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What Portrait Photography Can Teach Us About Characterisation…

I enjoy spending time in galleries and, whether it is a collection of paintings, sculptures or photography, I can while away a few hours looking at art. Photography stimulates ideas and sparks my creativity perhaps more than any other art form. I used to spend a lot of time at the Portrait Gallery in London and Vienna has an equally impressive collection of galleries. I was thankful to find that the World Press Photo Awards made a stop here each year, so I haven’t missed out!

I particularly like the work of David Bailey, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz. This week I discovered a portrait photographer who was new to me: Michel Comte. Based in Zurich, Comte is a trained art restorer whose first photography contract was with Karl Lagerfeld. He has worked for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Armani, Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz, to name a few, and has photographed Miles Davis, Jeremy Irons, Mike Tyson and Michael Schumacher, with whom he became good friends.

He is one of the few professional photographers I know to have photographed both for international advertising companies and for documentaries covering war zones. Comte has increasingly moved towards a more reportage and documentary style of photography, and has travelled to unstable areas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan and Cambodia. If you are interested in his work, the video below shares some of his thoughts on what makes a good photograph.

So, what does this have to do with writing, I hear you thinking? Comte got me thinking about the idea of how much of a person’s soul and character can be captured in a split second, and how so much of what you – the viewer – see forms an impression of who they are as a person. Very quickly you form a judgement from the eyes, the body language, the clothing, the expression and the feel of the picture. This is what Comte says, ‘the person projects.’

As a writer we have the exciting and difficult job of ‘capturing’ each character almost as a snapshot, and portraying who they are through their movements, body language and expressions. Writers have the advantage of using dialogue, actions and the responses of other characters, but the essence of character description comes down to much of what is captured in a moment with a lens. Comte talks about Catherine Deneuve, and the way that a normally confident woman shows a moment of unusual vulnerability in the his photographs. These are the moments which, as a writer, need to be drawn out and put down on the page.

Have a look at the video, if you haven’t already, and think about what strikes you from each image. Think about how you would describe the person and why. Ask yourself what it is about one person that stands out and makes them unique or memorable. It might be a look of vulnerability or mystery, it could be the stance or the eye contact. Sometimes what people wear or how they stand and move, dictates your response to them as a person.

What do you think about character description? How has art or other media inspired your work?


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How Art Can Save Your Soul

I have often wondered what it is about certain books that resonates with the reader. There are certain books that, no matter how much time passes, still hold a place in your mind – books that stand out as sharing something powerful, books that heal, books that tap into a fear or a passion. What is it that makes some of the books we read stay with us?

And so it is with art, music, and many other forms of creativity.

I came across this fantastic article and talk at brainpickings.com, and if you haven’t read, it I would highly recommend a look. The brain child of Maria Popova, who has written for Wired UK, The New York Times, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Atlantic, among others, the site delves into art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, anthropology, and more. It never fails to come up with interesting and creative articles. This one is too good to miss. In the video below, British philosopher Alain de Botton expresses a need to understand Art and its psychological impact on our lives. 

He focuses on the the seven psychological functions of art, all of which I think can be applied to books and reading:

1. REMEMBERING

Since both memory and art are as much about what is being left out as about what is being spotlighted, de Botton argues that art offers an antidote to this unease. With the written word, much of its power also lies in what is not said, what is left to the reader to fill in and imbue.

2. HOPE

Both art and the written word present a form of hope, however dark or ‘pretty’, they inspire and give us a form of hope that can become lost in everyday life. “Cheerfulness,” de Botton tells us, “is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate. If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success.

3. SORROW

Sorrow in art and in books reminds us of the legitimate place for negative emotions and for sorrow in life. It helps to process pain and to feel less alone in our suffering, when times are hard.

4. REBALANCING

Art can help us to balance our psychological states, relationships and working routines. “We might, for example, tend to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions,” according to de Botton. We are sometimes drawn to books that differ greatly from our lives, and the knowledge or emotion we gain from reading a particular work can fill in a gap in our knowledge or feelings about life. A work of art or a book can portray a virtue we are missing and restore a form of balance to our lives.

5. SELF-UNDERSTANDING

Much of what is mere intuition in our lives can be opened up to us through a painting or a story, as they delve into the depths of the soul. De Botton proposes that, “from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before. Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression: ‘what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ ”

6. GROWTH

Many forms of art widen our horizons. Paintings and books both take us to places we my otherwise never venture into, helping us to grow and develop. I can think of several books that have taught me much about the heart of human emotion and of situations which I have never encountered. The writer can take you into the mind of a person experiencing something you haven’t met in your own life and a painting or a photograph, in turn can help us to connect and to grow.

7. APPRECIATION

In the busyness of our lives, we so often miss the small details, the expressions on a child’s face, the light catching a new bud, a word unspoken, a colour, a scent, a sound. We rush through our lives and often fail to appreciate what we see. The artist and the writer can draw us into a specific scene and dissect life in a way that we may miss.

If you are interested in finding out more about Alain de Botton, you can find him on the website and on twitter. His new book, Art as Therapy, is one of the best art books of 2013. He founded the lecture series The School of Lifeartastherapy (1)