Photographer Evan Baines Studies How to Make a “Good” Military Portrait

All images by Evan Baines. Used with permission. Be sure to follow him on Instagram and check out his website.

“I think the most consistently interesting thing about this project to me is the tension between the individual and the ‘uniform,'” explains photographer Evan Baines. Evan has been shooting military portraits for a long time now. And over the years, he’s had many challenging scenarios. One of the biggest ones is the portrayal of women in uniform. It started out with his infatuation with history, so everything used to be done in black and white. Evan said it helped emphasize medals very well. But then his creative vision and his gear evolved.

The Essential Gear of Photographer Evan Baines

During the course of the project, I’ve used gear ranging from a Canon 5D3 to a Hasselblad 500cm to a Wista 4×5. I’m doing the most current portraits with the following:

Evan tells us:

I like the Fuji equipment because I appreciate the analog feel of the cameras and the physical controls, which make them more fun for me to use. I’m also particularly partial to the skin tones Fuji provides with very little effort. Ultimately, I just feel like I get more enjoyment from my Fuji system than my old Canon FF system and feel that is reflected in the work. I still enjoy shooting film, and will probably continue to use film for selected subjects, but I feel like I’m in the zone with my digital workflow right now and anticipate focusing there for the foreseeable future on this project.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Evan Baines: I was trained in the basics of photography as a skill to support military operations, and then my father-in-law gave me his old Canon 10D as my first “serious” camera. I’d grown up very active in the visual arts but hadn’t pursued any artistic activities in years, and being introduced to photography provided an outlet I didn’t realize I’d missed.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into portraiture?

Evan Baines: When I left the Army I started doing various forms of photography to make ends meet while I finished my undergraduate degree. It turned into a fairly successful business and I worked in a variety of disciplines including editorial, product, wedding, and portrait. I have always found the discipline of the portraitist, and particularly the studio portraitist, fascinating in the social demands it places upon the photographer. A studio photographer must create both a photographic environment and a social environment conducive to the production of a great image. And the collaboration between photographer and subject continues to fascinate me: great portraits cannot happen without some sort of alchemy between the subject and photographer.

“With such limitations, it’s easy to wind up with a stale early 1990’s mall portrait. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that with such limitations is that one has to be committed to making every remaining variable the best it can be. Even the smallest details can undermine a portrait when it is so focused.”

Phoblographer: You enlisted in the army. And your purpose for this project, stated on your website, is that you wanted to figure out what made a military portrait “good.” What have you learned along the way? What about subjectivity? And what common theme in the portraits do you feel you’re always trying to convey?

Evan Baines: Military portraits are an extremely limiting discipline, which poses interesting challenges for the photographer. A military portrait, for me, must respect the uniform and the service it represents. So this drastically limits the approach one can take in a portrait. “Edgy,” “seductive,” or “goofy” are off the table. The rules even limit poses: for example, hands in the pockets are generally forbidden (though don’t tell that to GEN Douglass McArthur, whose hands are in pockets in nearly every official portrait). With such limitations, it’s easy to wind up with a stale early 1990’s mall portrait. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that with such limitations is that one has to be committed to making every remaining variable the best it can be. Even the smallest details can undermine a portrait when it is so focused.

One common theme in the portraits is that, as a general rule, I only feature people in the series about which I feel I can say something positive. I see something in the subject worthy of admiration.

I think one of the most interesting things I’ve learned is in photographing female service-members. If you think about the visual language of leadership and heroism, you think about upward camera angles, punchy lighting, and bold forward-leaning posing. However, you may have noticed that most women hold their phones above them for selfies because minimizing the body and a downward angle is more “feminine.” The classic female posing axis runs the face in the opposite direction of the body while men traditionally keep all on one axis. So how does one picture a strong, dynamic leader who is also feminine? Striking this balance requires a mix of adhering-to and subverting traditional gender norms in portraiture.

Phoblographer: How is the communication process different when talking to folks in uniform vs non-uniformed people?

