Corporate Portraits & Therapy

*(All photos are unretouched negatives from a recent shoot).


What’s the difference between corporate portraits and a therapy session?

It’s a lot less than I thought.

For both situations, you get a lot less time than you need, both aren’t covered by health insurance, and both a psychiatrist and a photographer will nod their heads approvingly, pretending they’re not judging you.

Corporate Portrait Photography

I’ve mentioned before that my parents were/are psychiatrists. I always said I’d never be one, not that I would have been accepted to or survived medical school, but the similarities are scary in retrospect (and in many broad ways with therapy and photography in general).

Analyze that mother (she reads all of these).

In the previous column, I forgot (or my subconscious blocked) the most random use of that Chrysler image, which is on the cover of my mother’s recent book, Catalysis: A Recipe to Slow Down or Abort Humankind’s Leap to War.

I had a strange childhood.

I often use the joke about who is disliked more, the dentist or the portrait photographer. And walking into a law firm and taking stressed lawyers out of their busy days, to take natural and pleasant pictures, is one of the most awkward things imaginable.

Corporate Portrait Photography

Business portraits are like a speed-chess version of therapy. How can I get a junior partner at a corporate law firm, who has never in their life enjoyed a photograph of themselves, to open up in 15 minutes? What do I wear, what do I say? How do I relax them while simultaneously stopping their head from receding into their neck like a turtle, creating a ring of neck fat even on the skinniest of people. It’s a puzzle.

The holy grail comment of business portraits is, ‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad!’ If they say that, the pictures turned out well.

Corporate Portrait Photography

A few weeks ago, I worked two days with an architecture firm, 23 portraits, some candid office photos, and a few group shots; a marathon of trying to turn awkward moments comfortable.

I used simple and easy lighting, single lighting for the portraits with an umbrella or small softbox. And two umbrellas for the group shots. I use speed lights on stands with battery packs instead of strobes because they’re so much easier to carry around and use throughout small offices.

And what an office this one was. A perk of the job is peeking into interesting spaces and worlds. And for lighting skin, this space was beyond perfect. All I’ve done to these negatives is throw them into ImagenAI and flipped them to B&W (except for fixing one face in the group shot). I still need to do some light retouching and tweaking to the selects.

Business Photography

Nearly every surface in the office was white and the lighting was even and beautiful to help the architects see their work. There were big windows. It was as beautiful lighting as any office I’d ever photographed in. That’s one of the reasons I’m sharing these as negatives, as often offices have terrible lighting. But this piece is about awkwardness, not about lighting.

One after the other, after the other, in a crowded office, is a physical and mental grind. Embracing awkwardness, joking about it, and turning it on its head, is key.

Corporate Portrait Photography

For these situations, it’s important to educate right away. And the most important direction is to talk to people about their hands. Comfort in portraits comes from the hands. If your hands are comfortable, if your arms are comfortable, then you’ll look comfortable.

Most stiff people just have no idea what to do with their awkward, dangling hands, so they keep them at their sides, stiff. They’ve just never been told what to do. Then the rest of their body follows suit, rigid like a board. Their face follows, they don’t move, frozen in fear. Neck like a turtle.

Instead, collaborate on a few ways they can stand, hands in front, maybe hands or a hand in the pocket, 15% of people look good with arms crossed, hands on a table or object. I sometimes ask them to imagine I wasn’t there, how would they comfortably stand if I was just a colleague?

Corporate Portrait Photography

I try to make the time fun-ish. I ask them questions, about their job, and where they live, pausing to reposition them and pausing to take a few photographs; focusing them on the conversation more than the camera, embracing the weirdness of the situation, joking about it.

I’m not a large format photographer, but I sometimes envy how the difficulty of setting up a large format portrait gives the subject time to sit there waiting. They let their guard down. You can see it clearly in the quality that Alec Soth’s subjects have.

In a similar spirit, I often pretend that I’m pausing to look at the photographs to create a break so people let their guard down. But really I’m just distracting them from the session, watching them for the right moment. Sometimes when we take these pauses, people stand in a new comfortable way, they let their guard down, and I tell them they look perfect just like that and to hold it.

Corporate Portrait Photography


Corporate Portrait Photography

I don’t know who first came up with these two popular statements, but capturing portraits is like walking a tightrope, and we are seeking the moments in between the moments. That’s where the magic is.

But have you ever took a step back from yourself to bask in the awkwardness of these moments? If you’re going to photograph people in any way, you have to learn to love that awkwardness, that tension, that weirdness. If you don’t embrace and enjoy the awkwardness, it can consume you.

Corporate Portrait Photography

It almost feels like hovering outside your body, where you separate from the idea of enjoying a moment in a physical sense, and instead focus on appreciating what’s happening.

It’s a difficult form of enjoyment, but rewarding. Like having a mother who’s a psychiatrist.


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12 thoughts on “Corporate Portraits & Therapy”

  1. Raymond Paradis

    Greetings, James!

    I have been enjoying Glass City–your insights and sense of humor–and have just now started supporting your efforts on a monthly basis. I hope that you and your famiily have been well.

    Best wishes,

  2. Wonderful essay (and photos) James. In years past, I have struggled with taking compelling or interesting photos of people in an office. Having conversations with them, and breaking down their anxiety, as you noted, always helps them drop their guard a bit and gives us more of a glimpse into their personalities.

    I also think it’s great that your mom reads all of your stuff!

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