Takin' It To The Streets
Mark Bolster's Portrait Challenge

Photos © 1998, Mark Bolster, All Rights Reserved

Among the things that people fear, psychologists tell us that giving a speech is number one, coming even before death or taxes or the appointment of a special prosecutor. But ask amateur photographers about their fears, and we'd bet a lot of them would list photographing people as a chief source of dread.

Most professional photographers who photograph people point their cameras at either professional models--folks who are paid to have cameras pointed at them and to look good in the process--or at willing subjects in commercial and industrial situations--you know, the president of the corporation or the gang on the production line at the plant. But every once in a while a pro may have to work with non-professionals, with strangers, perhaps out on the street, perhaps to produce portraits under pressure.

Mark Bolster's assignment--to take the photographs for Little Earth Productions' catalog--took him from his home base of Pittsburgh to Miami Beach, Florida, specifically to the streets of the bustling art deco area known as South Beach. With no budget for models, the plan was to find people on the street and photograph them carrying and using the company's bags, wallets, backpacks, and other gear.

Near the end of the project came an inspiration: showcase the company's line of belts in a series of portraits. The sell line was "belts are for everybody," so, the company's owners reasoned, let's show everybody wearing our belts.

"South Beach was perfect for the kind of customers the company wanted to attract," says Bolster, whose photographic specialties are corporate annual reports, people, and lifestyles. "There are a lot of young people there, and it's an ethically diverse area."

For the idea to work, Bolster had to achieve real portraits--pictures that captured personality, vitality, people with attitude. And the people had to be found right there on the street; then approached, convinced, fitted with a belt, and photographed.

The two owners of the company did the talking to get the folks interested. Once the volunteer models were in front of the camera, it was up to Bolster to relax them and give them an idea of what he was aiming for. "I shoot people, that's my specialty," he says, "and I'm really comfortable talking with people and doing whatever I need to do to get them as relaxed as possible. For me, what works best is to pretty much talk nonstop while I'm shooting, to keep people informed about exactly what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

"I try to take as much of the mystery out of it as I possibly can--mystery tends to evoke fear, so I told them what we were trying to do, what the assignment was.

"These are people who were just walking down the street and suddenly someone came up to them and said, `We'd like to take your picture and put it in a catalog.' Most people tend to be tense, even if they want to do it. The first thing to do is explain the process and why they were picked. I'd tell them all the details, answer the questions before they asked them."

Bolster positioned each participant near a wall, allowing a certain amount of movement, but pretty much restricting them to the area of the background he wanted. "They might do something, and I might correct it gently, saying, `Maybe it would be better if you did this,' or, `If you held your head this way or did this with your hands, that would be good.' Just basic direction."

Even with professional models, Bolster likes to direct. "The theory is that the better the model is, the less you have to direct, but I like to direct a lot because I think it helps the models. If they're not getting any kind of feedback, they don't know the direction you want to go. I spend a lot of time when I'm shooting talking to the models; that's one of the parts of the job that I enjoy. I'm constantly chatting--it helps relax the people, and I think it helps relax me, too--and if people see that you're relaxed behind the camera they immediately relax and you can get what you want."

Bolster kept things simple: open shade and natural light; a few incident meter readings; one camera--a tripod-mounted Pentax 6x7 with a 165mm lens --and one film, Veri-chrome Pan--"I hope Kodak never quits making it; great grain, and I like what it does for skin tones."

As it turned out, his chief concern wasn't the people, it was the film. There wasn't enough of it. "The portrait idea was kind of an afterthought," Bolster says. "All the other shooting of street scene situations had been done, and then we thought of doing the belts this way. I was running very low on film when we started that part of it. We were shooting on Sunday, so no camera stores were open." To conserve film, Bolster shot only about a half dozen frames per person. "I did portraits of maybe 12 to 15 people, all in about two hours." In a situation no photographer wants to be in--things going well, film running low--Bolster found himself "working a bit like the old time photographers with their view cameras--at a slower pace, being sure of each shot rather than making a motor-drive run through my film."

For the section of the catalog showing the company's belts, nine of Bolster's portraits were used, all the same size on a full page.

Even though people are his business, Bolster admits that "it's the person on the street that's the challenge, even to a pro. It takes a lot of time to get to the point where you can do that kind of work.

"I'm not really an outgoing person, I'm actually kind of shy. But there's something about getting behind a camera that changes my personality. I really feel I'm just about invincible behind the camera, and I'm not afraid to ask anybody to do anything. I'm especially not afraid to make myself look silly if I feel that's going to help me get a better photograph."

Often when he's working with people he doesn't know, and especially with amateurs as in the South Beach photographs, Bolster will show them some of his work. "I carried some printed promo pieces in my camera bag, just to be able to show them things I'd done. People see these kinds of pictures in magazines all the time, so they can immediately relate to what I do. In the times we live in, you have to show you're not some weirdo with a camera."

Bolster has strong feelings about taking pictures of people. He feels that a big mistake that a lot of photographers make is that they tend not to treat their subjects or models as partners in the process. "Especially models, because photographers figure, oh, models are getting paid, they should be posing for me, doing whatever I ask them to do.

"Whenever you take somebody's picture you're taking a part of them. Taking a picture means you are taking; whoever you're photographing is giving you something. You have to be appreciative of that and sensitive to what their thoughts and needs are. Is what you're doing going to bring them good memories or bad? Be in tune to that. You can't just take someone's picture--they have to give it to you."

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