6 Decades in Photography: A Journey Through Portraiture as a Profession and Art

February 1, 2010

By Laura Brauer

Japanese Granny and Baby – 1948
My great interest in photography began in 1947. l was a private in the occupation forces in Beppu, Japan, and had recently bought a 35mm camera to record my Army experiences. Walking around Beppu with my new camera, l was surprised by the instant acceptance the Japanese children and some of the adults would give me, by just smiling at them and making them feel that they were important by wanting to take their picture. When I took this portrait I had just read a book on basic photography with a section on composition featuring framing. I encountered my subjects with the doorframe behind them, pointed at my camera and smiled, gesturing that l wanted to take her picture. I shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film at ISO 25 with my new 35mm Clarus camera and Wollensack lens set to 1/60 at f/2.8.

ln 1950, a year after my service in the Army ended, I opened a studio. My first clients were two high schools, weekend weddings and promotional baby pictures in department stores. Candid pictures were made with a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic and flash bulbs. Twelve candids in a paper album cost $35. The lights were tungsten with parabolic reflectors and spotlight. Near the end of the 1950s, tungsten lights were being replaced by studio strobes.

Most of my work was still black-and-white at this time, but color portraits mounted on canvas became my top-grade portrait in the mid-1960s. 

George Whitehurst, lnterior Designer – 1958
George, a friend, spent one morning posing for me. He brought his Turkish coffee table and we mounted it on the wall behind him. I used an 8 x 10 Kodak studio camera with a 14-inch Kodak Ektar lens and shot at ISO 125 on Kodak Super Pancro-Press, Type B film.

This portrait was inspired by the work of Yousuf Karsh, the photographer whose style influenced me most. His portraits of most of the important people of the last half of the 20th century are unsurpassed. Most of the ideas for my work, however, came from the great portrait painters. The most important for me was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which flourished in England in the 19th century. Rossetti’s paintings introduced me to the wide-angle look; instead of the subject filling the frame with a plain background, I included space around and behind them to tell a story about who they were.

The Late Sixties and Seventies
By the late 60s, I was still doing some black-and-white portraits, but most of my work was color, using Hasselblad and the new Mamiya RB67 with 120 roll film. The color film needed for top quality work was still 4 x 5.

After 18 years of very hard work, I had grown to 22 high schools (taking individual portraits of graduating seniors). The income from the high school business enabled me to concentrate on making portrait photography an art form that would attract more affluent clients.

Mark Spencer – 1970
I happened to see Mark (who is now in his 50s) on his dad’s fishing boat on a late afternoon when I was roaming around looking for pictorials. He posed for me and I made one of the finest handheld portraits I have ever made of a young person.

Color Portraits Become Dominant
As digital cameras first appeared I continued to explore the effects of graphic design that I had admired in books of the great portrait painters.

Model – 1978
Photographed at the Winona School of Photography, the arms of my four students were used as a frame for the model’s face. The main strobe with a snoot was directed on her face at a 45-degree angle to her left, two strobes with barn doors were positioned behind her at 135 degrees, and a weak umbrella fill light was behind the camera. This was shot with a Mamiya RZ67 with a Mamiya-Sekor 140mm lens on Kodak Vericolor ISO 160 film.

Renada Keep, Artist – 1978
The idea for the portrait came from a Thomas Eakins painting of William Rush carving a sculpture of a nude model in his studio (1877). Nine strobes were used for lighting. The skim light was on a 9-foot stand 135 degrees to the model’s left ear to separate him from the background. The main light on the model was placed on a 12-foot boom stand right over the model to give him the sculptured lighting on his body. A third light was 90 degrees to the right of Renada to light her profile. A 31-inch white umbrella was placed behind the camera as a fill light. The background was lit with two strobes, one on each side just outside the picture area, to cover its 21-foot width. The statues and the table with paints and brushes in the background between the subjects were lit with two strobes with barn doors, hidden behind the model. The last strobe was behind the model, lighting the books in the lower right-hand corner. This was shot with a Mamiya RZ67 with a Mamiya-Sekor 65mm lends on Kodak Vericolor ISO 160 film.

