Dawoud Bey’s class pictures aren’t the typical cookie cutter photos you take at school every year where you sit upright, your body turned at a slight angle, and your face turned to the camera. This series is very powerful because not only does it capture the essence of each student but the way expression, posture, lighting, and the background are used ties it all together. Using these elements, he tells a narrative from the perspective of the student.
Bey’s portrait style is very raw and natural. From his work, you can tell he likes to capture a subject in their natural environment. He gets to know his subject before capturing them on camera. For this class picture series, he had 45 minutes sessions with each student before he photographed him or her. Establishing a connection is important because then the subject is comfortable. In these class pictures, you can see each student is sitting down and are posing in ways that feel most natural and comfortable for them. In most of the photos, he used broad light in addition to the natural lighting in the room to add depth to their expressions and the way their arms were positioned. He uses depth of field and shoots each student very close up, filling in the frame. The subject is the predominant element but the background is very significant as well. In this case, the backgrounds add to each student’s story.
From looking at Bey’s work, how I might approach portrait photography is to establish a connection with the subject. With that connection, my subject is able to feel free. I want to be able to use light to help capture emotions and mood. More importantly, I want to be able to convey a story through my subject’s eyes in a picture.
Dawoud Bey photographed a number of high school students in a classroom for his series Class Pictures. He discusses how the work that went into to this photoshoot. Bey mentions that he only had 45 minutes to work with the students so he had to compose his ideas in a timely manner. There wasn’t much use of natural light in these portraits. He used studio lights to create his preferred lighting. Looking at the portraits, you can see that most of them used broad light. He had one light that lit the subject and another to fill and harsh shadows.
Bey also observed the student’s gestures and used that compose the photo. Bey mentioned that there was a lot of directing that went into this series. I believe he wanted to capture different moods with different students to show their individuality. He wanted to students to be comfortable while conducting the photoshoot. Before starting the photo shoot, he would have them write for a bit and then start. Bey paid attention to what the student was wearing to see what background was most appropriate. Based on what the student was wearing, Bey would look around him to see what items would compliment the student’s attire as well as the emotion that he wanted to capture. Bey mentioned that there was a lot of directing that went into this series. I believe he wanted to capture different moods with different students to show their individuality.
It seems like Bey had to be really decisive about each portrait while considering time. One thing that I took away from this is to look around you to see what can be used when composing a photoshoot. Bey decided to bring items that were out of the frame into the picture to compliment his subject. I learned that it is okay to move things around and do whatever you think is best to get the most successful portrait. Lighting is also very important because you can manipulate light to capture emotions.
Dawoud Bey photographed high school students in their schools for his series Class Pictures. In a new post, respond to this work (300 words min). Characterize Bey’s portrait style. How does he use expression, pose, framing, light, and foreground background relationships to create these sympathetic portraits of young people? What ideas did you get about how you might approach portrait photography from looking at this work?
View a selection of Class Pictures:
and the interview with Dawoud Bey about creating this work: