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Eye Know Elite Portraiture

As photographers worldwide have been locked up and starved of income, it’s worth rethinking how you make money from photography. While there are many incredibly talented individuals, not all earn the astronomical sums that rare talent makes possible. Some photographers make more than others. A lot more.

Annie Leibovitz has an estimated net worth of twenty million dollars. Richard Avedon is allegedly now worth seventeen million dollars and Kevin Abosch, famous for selling a simple picture of a potato for a million euros, is described thus by Business Insider; ‘Kevin Abosch may have the best network of anyone in Silicon Valley… a simple portrait commission begins at $150,000 and can rise as high as $500,000 if commercial licensing comes into play… Abosch is at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, because that’s where all of his clients are.’

Their clients pay more because these elite photographers have a name. They have a name because they tend to do things differently. Richard Avedon changed photographic portraiture with a pure white background. Abosch changed it again with black. Brooklyn Beckham shot for Vogue, Burberry and published a best-selling family photobook at an age that most photographers were still just experimenting with manual mode. Naomi Campbell’s homebound iPhone selfies replaced professional portraiture for Essence magazine. Richard Prince, apparently worth thirty million dollars, can sell other people’s pictures for more than most photographers make in a year.

These styles have historical precedence. There is nothing new under the sun… or studio lighting. How can our subject, styling and posing allow our photography to stand out from the billions of images made each year so that we can meet the next global crisis richer and better connected?

Sometimes it’s not who you know, but what you know. We can all immediately recognise the tired posing techniques of a portrait studio’s standard repertoire. Ideally, we’d like our portraiture to be more exclusive. This article notes that elite portrait, fashion and commercial photographers tend to have their subjects cover one eye, suggests why, and advises you how to do the same.

Here are some famous people covering one eye, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Can you name all of them?

Of course, these people make their living by being seen by millions, so they are likely to have been posed in almost every conceivable way. But we can see that a ‘one-eye’ trend exists. Why might this be?

Technically, using a shallow depth of field requires that both eyes be in the same plane or one will be out of focus. Photographers who choose to focus and recompose almost invariably focus on the closest eye; if it’s sharp, viewers tend to ignore a degree of unsharpness with the other. But if the other eye is too blurry, why include it? Focussing on a single eye and somehow obscuring the other is a valid technique.

A single focal point in a picture often creates a stronger composition. Including both eyes could conceivably divide attention between them. Covering a subject’s eye forces the viewer to focus on the remaining one, potentially strengthening the emotional impact of the picture. Because it’s less commonly seen in amateur portraiture, it can help de-familiarise the sitter’s image, with which the general public are often well acquainted to the point of ennui.

Both reasons speak to the craft of photography. But what of the art? Symbolism matters, and posing has a strong tradition of speaking when mouths are silent. For example, freemasons are famous for hiding one hand to symbolise the ‘hidden hand’, or using footwork to indicate their rank and status within the club.

Likewise, the eye has a glaringly iconic cross-cultural significance. Here are the hamsa and nazar, which the superstitious believe guard against the ‘evil eye’;

The eye also has religious significance. See here the Eye of Providence;

And of course at a time when the US dollar is multiplying like bacteria in a dog bowl, we should pay special attention to the eye featured atop an un-fininished pyramid;

Why eye man?

Delving further back into history we find the Eye of Horus, borne by Osiris to defeat Set and create order out of chaos. Symbolic of the pineal gland, long thought to be the seat of the soul and mystical experience, it’s a symbol with which many millions are familiar;

So are our own bards and players appropriating this ancient one-eye symbol to pique the interest of their own global audiences? Quite possibly. It marks them out as a cultured club, an aspirational elite for the consuming masses wishing to merrily mimic their idols. Since many of them are your clients, you can be paid to give them what they want; a slice of that one-eye infamy.

How can you get in on this seemingly lucrative trend? Let’s consider our aim to be the inclusion of a one-eye symbol to indicate awareness and support for this cool fashion. Here are some standard approaches that you can try.

The easiest way to get involved is to just photograph your subject in profile or crop the image.

It’s also simple enough to cover an eye. You can do this subtly with a lock of hair. It needn’t be fully covered; just focus the viewer’s attention to a single eye.

You can ramp up the tension with a cheeky wink.

As a photographer, it’s natural to offer your subject some guidance for posing. Maybe recommend they cover an eye with a strategically placed hand or forearm;

While briefs are often quite specific for high-profile subjects, you often have a degree of control over the final image anyway. High contrast lighting allows us to expose for the highlights and focus attention. Keep a hint of a Rembrandt highlight to keep it subtle or use split lighting to banish a superfluous eye into an inky black oblivion;

Some subjects are fully in-the-know with this fashionable posing technique. You won’t even have to train them; someone’s already done it for you. Just let them do the thing and snap away;

Attention is one of the most valuable commodities in the information age. Some hand gestures are almost sure to grab additional media attention and may even go viral, giving a valuable PR boost. Here are some to suggest to your clients;

Maybe you or your subject are up for playing with a few props? Note how artfully these photographers have used them to jazz up their portraiture;

This might still be too subtle for some to notice. How about using face paint or fashion styling to underline that the one-eye theme is what you’re selling?

Embarrassed to ask your subject to pose like this or submit themselves to the MUA’s more creative talents? You can try outright retouching;

What if your subject is uninitiated to the cool kids’ one-eye trend? Sometimes the art director or their agent will tell them what to do. If not, you can teach them the techniques and help them get involved;

Why not incorporate some graphic design? Maybe you can even draw more attention to one eye so you can include the other. Anything to freshen up this well established elite trend;

In the time of Covid19, remember to play safe;

You may think this has been done to death and is now too predictable. Do you or your client want to try something a bit more edgy? No worries, you can riff on the black-eye theme;

As you know, great portrait, celebrity and fashion photography needs a team with a vision to create something really striking and snatch maximum attention. As we’ve seen, these brave celebs are marketing themselves and generating buzz even when they’re not officially ‘at work’. Are they playing, is it real? That’s the fun game you as a photographer can help them play with their die-hard fans who’ll click themselves silly and share share share! After all, what’s the point of a pantomime if the audience aren’t involved?

All these valid approaches allow you and your clients to cash in and enjoy the age-old one-eye theme that’s as popular now as it has been throughout the ages. Did you recognise anyone you know? From an iPhone selfie to a beautifully lit studio shoot, from elite fashion ‘togs to shout & shoot pap’s, you can be sure you’re in high company when you try this eye-conic posing technique.

Keep an ‘eye’ out for examples of this trend in the wild, tag them #eyeseeyou, and I look forward to seeing your own examples in the comments!

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