The Stealth Portrait
Blending In With Sven Martson

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A portrait is "a pictorial representation," according to our dictionary. Right, but a bit limited for our purposes; a snapshot is a pictorial representation, but we ask a portrait to carry a bit more freight. This, from the Encyclopedia of Practical Photography, is better: "...the challenge is...to make a portrait more than a record, to let it reveal some of those intangible qualities that are recognized as being part of the uniqueness--the individuality--of a human being."

One way to achieve that goal is by taking what we call "the stealth portrait," which isn't what you might first think. As a rule, sneaking up on people and taking pictures isn't going to get you portraits. What we mean by "stealth portrait" is being so visible that you become invisible; to blend in so thoroughly, to be so unobtrusive, that you can witness and capture moments that are revealing of character and personality.

We've always felt that parents who wish to get the best photographs--the best portraits, if you will--of their children should introduce cameras early and use them often. Keep them around, carry them just about everywhere. The idea is to make the process a part of a child's life from the start, so that the taking of pictures is no big deal. Children are at ease with the familiar. "We're going to take pictures now" is probably not the way to go if you're looking for magic moments and memorable portraits. If the camera is always around, it won't signal a change in the situation. Activity goes on, pictures are taken. What could be more natural? What better definition of the stealth portrait?

We thought about all this when we spoke to Sven Martson, whose specialty is photography for private schools and non-profit institutions. Blending in, becoming invisible, is a key to his ability to take effective, successful portraits.

"The easiest subjects are the little ones," Martson says. "They have rather short attention spans, and after they ask about what I'm doing--I say, `Oh, I'm just taking pictures,' making it the most natural thing--they're off to do something else, and they don't pay too much attention to me."

The older the children are, the more self-conscious they tend to be. "Adolescents are much more aware of their self-image," Martson says, "so they're usually more guarded or they'll put on a face for the camera. For them I have to be a little quicker or be choosier."

Virtually all of Martson's photos capture "instances just happening." He rarely poses people, and even a person whose body language signals "Hey, take my picture" is giving the photographer a real moment--it's really what that person wants to offer to the camera.

"Generally people know I'm going to be there for a day or two taking pictures," Martson says of his work in schools. "There's a little flurry of attention when I first walk in, but it subsides quickly enough. I walk around and see what there is, what I can make from a particular situation. I often use a telephoto lens and just scan the area to see what I can see."

The photos Martson takes are used for catalogs, fund-raising, and other promotional efforts. The pictures you see here are from various assignments; all were included in a themed calendar (friendship was the subject) published by a communications and design company.
As you might expect, Martson shoots with 35mm equipment--he'll show up with several bodies, and lenses from a 20mm wide to an 80-200mm zoom. Most everything is done by available light.

Listening to Martson talk about his technique of just letting things happen and shooting a lot--"my camera becomes part of their day, and I can go through 40 rolls in that day"--we realized another thing about effective candid portraits of children: in our experience the kids who are most comfortable with cameras are those whose parents do very little directing from behind the camera. If you let it happen, chances are it will. And that, too, is part of the definition of the stealth portrait.

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