At the end of a long but inspirational day of seminars at WPPI U at The Javits Center on Wednesday, I walked into the last session, with Dutch photographer Henk van Kooten, unsure of what to expect. I only knew that the title of his seminar, "Shooting Winning Portraits: From Cliche to Creativity" was appealing. I'm not a huge fan of rigidly staged portraiture, although my position on the subject has been evolving.
And while Henk's presentation over-delivered on its promise - he's doing some of the most visually stunning studio portraiture I've ever seen - it was the way he opened his creative process, and his heart, to everyone in the audience that left me nearly breathless.
It's not often that a speaker, in any industry, will open his monologue by talking about being beaten as a child. And not only did Henk do this, he made it relevant to the conversation by discussing how, having learned to read body-language at a very early age (is he in a good mood? Is he about to hit me?) has made him a better photographer.
Henk's approach to his clients was stated bluntly with the statement that "I make the photograph you need, not the photograph you want." His clients seem to come to him, having heard powerful stories and seen his results, and put their portrait session entirely in his hands. He told us about four young women who came into his studio for a group portrait. One of the young women was dying. Henk shot three faces looking at the camera, the fourth in profile, looking away.
He told us about an image, shown earlier in his high-energy video introduction, of a woman, her face obscured by her long mane of hair flying wildly. It had looked, at the time, like a commercial shot for a hair conditioner or a fashion label. It was, he said, a portrait of a woman who had come to him the day before her first chemotherapy - she soon would have no hair at all.
Henk told us about a family - he had shot the couple's wedding, her pregnancies, their children. She developed leukemia. She was dying. He photographed her family gripping her with their hands, holding onto her, holding her back from fate.
He showed us that photography is not just about capturing light, it's about harnessing souls and making them immortal. He simply blew us away, and the crowd of several hundred walked out not just better photographers, but better people.