Dramatic Portraiture

Dramatic Portraiture

The portrait has never been so prevalent. Faces have become quantifiable as data and selfies are ubiquitous. Bastiaan Woudt takes a classical approach. 

Netherlands-based Bastiaan Woudt (b. 1987) started a photography practice in 2014, with no formal experience. As a student, he devoured photobooks and visited numerous museums and fairs. Since then, he has honed a signature style, honouring the history of photography and reinterpreting classical portraits with surreal, detailed elements. Each image is minimal, highly balanced and unexpected – integrating geometric shapes and delicate veils. Diffused light falls softly across the skin, creating pockets of texture.

In 2014, Woudt was chosen as a New Dutch Photography Talent. In 2016, he was named one of British Journal of Photography’s “Ones to Watch”, and was awarded the Van Vlissingent Art Foundation Prize. In the same year, he gained representation with Kahmann Gallery, Amsterdam. 

A: Your works reference photography masters such as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Bill Brandt. How do you draw from these figures, whilst creating something incredibly contemporary?

BW: The reason that I fell in love with photography is because of the timeless and dynamic images of Penn and Avedon, amongst others. They changed the landscape of the medium by experimenting – through the character of the grain and the imperfections of film. I translate some of these pioneering elements into my own practice, looking at contrast and texture but with contemporary subjects. Now that there is postproduction, you can, of course, play with these techniques even further through digital technology. My combination of in-camera methods and post-processing is both reminiscent of the Old Masters and an exploration of new, innovative ways of working.

A: Your portraits are consistently bold and dramatic – using monochromatic palettes. Why do you choose only to work in black and white? How do you think your works would be different, or provoke an alternative response, if they were realised through colour?

BW: Besides the characteristics I mentioned above, the lack of colour was also one of the reasons that I was so inspired to start taking photographs. I have always felt much more attracted to black and white because it takes away a part of reality. Removing colour takes away distraction, and makes the viewer consider the essence of the image. Instead of wandering around the composition, they tend to spend more time looking at things like form, abstraction and emotion.

A: Some of the compositions look to Surrealism – capturing portraits and landscapes through fresh, unexpected perspectives. How do you select your subjects? 

BW: I choose my subjects based on direct interests and a gut feeling; models that I encounter, either online or offline, need to spark something. I find it difficult to explain exactly what that interest is. It has nothing to do with aesthetics – whether something is considered beautiful or not – it has to do with a fast-paced emotional response. Within seconds, I realise that a certain person brings out something in me – I begin to ask questions about who they are, or what they’re doing with their life. With projects, it’s often no different. I want to get to know a country, region or subject better by travelling to it, taking photographs of it, and being surprised by what
I see. However, when I’m working in my studio or on location, I never want to know in advance what I’m going to photograph.

A: What are the most important parts of the process for you? How much of an image is captured in-situ, and how much is changed through post-production methods? Is there a sense of spontaneity in any given shoot, or is the process planned from start to finish?

BW: It’s crucial that I don’t know in advance what I’m going to make. I don’t actively produce mood boards and I don’t work with any sense of preconceived plans – this process takes all the creativity out of any shoot. There’s also always a chance that if the original idea didn’t work out, the shoot will fail. Of course, post-production is a large part of my process. I always shoot numerous images during a session, and then I view them as blueprints for the final work to be made. By playing with contrast, dodging, burning, retouching and removing certain details, I render a completely different image from that first one I shot. However, I don’t like to manipulate an image too far by adding new elements or making collages out of multiple layers. I would say that 80% of my work is determined by camera work, 20% is in editing. 

A: How do you negotiate light? What techniques do you use to capture such high contrasts and dramatic shifts in shadow, highlight and exposure?

BW: I work in my studio with two light sources: natural daylight – from the two windows that I have facing north – and from a continuous artificial lamp that I use when it’s too dark. I am constantly experimenting with the amount of exposure as I go. I often produce images by going against the general “rules” that photography courses or schools tell you to follow. When I shoot someone, I try to capture them in a number of different ways with the so-called “correct” exposure, and then change the light settings. I don’t like very complicated plans – often a lamp is enough to make something interesting. Less is more in many cases. 

A: Many of the images have a soft quality, with blurred resolutions and hazy backgrounds. How do you achieve this effect? How do you think these subtle elements, in turn, create unique physical qualities?

BW: I think that’s mainly to do with shooting with medium-format cameras. This equipment gives my work an exceptional quality; it is partly responsible as to why certain details are out of focus and are rendered so beautifully. In addition, I like to isolate my subjects – to take them out of their surroundings and put them in front of an even, or partly-even background. In my studio this can be a paper background, or even a hand-painted canvas. When travelling, it is often a wall that I encounter on the streets. This contributes massively to the final result. 

A: Your works are highly individual, combining graphic and classical elements. In this way, they are incredibly recognisable. How do you define a successful photograph? How important is it that a photographer be easily identifiable? What is the wider goal?

BW: I think having your own style is one of the most important things to establish. You want to get to a point in your career where other people recognise your work by just seeing the image. In a world filled with people who call themselves photographers, this is the point where you can differentiate yourself. For me, an image is successful when it provokes a feeling – whether that’s good or bad. The image sometimes has to raise questions: who is it? Why do they look like that? Why did the photographer choose to shoot them in that way? I like to play with imperfections, even though some people say that my images are about balance and perfection. This conflict is the crux of success.

A: Visual languages seem to be evolving faster than the written or spoken word. Images are shared, disseminated and replicated in a matter of seconds, projecting and contributing to trends. To what extent do you think that a photograph, or series, should be one of a kind? 

BW: In a society where so many images are made and shared, it is up to the artist to stand out. Whether you have an exhibition in a gallery or a commission for a magazine, nobody wants to look at images they have seen a thousand times. Some subjects have, of course, already been photographed so many times that it almost seems as if nothing new can be made of them, but it is precisely then that a practitioner should be able to surprise by giving it their own twist. 

A: How do you engage with social media platforms and how important are they to your practice? 

BW: Social media is integral today. Nowadays, we have the opportunity to address a large audience – one that not only includes fans, but also potential customers and clients. For me, Instagram has become a platform where I can inform followers about new exhibitions, commissions and books, with 20 times as much traffic as my website. I believe that photographers should have a website as an archive of everything that you do, as well as a place for more in-depth interviews and other content. Use your social media platforms to share and connect to your audience directly.

A: What do you hope viewers take away from your images? Is there something that you’re striving towards?

BW: Generally, I hope that people who view my works get a little feeling of what moves me – how I see my subjects and the world around me. I hope that people enjoy the pieces, but, most importantly, that they provoke an opinion. For me, that’s crucial; no matter what the opinion is, it means that the piece is worth talking about, and that’s what gives it longevity. There always needs to be a discussion.

A: What projects / exhibitions do you have lined up
for 2020? Is there anything you’re looking forward to?

BW: This year, I’m planning to work in my studio a bit more than usual. I have started working on a particular theme, so I’m going to carry this through to fruition. I’ve started combining geometric shapes with models – covering them partially and obscuring their silhouette. The result is a kind of statuesque effect – but they are still recognisably human. I also have a big project in Nepal in October, so I will be working on editing and finishing that during the coming months. The plan is to make a book and exhibition later in 2020 – so lots of work to be done! For the rest of the year, my work will be showing worldwide at Haute Photographie, Photo London, Paris Photo New York, Paris Photo and Photo Basel.