Photography as Communication of Emotion

When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track…” Arthur Fellig

Photography used to reflect reality and capture moments, but nowadays it’s a real art of playing with light, image and mind. How easily can it thrill a sophisticated viewer and what is its secret?
A good lens and equipment are enough to picture a beautiful landscape, but how can you catch the momentary and singular human emotion?
The photographer is the director and narrator here, while his characters are the actors of his photo movie. Every creator has his own technique, his ‘business card’. Characters get a chance to manifest themselves and become narrators, too. So how can we translate those mysterious emotions in one shot?

Reflexing Reality

Maîtres of photojournalism will answer the question very precisely – with their art. In 1917 in the USA, the most prestigious Pulitzer Prize was launched; it is an award for achievements in journalism, literature (fiction and dramatic composition), musical composition and theatre. Each year the prize is awarded by Columbia University upon recommendations from the Pulitzer Prize Board. Prizes are awarded under the aegis of the Faculty of Journalism of Columbia University.
Many famous writers, publicists and reporters have won the prize. It’s the most prestigious USA award in journalism for a distinguished example of breaking news and communication of human emotions. Carol Guzy was three times a winner of this prize. She is one of the best American photojournalists; she demonstrates very precisely the mood, feelings and emotions of her characters during shooting. Her camera searches into the most secret corners of human soul. Capture the expression of feelings, thoughts and stress – that’s the art of photojournalism. Here is a perfect example – the photo essay of the big earthquake in Haiti that happened January 2010 nor far from Port-au-Prince. The photo of a crying boy from Cité Soleil will touch even a heart of stone. His eyes are full of pain, confusion and despair. He feels lost facing the uncertain, obscure and dreaded future which is bringing him poverty, hunger, and fear for his life and the lives of his family.

Carol Guzy The Washington PostCarol Guzy The Washington Post

Documentary photography reflects the shooting process more artistically, nevertheless seriously. The depth of feeling, realization of suffering and painful situations that characters from different places on the Earth find themselves in, call for the viewer’s sympathy and desire to help.
Characters made by Bruce Davidson, a genius in documentary photography, are not desperate or furious. They are not overwhelmed by poverty and distress around them; to viewer’s surprise, they accept misfortunes as a given. They take life without complaints. The painful revelations that open to viewer, the profound shock – those are the emotions expressed by the photographer. We see the picture with his eyes, feel with his heart, we read and think his thoughts. Bruce Davidson’s “The Dwarf” series (1958) boggles viewer’s mind… It’s a circus in New-Jersey. Those circus people, acrobats and clowns, who are they? Who are those people that entertain us, who make us hold our breath while looking up, laugh at stupid jokes and close our eyes with fear when a tamer enters a lion cage? They look so strong, cheerful and brave on the arena. Look at the wan eyes of this old clown, his tired and detached expression. It’s like a mirror reflecting all the emotional complexities of life in a circus. He did not expect to be photographed, he didn’t pose, he wasn’t signing autographs – he is just smoking after the show. A minute ago he was smiling and joking and making audience laugh, and they cheered. It was just a minute ago… moments ago… a shot and… a FACE. A wrinkled and tired face always hidden under heavy make-up, a face that no one is ever going to see – face of a sad clown.

Bruce Davidson The Dwarf 1958

Bruce Davidson “The Dwarf”, 1958 

“To be successful with such projects, it always takes a certain “entry cost” – you should be ready to live the same life as your characters, which means become one of them for a while”.

Tragedy. Should there always be tragedy? How about joy, happiness, sweetness of life? These components can also be translated through emotions:   smile, lightness, fly-like emotions.
Love – there’s so much to this word… Have you ever loved? I have. Have you flied? Me too! Have you ever thought how to capture the sweet moment on camera? I’ll tell you.
Funny, positive and light situations in documentary photography can give you a lot of energy. Elliott Ervitt is an example. His special thing is his ability to see and capture with childish spontaneity some absurd situations. You will surely not remain indifferent to his works; they are going to stir up three unique emotions in you:
a) tenderness, like the photo of his wife and daughter;
b) sadness, like the photo of crying Jacqueline Kennedy at the Arlington cemetery;
c) joy, like his photos of dogs.
He possesses the rare gift of visual smartness. Doesn’t smartness provoke a smile?

