I’m excited to be able to bring you another interview today. Peter Mahar is a portrait/wedding photographer from the Portland, OR area. I first discovered Peter’s work on facebook and immediately became fascinated with one of his personal projects called the “Face Study”, a project focused on capturing the true personalities of individuals through genuine facial expressions. Peter talks about this and much more, so keep reading or click the link to listen to the entire interview.
Listen to the interview here.
GHS: How did you get started in photography?
PM: I didn’t initially have dreams of becoming a photographer. I didn’t touch a camera until I was 16 years old. It wasn’t until I saw another photographer’s work and how it caused me to feel an emotion (joy, sadness, etc.) that I became truly interested in photography. That’s really what got me started, the desire to cause an emotion in somebody else.
GHS: What would you say drives you as a photographer?
PM: We all see very visually as people. The saying is very true, an image speaks louder than a thousand words. You can cause true sorrow or true happiness with a simple image. So what I’m documenting really drives me to capture a person’s true essence and really cause an emotion in viewers who may or may not know that person.
GHS: Did you start out taking portraits?
PM: I originally started with landscapes. When I realized that my trees and plants wouldn’t react or add impact to my pictures like people would, I decided I didn’t like that. So I started taking photos of friends, and as time went on I started shooting more photos of people, shot a few weddings, and my business just started from there.
GHS: What are you looking for in your portraits?
PM: I’m a big fan of simplifying the image, taking things out in order to focus on one or two elements. With portraits it’s very simple: you have a white backdrop, basic makeup, basic clothing, and you’re really focusing on the person, their story, what they’re trying to convey. Because of that, I feel that you can get a more precise message and feeling from that image.
GHS: What gear do you use in a portrait session?
PM: I use a Nikon D300s with a 50mm 1.4 for all my portraits. I usually have my lens set between 1.8-2.0 because of the sharpness it produces.
GHS: What was your reason for starting the Face Study Project?
PM: My main hypothesis is that everybody is able to get a good picture taken of themselves. A lot of people that I get to photograph hate getting their picture taken or they have a reservation with getting their picture taken because they don’t think they look good. But nobody looks in the mirror and says, “That’s a horrible looking person.” Everybody has some unique or interesting feature about them, and I love that. And so I want to show and teach people that you really can look good in an image, you just have to be taught how. So that was kind of the whole idea behind the project, to learn how to teach people, and help them open up, and help them look better in pictures.
GHS: What are some things you’ve learned as you’ve worked through this project?
PM: A big thing I’ve learned is to communicate. I think a lot of photographers will hide behind the camera and not give any form of direction. And I find that the subject often will trail off and get lost. And they start to get frustrated because they’re not a trained model or actor and they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do with their hands or their eyes or their mouth. And so the first step is the simple “Hello, how are you?” and just building from there to make the model more relaxed.
GHS: And how do you break that barrier of communication?
PM: Everybody is different, and because of that, the topics of your conversation are never guaranteed to be the same. But having a genuine interest in that person is important. I really love getting to know people and knowing about their past, what they’re doing, what are their goals and aspirations, just simple things like that. Asking them questions that get them thinking about good things and good memories, that’s kind of key because it puts their mind in a good place and it starts to show that true emotion. Just simple things like that really get people to open up.
GHS: What are some other techniques you use to get people to open up and relax?
PM: One technique I use a lot is having them do these outrageous and crazy faces. Now, I’m not necessarily going to keep or use those pictures, but if they can forget that the camera is there, or forget that it’s not that big of a deal, then it’s successful. The goal is for them to realize that they’re in a low-stress, free environment, and they can be themselves and they can open up. When I get them to give me an angry face or start yelling in my studio, they really open up and you get a great picture afterwards. One of my favorite things to do is to have them make a face that uses the most muscles at one time. They’re thinking of this face that’s just outlandish and crazy, then I count to three and they make this face that’s crazy and absurd and they just bust up laughing and you get this great smile; and so much pent up stress and anxiety leaves at this point and they’re a completely different person. From that point I just get them to play along and I am able to capture so much emotion through that.
GHS: What is the purpose of your personal projects?
PM: The purpose of all my portrait projects is to really help me with on-location and with big groups like at weddings. Being able to get people to open up quickly and on the fly, and get a great genuine smile out of them. That’s hard to do, so portraits are a great way for me to learn and kind of expound on that.
GHS: What would you say is the purpose then of photography?
PM: I really want to say that it’s to cause an emotion, it’s in place of words. If I had two words to describe it, I’d have to say “Sheer Impact”. Because whether it’s for advertising or whether it’s for your 20 year old son who just graduated, whether it’s your grandma’s pictures from when she was a child, all of that has so much meaning and so much impact for people whether it’s personal or editorial or whatever.