The black and white portraits that photographer Jonathon Stout has taken for his upcoming exhibit at Redux Contemporary Art Center are about as far away as can be from the traditional all-smiles shots people think of when they hear the word “portrait.” A young woman stares fearlessly at the lens — or is it angrily? A bearded man looks at the camera with suspicion, another with curiosity. The pictures are often somehow vulnerable and guarded, as if there’s a push-and-pull dynamic going on between camera and subject. Seen together, the photos are a mesh of humanity that reveal both individuality and connection.
“If you look at portraits, a lot of times people are smiling and their flaws aren’t shown,” Stout says. “So I kind of wanted to show the people in a way that’s who they really are if you spend a little time with them.”
All of the subjects are from Charleston, and many of them are people Stout already knew, which perhaps led them to trust him a little more behind the camera. Stout worked quickly, shooting most of the subjects over a five-day period in a space on James Island that’s part of the Ocean Industries recording studio.
“I knew their mannerisms and character,” he says, “so I could kind of try to get that out of them without them doing a whole lot. That’s what I wanted to do. Instead of a photo that someone might look at for two seconds, I hope with these, people will take a little bit longer, and understand who the person was. And together I think it’s a nice collection of different faces in Charleston.”
Getting all the subjects to come to the shoots wasn’t hard once Stout began posting the initial shots online. And as the people came in to be photographed, Stout was conscious about giving them as little info as possible about what he wanted. “I didn’t let them know too much beforehand,” he says. “I had an idea in my head over the last couple of years of what I wanted the photos to look like, but it was hard to put into words. I would pose them, and some of them were a little nervous in front of the camera, there were some smirks and half smiles. There was a little direction, but I moved fast. It might’ve been five minutes per person. I wanted them to feel like we were just hanging out and taking pictures.”
As far as wardrobe was concerned, Stout told his subjects it was strictly “come-as-you-are.”
“A lot of people asked me, ‘What should I wear? What should I look like?’ And I just told them to come as themselves,” he says. “Don’t over-prepare. If you’re on your way to work, then come here dressed for work. It’s just who you are.”
Stout worked outside his comfort zone for the shoots, working in black and white instead of his typical color photos. “I don’t really shoot that way often, but I felt like color might distract from the detail of the person,” he says. And the way I lit it, with the contrast and shadows, it just worked better in black and white.”
After he was finished shooting the series, there was one session that stuck with Stout, and it stands as the one that taught him something about where he lives. “There are a lot of brave people in this town,” he says. “I wanted to inspire people with this project. One individual named Jamie, she’s transgender, this was her first photo taken after her transition. And she came with her wife, it was very inspiring, that strength and that fearlessness. She contacted me and wanted to do it and it was a really touching moment.”