What Portraiture Reveals
by Sharon Eva Grainger
The faces of the world fascinate to me, from small town municipal workers installing a light pole to a 12-year-old in a porkpie hat all dressed in black walking home from school to an elder standing proudly inside his people’s Big House, allowing me to make a portrait of him. When I first begin the process of a portrait, I see it all complete in my mind’s eye. I then take that mental photograph and, using its tone and structure, create a portrait that combines my mental image with the person I see in front of me.
Ideally, portraiture reveals things about both my subject and my art.
During the process of photographing Stan Hunt, our conversations were delightful. I had seen him many times in the role of ceremonial or floor attendant in the Big House of Alert Bay, British Columbia. During those celebrations, Stan walked the Big House floor, monitoring behavior. He was a guardian on the floor during certain ceremonial dances and for many years a known presence in the Big House celebrations. I approached him about a portrait. Because I knew his role was very important during events at the Big House, it seemed like the best location for our shoot. I felt his portrait for our Elders project needed to be taken in a special place that honored him personally and would speak to his part in the resilience of the potlatch society among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia. I asked him what did he want to wear for the portrait? How did he want to pose for the camera? Did he have any ideas on where he would stand in the Big House? He responded to me in a strong affirmative.
He would bring his regalia and would show me how he saw his image being made from his point of view.
The next hurdle was actually dealing with the Big House. It is a beautiful building with an interior dance area measuring 96 X 80 feet and nearly two stories tall. Outside light filters through the front door. A central fire circle on the floor is beneath a large smoke-hole in the roof that draws out smoke from the fire and allows a small amount of light into the House. There are banks of lights along both sides of the ceiling whose sides slant away from the center of the building. Four exquisitely carved, massive vertical house posts dominate the interior. In-between the house posts are two huge horizontal carved figures. There are no windows. The lighting is intentionally dim and mysterious and adds to the celebrations that take place in this magical arena. As a photographer, the challenge was to incorporate the personality of the Big House into my image.
Stan shared with me his memory of his grandfather, whose photograph had been taken in a similar setting one hundred years earlier.
He explained how he wanted to have his image taken and we began.
Positioning spotlights thirty feet away and angled slightly upward, I could cast light on Stan and the carved house post he stood next to.
The background remained dark, a place of stories.
I wanted Stan’s expressive hands to play a role in the image so I asked him keep his hands in front of himself, holding onto his regalia.
The hands of the carved bear in the house post and Stan’s hands help create a circle.
The man, his family, heritage, cultural ties and the carved figure all circle around each other.
Each is speaking about the other,
creating an image using light and shadow
to tell the story of Stan Hunt,
capturing a moment
he and I shared in
the Big House of Alert Bay.