By Audrey Gottlieb, PRC Workshop Assistant
“A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound…” This quote by French poet Charles Baudelaire (1859) was one intricate thread of the conversation opened by Rania Matar in her recent two-day workshop at the PRC. Her eight (nine including myself) students had the good fortune to meet Rania and share a dialogue about photography that came straight from the heart.
Starting with a slide projection of famous and not so famous paintings, Rania introduced the class to subjects who posed for the great masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. She pointed out the importance of observing available light pouring in from a window, of learning to see shadow, skin tones, body language and mood. She interspersed photographs made by the late August Sander, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus, as well as those of contemporary photographers Tina Barney, Lydia Panas and David Hilliard. Between the first and second classes, Rania sent us emails listing the other 20 plus photographers’ works she had shown us, as well as a list of poignant quotations about portraits that she had used in her presentation. There had been a lot of material to cover in the vast territory of portraiture photography, so these suggestions to familiarize ourselves with additional images were welcome and useful. Rania provided piles of beautiful photo books to reinforce her teaching us how to see through different creative approaches.
The second class was devoted to looking at and critique-ing the “homework” assignments brought in by the students. Everyone contributed to this exercise. The critiques were gentle, constructive, interactive and expertly guided by Rania. We looked at photographs of children, families, couples, Alaskan fishermen and new Bostonian immigrants. Students talked about how and why they were motivated to follow the subjects they did. The old saying that puts forth “A picture is worth a thousand words” was supported by the fact that story-telling is vital to any personal project. There was a fabulous repartee and camaraderie among the group.
The icing on the cake was at the end of the workshop when Rania showed us her extensive portfolio of beautiful prints from past and current projects.
Rania’s rhetorical yet practical question – “What makes a good portrait?” – was answered time and again in so many ways over the course of our instruction, leaving the class begging for more and for a follow-up class next spring.