Photos of the Week

Environmental Portraiture: Creating a Sense of Place

April 7, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

As a documentary photographer, Tom Jenz has spent over 30 years wandering the rural back roads and urban streets of America

“Over that time, I’ve developed a style that aligns with environmental portraiture, one that I refer to as ‘sense of place,'” he says. “Here is how I work. Walking these thoroughfares, I’ve noticed that passing pedestrians rarely look at one another. Most folks seem suspicious of each other and even more suspicious of a man with a camera. But I try to use eye contact to make connections, a smile, a gesture, a hello. Then, through small talk, I attempt to make the connection that will bridge the divide and gain permission for a portrait.”

Jenz goes on to explain that when he composes an image, he rarely asks for an expression or a preferred pose. “I like the subjects to just be themselves.  However, I insist on the background, believing that a sense of place gives another dimension to a portrait and says something about the subject’s back story or personality. While I engage my subject in conversation, I am gazing around for a suitable background.” 

This approach can also work for wedding or event photography, Jenz adds, as you, the photographer, “try to achieve something unique to your vision.  Much like a film director, you are translating what you see in your imagination into visual stories that capture your subjects in their surroundings.”

Jenz points to this image he took of Virginia Murphy, age 82, as an example of the environmental portraiture style he prefers. “I captured her as she was feeding her goats. She limps around with a cane most times and so stooping down was a chore for her. Virginia now does all the work on the land because her husband, Bob, is disabled from years of doing it. She leases their 180 acres but still raises chickens and goats, and mothers a few stray cats. ‘It’s all I ever knew,’ she told me, ‘…farming.’”

(Photographed with a Nikon D300 camera and 18-200mm zoom lens at 52mm, f/9, ISO 200 and available light.)

An example of environmental portraiture by Tom Jenz.

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