are less self conscious and much less suggestive."
While she has no formal training in photography, Johnston grew up surrounded by photography and fashion: "My mother was a muse and model with an intuitive understanding of light. She always seemed to know just how to pose so as to flatter her best features. I frequently watched her being photographed and directed. She would have a little routine where she would stretch up her spine and half turn her hips. Her chin would tilt up and her gaze would be directly into the lens. I often find myself directing my models in exactly this way. I have been given my Mother's portfolio for safe keeping and it is by far my most precious material procession."
Johnston's had little formal training. When she was a teenager she won a street photography contest run by a New York newspaper . The prize was a place on a darkroom course. "It was taught by an ancient man who took me under his wing. He was always encouraging us to think less about technique and more about engaging with our subjects. He would stick is boney finger right in my face anytime I mentioned exposure. 'You worry too much, photograph your life, your people and all the rest will come organically.' It's advice that has always stayed with me."
Johnston bought her first digital dslr and intrigued by an article she read about 10,000 hours practise being the key to success, she embarked on a project to shoot a portrait a day for 200 days. "I had seen a film on the Guardian website featuring the work of Sue Foll and it was very much what I wanted to be doing. Blip seemed like the perfect venue to keep me on course. I didn't keep a journal - just posted an image. I hadn't expected to get so much feedback and soon I found myself taking a lot of inspiration from the blip images and blipper input. By the time the 200th 'blipday' rolled around I was throughly addicted. Now it feels like more like a keepsake and a diary. The images seem to jog so many memories."