‘The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.’ ~ Dorothea Lange, American photojournalist
Brazillian photographer Alécio de Andrade spent 39 years photographing visitors in the Louvre. He took 12,000 shots, each of them filled with the drama and emotion of how people of all ages and backgrounds reacted to the masterpieces of art.
Thousands of Alecio’s photos were accepted to the Magnum Collection — one of the most prestigious photo banks of the world. The secret of his success was not in a camera model he was using, but in philosophy that he applied to each shot he had taken.
Alécio passed away in 2003, so he did not witness the coming age of Instagram and phone cameras that can fit in your pocket. But his philosophy can help modern aspiring photographers to make their work exceptional by applying five elements of Alécio technique.
1. Focus on Story.
‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling.’ ~ Don McCullin, British photojournalist
The halls of art galleries are bustling with drama of interaction between the visitors and the masterpieces. Visitors may discover, fall in love, or simply ignore the masterpiece that is hanging right in front of them. In each of these cases we witness a drama. The drama of someone simply ignoring the beauty in front of them, or conversely — being transformed by the subtle symbolism hidden in the complexity of a masterpiece.
Above, the black & white photo by Kazuo Ota helps us see more clearly those little interplays of personal discovery.
We can see in rear of the photo, two people standing and looking at the enormous painting in front of them. The drama is in the contrast — one man admires it with full attention, whilst the other simply takes a photo of it.
We also see people, who pay no attention to their surroundings. The person who sits facing us is browsing her phone and looks at the other visitor who is sitting next to her.
2. Who is in Control?
The action doesn’t always have to belong to visitors, it can also belong to paintings. In this technique, which was used by Alécio, we can see how visitors and paintings may switch roles between each other.
In this case, Van Gogh’s portrait in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam takes the leading role and he looks at the visitors as if they are unwelcome guests who have arrived at his house.
On this photo by Vince Duque, taken in Louvre, it’s the woman called La Odalisque depicted in the painting who takes the main role. She peeks from her shoulder, as if looking at the visitor while she is distracted.
Every authentic emotion makes a photograph unforgettable. The emotion doesn’t have to be necessarily strong to be noticeable.
The man on the left, who admires the painting in solitude is still expressive and captivating, in the same way as the photo of the man in the middle who is tilting his body while looking at the J.L. David’s painting of the French revolutionary — Marat.
Of course, sudden and expressive actions will make your photographs more dynamic, as in the photo on the right. But I prefer, personally, the first two because they’re more subtle, intimate and show me the different ways how we can admire art.
4. Magic of Proportion
The proportion can display to the viewer the grandeur and majesty of art. In this example, we can feel how large and magnificent are the statues in contrast to a human. We can imagine how much time and effort it took from a painter or a sculptor to accomplish their masterpiece.
The desired effect of these photographs is to transport us to the museum and to help us feel what it would be like to stand in front of a giant statue or painting.
The woman, in the photo in the middle, is perhaps sketching the shape of the statue. She is sitting on a chair, which makes statue bigger, more powerful and makes the drama even more emotional.
Proportion is a powerful tool and can create a story out of ordinary circumstances. After all, what’s the purpose of photography if not catching the spontaneous moments which might never repeat again?
5. Drama of Uniqueness.
Finding an individual among the crowd is hard, because it requires a combination of all previous four elements in one single picture. And no wonder why this photo by Antonio Molinari is one of the most trending photos in ‘gallery’ category on Unsplash.
The bright colours of monk’s clothes are in contrast with the drab, grey visitors surrounding him thus capturing a momentary juxtaposition of cultures. A clash of culture and colour draws us in to the dialogue of two civilisations.
But never forget…
Alecio de Andrade’s photographs changed the philosophy of how photographs are taken. But all the five points mentioned above fall apart if they fail to be spontaneous.
‘There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.’
These are the words of a legendary Swiss photographer Robert Frank. I am certain that all great photographers keep this idea in their work.