The smallest scale of movement and moment in people photography happens in the face. It’s interesting that we place a great deal of meaning in facial expression, especially in what we believe other people are thinking and feeling.
Some people can take an unreasonable amount of pride in their ability to judge people from their expression, and photography buys into this. How often have you heard the expression that the eyes are ‘the window to the soul?’ It sounds clever and thoughtful, but really? This basic idea, of capturing the inner self through some rare opening of the eyes into the soul, divides photographers who do this kind of thing. Can you, or can’t you? For those of us who are sceptical, it’s because if it were true, the police, criminologists, and security services would be out of a job. Many people are incredibly good at concealing their interior lives behind their expression. Photographers’ egos get in the way, due to pride in what you could call ‘perfect capture.’
Nevertheless, a constant passage of expressions crosses the face, like a weatherscape, and some are going to be more resonant than others. But resonant to whom? Certainly always to you, the photographer. Frankly, what counts in photographing a face is what you think you see through the camera. The choices are made on appearance, and whatever is going on in your subject’s mind, no viewer is ever going to know. They will see a moment that you chose, and be influenced by that choice. If there’s no caption to contradict the obvious, then the audience will believe the obvious. So, a smile communicates pleasure. Of course, a smile can conceal all kinds of sentiment, but photography deals in, if you’ll excuse the obvious expression, face values.
Expression is concentrated entirely in the face, and so calls for tighter framing than posture or gesture. In rare cases, lighting, composition, or sheer force of the expression can make it work in a longer shot, with the face taking up only a small part of the frame.
One of photography’s true greats, Henri Cartier-Bresson, nailed photography perfectly when he coined the phrase ‘the decisive moment’. No one has come up with a better description, but how do you capture it? This book beautiful new book, Capturing the Moment by Michael Freeman, presented in the style of the acclaimed Capturing Light, deals with the unique power of photography – and the specifically techniques required – to analyse a slice of life and capture it as the perfect still.