“I want pictures that are emotional. There is hardly anything else in photography that interests me”.

Elliott Erwitt -California kiss 1955

Elliott Erwitt “California kiss”, 1955

He was a master of captured moment. In the “Kiss in the Rear-View Mirror” of 1955, our genius managed to capture very precisely the moment of mutual happiness of two people, the culmination moment of mutual sympathy, love and tenderness. A short and sweet moment caught in a small rear-view mirror, which looks like a locket due to its oval shape – a locket that’s going to remind them of their happy day.
Let’s take a close look, and what do we see there? We see that the mirror that reflects the lovers and the sunshine are positioned symmetrically, at the same distance from the edges of the shot, which creates a visionary comparison of the relationship with the sunshine over the sea.   A beautiful lady – and the bright sun. A man – and the sea catching the light and reflecting it. Here is love. You wanted it? -You got it.

La Mode – there’s so much to this word…

What associations take place in our mind? Could be – grace, style, beauty, gorgeous clothes and a magical Designer. How does photography demonstrate fashion to us? Is it sincere or staged? It can be staged, but staged with skill – characters are like film actors on a screenshot. Such an important component of harmony as beauty prevails here, while real life situations are exaggerated. Costumes please the eye with season trends, and the shots get published in gloss by Condé Nast.
Characters: could be models, could be actors, could be a passer-by who fit the photographer’s story. Who are those translators of female elegancy, sexuality and sensitivity, fearlessly playing with human feelings? Let’s sort it out:

Photographers’ favorite trick is to remain silent, put down their camera and patiently wait for hours – wait for the model to relax and get into the mood.
That’s what Irving Penn used to do. His first photo on the “Vogue” cover in 1943 was a start to a master’s brilliant career.
He made no accidental photos without an idea. He used to think up a scenario, and his models turned into actors playing their parts. He used to wait for hours for the right moment, and when he saw it coming – he pressed the button.
Jean Patchett recalls, “We flew 3200 miles. We got to the place and a week went by, and Mr Penn still hadn’t used his camera. I started getting nervous about it. Every day I got up and got dressed but he never took a picture. Finally one day we found this little café, and there was a young man sitting across from me, and I was getting frustrated. So I just sort of said to myself to heck with this and I picked up my pearls and I kicked off my shoes. My feet were hurting. And he said ‘Stop!”
Then, in 1949, he made one of his best works, “Café in Lima”.

Irving Penn - Jean Patchett 1949

Irving Penn – Jean Patchett ,1949

As the science says, sexuality is a set of biological, psychological, spiritual and emotional reactions, feelings and actions related to sex drive.
Ellen von Unwerth, a gorgeous woman and a great fashion photographer, is the one to tell us about capturing and translating sexuality. Her works are a unique mixture of erotic and funny, while her last photo sessions are always beyond time. Her photographs are emotionally spontaneous and striking, that’s how she made her way into the world of glossy magazines.
Here is an example: a playfully aggressive shot of scandalous Ellen von Unwerth for a Lavazza calendar 1995; her character is an Italian supermodel Carla Bruni, now the wife of the Famous Frenchman.

Ellen von Unwerth-Carla Bruni Lavazza 1995

Ellen von Unwerth
 – Carla Bruni “Lavazza”, 1995

Burst of emotions, expression, scandal and beauty… It’s fascinating and tempting to let yourself go… Did you feel it? I sure did.


“Oh women, how beautiful and hopelessly sad are you,
You rule the world when you are desperate, and you are helpless when you are happy;
Your dreams are like poems, your bodies are young and beautiful.
When men are inspired, it means that the Muse is here”.