Jenny Wong Slaughter and Her Children – 1988
The portrait was made at dawn’s early light. I told my subjects that when the raging surf in the background was at its peak, I would jump on the count of three and we were all to laugh. It worked and we got a great expression. This shot was taken with a Mamiya RZ67 with a Mamiya-Sekor 110mm lends on Fuji NHG 400 film. The lighting was done with a Lumedyne strobe with a bare bulb set for f/6.3 and with natural light from the sunrise captured at 1/60 at f/5.6

Amery Thurman – 1988
I photographed Amery on the beach with her brother when she had worn this dress and hat with a pink ribbon. I got the idea of photographing her as “Pinkie,” the famous painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence of Sarah Barrett Moulton. I bought the pink cloth to match the ribbon and the pink in her dress and made an appointment with her mother to photograph her at sunset on a beautiful October day.

This was the time when the mass volume studios began to use advanced makeup and hairstyling for glamour portraits. Digital cameras and Photoshop artwork were making their first significant inroads into the portrait market, but film still gave a better quality portrait. I concentrated on spending more time with each subject and making a portrait to take the place of a painting.

Indian Chief, Beautiful Painted Arrow – 1990
Painted Arrow is a Shaman to his tribe and also a popular national lecturer on the spiritual life of Indians. Painted Arrow hired me to make his portrait for a poster to be used for his lectures. I first photographed Painted Arrow at sunrise with his sacred eagle feather pointed toward the sun. The color was not bright enough for me, so I recommended using it in the background and making a detailed and very colorful studio portrait. I had an artist friend paint the sunrise image in white on 9-foot black background paper.

Lou Duva – 1995
Lou is a promoter/manager with Main Events, which represents world-class boxers. I met Lou at a TV talk show program and offered to photograph him with a boxer whom he was training for the championship. We met at his gym of choice and I set up the pose and lights. I had his boxer assume the same pose as the poster on the wall behind him.

Today, digital photography has become prevalent and is about 90% of all photography. When I bought my first digital camera I began to use it for all but my most important portraits. I still use film for my large canvas portraits, however.

Opera Portrait
Continuing my cultural portraits, Erin Windle and Rod Nelman were the principals in a 2001 production of Don Pasquale. I began photographing the opera about 20 years ago. The Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, VA, has over 20 framed portraits, 24 x 30-inch canvas, of the opera principals on permanent exhibit. It helped establish my portraits as an art form, to compete with paintings. 

Lieutenant Tracey Yeager – 2006
Tracey was photographed for an exhibit titled “Women in the Workplace,” which included women in the Norfolk, VA-metropolitan area. I met Tracey at the helicopter section of the Navy Air Station about an hour before sunset. I selected a perfect site between two helicopters, and we waited for the sun. Just as the sun lit the helicopter and Tracey at a 90-degree angle to the left of the camera I filled in the shadow side of her face with a weak Lumedyne strobe and made 20 quick exposures, changing the pose a little and bracketing the exposure to get the right balance with the sun. The camera was a Mamiya RZ67 with a 65mm Mamiya-Sekor lens using Fuji Pro H 400 film.

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, 
Royal Navy – 2009
I photographed Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope when he was the NATO Supreme Allied Commander, headquartered in Norfolk, VA. I have been photographing the Supreme Allied Commanders for the Navy league since 1988. I learned that Admiral Sir Mark would be promoted when he returned to Portsmouth, England, and I volunteered that I would be pleased to photograph him on my next trip there.

It was a very flat, foggy morning. We met at the beautifully restored Lord Nelson’s battleship Victory, launched in 1759. I photographed the stern of the Victory from a cherry picker to get the best angle. Exposure was 1/60 at f/8. I then posed Admiral Sir Mark at ground level with his hand resting on a capstan. He was lit by a Lumedyne battery strobe with an umbrella set for f/11. The combination of the strobe to ambient light gave a lighting ratio of about 3:1 to give his face more modeling. Image was made with a Fuji Finepix S5 Pro and 24–70mm lens set at ISO 400 and f/11. The admiral’s image was placed in the best position to show the Victory as a background using digital editing.