One of the lessons I have learned rather late in photography, is that of gestures. I always assumed that a "gesture" was a movement of the hand or body but in photography I began to realize it can be so much more. Just as bokeh is difficult to describe and is very subjective, so is "gestures".
The wonderful thing about photography is that it has been around since 1826 or so which means it is old enough to have a history but young enough for it to still be defined. To understand a bit more about "gestures" I went to the obviousy place...the Masters themselves. And I found a great place to start with Jay Maisel, the author of "Light, Gesture & Color". For those who do not know Jay Maisel's work he is a true master and one who is open to sharing what he has learned.
Mr Maisel describes "gesture" HERE. His definition is a bit more open then others I have seen. Most definitions I have seen refer to "gestures" in terms of portrait photography. In the shot above, I was sitting on a ferry boat and I saw this couple through the front windows. They sat, spoke to each other and then the woman got up to leave and I captured this moment when their hands lingered together after their bodies had turned to go.
The key central theme of the image is this gesture. Everything else in the image is not note worthy and is easily forgotten. Yet, years after this picture was taken I can recall the gesture of their hands as the lovers parted ways.
The very subjective nature of "gestures" makes it a difficult concept to teach. I did not understand what was meant, althought I did ocassionaly get lucky and caught it in my own photographs. I only began to understand it when looking at the contact sheets of images I loved. I then began to understand how the same scene was somehow less interesting seconds before and after the image was taken. As I looked to the reason the image was selected, I found myself staring at an amazing gesture.
Once I began looking for it I found I was able to find it more often. I would select a scene that was compositionally interesting and then wait for the gesture. The image below was taken in Indonesia. I saw this man working in a rice field, composed the shot and waited for the gesture that would make the shot. The mans hands and facial expression are the gestures I was looking for. Straight forward, unblinking and powerful. This is not the image of a downtrodden worker, this is an image of power.
But gestures on people are easy to see and understand. The different betweena good portrait and a poor one is its ability to capture the gesture that defines that person. A twinkle in the eye, a slight smile or frown, something personal about the individual.
The image below was shot in China and was of a street cleaner. I wanted to capture just a gesture and nothing more. Something that would define the scene better than the scene itself. I watched her work for a few minutes and distilled the scene down to the elements that defined it. Those few things that I would remember long after I left. I focused my camera on those things and let everything else fall out of the scene.
It was not the ladies face, which reflected the placid look of someone going about their daily business, nor was it her dress which was a standard uniform. The street she was sweeping was interesting but so were a million others in China. What struck me was the home made tools being used, her shoes and the way she moved her feet. She was delicate and precise with small feet dancing from one position to another.