The grace of sweet sorrow: tenderness, femininity, transparence of skin, crystal eyes, detachment – these are the words describing a vulnerable young girl who is not a woman yet… She is a miracle of God, with her naïve eyes and the fairy-tale in her head. A fairy-tale woman in the works of genius Paolo Roversi.
In the world of fashion, Paolo Roversi is known as a mysterious and out-of-reach person. Few people know his face, however, his personal style is known to many people. The world he has created seems to be thin and fragile, and we get an impression that his models could be carried away with the wind. Most popular magazines have always taken interest in Roversi’s photographs. He got famous after the 1980 ad campaign for Christian Dior fashion house. That was the first time he used Polaroid 8×10” shots, which later became his ‘business card’. Polaroid is an instant shot, instantly printed and without any after-touch – that means transmission of real emotions.

“Photography is a mirror that doesn’t lie. It reflects the real form. However, I think that there is more to it – some magic, revelation and a lot more”.

Paolo Roversi - Natalia Vodyanova «écrire avec la lumière» 2003

Paolo Roversi – Natalia Vodyanova «écrire avec la lumière», 2003

 Do you know me? And I don’t know you.

Celebrities. Who are you and how can we understand you? Can you be happy, can you cry and laugh for real, and not on request from an evil film director? What are you like when you’ve been dumped by your husband, when you can’t cope with your work? What is left of you when you take off your well known mask?
There are a lot of questions teasing us ordinary people every day, when we admire your beauty, talent and work with the camera, audience and stage; but what is there behind all this?

Richard Avedon is the one to pull up the curtain of mystery. A portrait photographer, a genius and, in a way, “Creator of Celebrities”; a whole epoch in the history of celebrity photography is connected with his name. He is an artist turning people into symbols of themselves (portraits of politicians from Dwight Eisenhower to Hillary Clinton, artists from Charlie Chaplin to Bjork). He demonstrated a new way of black-and-white shooting to the world, and he used only two colors to translate feelings, emotions, character and the inner beauty of a celebrity.

Richard Avedon  Audrey Hepburn, New York, January 1967

Richard Avedon  Audrey Hepburn, New York, January 1967

We are sometimes dying to look into the day-to-day life of a celebrity. What does she do after shooting, what are her hobbies, does she have a normal life? Does she get tired or hungry? What is she like when she is happy, or when she is alone on a cold evening?
Who but a photojournalist would open that secret to us.
A photojournalist like Eve Arnold. She got famous because of the photos that captured sudden, sometimes intimate moments and true emotions. Such are the portraits of Joan Crawford suffering from back pain, or James Cagney improvising a dance with his wife in some barn. She had a special relationship with Merilyn Monroe. Arnold made a whole album of that movie star photos. Their friendship helped Eve Arnold make real live photos where Merilyn turns into Norma Jeane – a mischievous girl living next door, or tired Merilyn at a film set, or just a woman choosing an evening dress for a date with her admirer.

Eve Arnold - Marylin Monroe en route to Bement

Eve Arnold – Marylin Monroe en route to Bement, Chicago airport, 1955

I sometimes want to be a child – to not have any responsibilities and to let my other ego out. However, I feel the unpleasant constraint and fear, like all ordinary people do; it should be even worse for celebrities because their social role is their ‘business card’. However, dodgy photographers have found a way.
A French portrait photographer Denis Rouvre risked it all: he put celebrities in front of a monitor, gave them a remote control, told them to take pictures and… walked out. Thus, celebrities were left alone, they could pose as they liked to, they chose good shots themselves, they were making faces and creating sincere and unique self-portraits. All Denis had to do was after-touch the photo material and put his signature under The Automation project.

Denis Rouvre - Vincent Cassel  «Automaton»

Denis Ruvr – Vincent Cassel “Automaton”

The celebrities in his portraits can be clowns making faces, or be philosophical – in short, they are different from what they look like on the red carpet.
The ingenious is always simple, as we see. His idea of naturalness and the photo equipment flawless work worked wonders!
He did not make celebrities fit a gloss magazine frame; he just gave them an opportunity to be themselves.


The world of photography informs us, teaches and charms us, and wakes our memories, be it a historical document, a bitter reminder of our sins or sweet happy moments.
Summarizing: a magic shot is a conductor of emotions. One snap – and emotions are pasted onto a square card, and they are already part of history.
On seeing emotion you will always respond with your own emotion. That’s unique.
Live this life full of rainbow-like emotions, ladies and gentlemen, and we the photographers will add some light and contrast to them.

Yours, K.P.