The Photographic Portrait

The Herald

The Photographic Portrait: Techniques, Strategies and Thoughts on Making Portraits with Meaning.
by Robin Gillanders
David and Charles ISBN 0 7153 1651-6

Michael Russell

As photography came within the reach of an ever widening circle of amateur enthusiasts, so the popular instructional literature of the subject grew. Today when taking pictures is a near universal hobby , at least in the developed world, there are a huge range of magazines and books designed to help even the casual snapper. Digital photography, with instant access to results , the ability to print them at will and the opportunity that e-mail and the internet gives to share them has accelerated this phenomenon.

David and Charles already publish a number of very useful books on photographic techniques and Robin Gillanders is the ideal practitioner to add to their list, for he is widely recognised as Scotland’s finest portrait photographer and has a growing international reputation.

Gillanders' decision to illustrate the book, and his ideas, with only his own photographs might have seemed a touch arrogant, were it not for the fact that his inventiveness, his intelligence and his humanity shine through all his images, and in so doing reveal a huge amount not just about his chosen art form, but also about himself. That is the making of this remarkable and remarkably moving volume.

In fact, by using his own pictures Gillanders is uniquely able to give both the necessary technical information and to explain his thinking. Marrying skills and ideas is the essence of good photography – in fact of all good art – and the many detailed examples given in the book should inspire and inform most aspiring photographers.

Yet this book is much more than a “how to” manual though it is certainly useful in that regard, with a wealth of well presented technical information. I had the good fortune to work with Robin at a very early stage in his career, when we mounted a joint exhibition on the Edinburgh Fringe to which he contributed twenty photographs and I contributed twenty poems. That collaboration taught me much, but I remember best his painstaking attention to detail and his passionate desire to capture the exact feeling of the words in a single image.

Good as he was then, almost thirty years on this book allows for an assessment of how he has subsequently developed into a great artist of the camera. A simple example will suffice. On facing pages he presents two portraits of Ginnie Atkinson, one taken in 1989 and one taken in 2003. Gillanders makes much of the need for portraiture of all types to enter into the personality of the sitter and it is the 2003 picture which does so most intensely. Gone is the artifice that slightly distances the viewer to be replaced by a mature directness of approach that has much more warmth and much more understanding.

Again and again it is Gillanders’ inventiveness that astounds, or rather his inventiveness in partnership with his extraordinary empathy and massive technical ability. I was slightly surprised that he did not choose to feature, in the section on group portraits, his famous image of the Scottish Parliament, taken on the first sitting day in 1999. But the group pictures he does use show his intelligence and his inspired eye, with the image of the Deans of the University of St Andrews, standing spread out on a beach in full academic rig ,being simultaneously humorous and imposing yet doing full justice to the subject.

Gillanders’ overall approach is more off-beat than revolutionary and it is revealing that it is only in his very personal work – his two self portraits and a couple of pictures of his partner , including one of their hands intertwined - that he attempts to break the conventional visual bounds. Perhaps those who commission him would regard such innovations as being a step too far, yet his “Self Portrait, Sheildaig 1991” in which he is a ghostly figure criss-crossed with lines of torchlight says much about him and the same approach would work well with others.

Gillanders writes well and at times with a strong emotional content. He knows, of course, that portraiture of the finest sort is not just about the subject; it is also about the person behind the camera or easel. The perception and expertise of the artist in this situation make him or her not an observer, but a catalyst. This is seen most clearly in the repeated pictures of Gillanders’ partner and her son, and these– particularly the final major set piece in the book, “Marjory and Roberto Wilson , 1993” – transcend even the very high standard of his other work with an emotional power that makes them leap into the eye, mind and heart.

I cannot think of another photographic book that has so absorbed me. Even if you have no desire to master the technical details, buy it for the pictures alone.
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