Evan Baines: One of the biggest issues is that military folks tend to want to pose “tight.” If one wants to have any personality and less stiffness in the portraits, one has to be careful about being too directive. I think it helps that I share the experience with many of my subjects, and I often spend some of the session talking about the portrait process so they understand what’s going on and what I’m trying for.

“There are one or two Purple Hearts in the series right now, actually. And beyond the visible injuries, there are folks in the series with profound physical and psychiatric wounds from years spent in harm’s way.”

Phoblographer: Do you feel you’re trying to show something unique about each person? How are you doing that? Some of the photos have a bit more personality, like the gentleman with the glass of liquid courage in his hand.

Evan Baines: I think the most consistently interesting thing about this project to me is the tension between the individual and the “uniform.” Its my goal to have some aspect of the individual character in every single portrait. However, these are portraits of subjects literally wearing a uniform, and in addition, the subject matter lends itself to a more archetypal approach dealing with ideas like heroism, honor, and service. No photograph is ever a full representation of an individual, and none really approach the perfection of an ideal. All of my portraits fluctuate on a spectrum between individual and archetypal determined by my mood, the subject, and probably an element of luck. In the case you mentioned, the combination of a fine whiskey and a quality cigar speaks to the personality of the subject strongly while serving double duty as a prop. Much like Ricky Bobby, military subjects often struggle knowing what to do with their hands! Sometimes I’ll find myself subconsciously recreating a Karsh portrait and only later realize I’ve sacrificed some of the subject individuality in favor of an ideal. And there’s an additional challenge because the more specific aspects of the portraits are things that third parties often respond to the least. As a viewer with no personal knowledge of the subject, you have no way of determining which aspects of a portrait are exactly right for that individual. The general public generally responds the best to the specific only when the subject is a celebrity about which they have a sense that they know something which the portrait can verify. So for me, the archetypal shots tend to have the most broad appeal while the personal shots are less interesting to the general public.

“I think one of the most interesting things I’ve learned is in photographing female service-members. If you think about the visual language of leadership and heroism, you think about upward camera angles, punchy lighting, and bold forward-leaning posing. However, you may have noticed that most women hold their phones above them for selfies because minimizing the body and a downward angle is more “feminine.” The classic female posing axis runs the face in the opposite direction of the body while men traditionally keep all on one axis. So how does one picture a strong, dynamic leader who is also feminine? Striking this balance requires a mix of adhering-to and subverting traditional gender norms in portraiture.”

Phoblographer: What dictates the final decision on whether an image will be in color or black and white?

Evan Baines: Because I’m infatuated with historic images, I started the series almost exclusively with black and white, and I justified this with the idea that the shiny, multicolored ribbons and badges on the uniform formed a visual distraction from the subject. Black and white serves to mitigate the eye-catching effects of the “bling” and focus the viewer in on the expression. However, the specific colors of the uniform can matter intensely to the subject: a Special Forces soldier wants the viewers to see that his beret is green. So lately I’ve shifted back to color more frequently, but I’ll deliberately burn and desaturate many of the decorations so that they are still visible and identifiable, but less eye-catching. The awards are important and to be respected, but are also NOT the primary focus of the portrait. So some of my choices involves whether there is a color in the picture that is of crucial significance to the subject, along with the overall feel we wind up with and sometimes the opinions of the subject themselves.

Phoblographer: How much control do you have over the wardrobe? Why are some folks wearing hats and some folks aren’t?

Evan Baines: I advise my subjects on wardrobe but they have final control. So, for example, the Navy has a different uniform for every day of the month (j/k… kinda) and while I advise a dress uniform of some sort, I let the Navy folks decide if they feel more at home in whites, blues, or khaki. For the Army, we currently have only one dress uniform excluding mess dress which no one actually owns, though photographically I’m looking forward to our new “pinks and greens” harkening back to the WWII uniform. These were just approved a few months ago and will be making their way into the force soon. Headgear can make a nice prop if held, especially larger headgear (again, finding things to do with hands and to get arms bent). However, some headgear, such as berets, are less effective in this role. And especially in the Army, the color of a beret can be a meaningful thing to the subject. I usually discourage the various combat uniforms for these more formal portraits as I don’t feel they lend themselves to what I’m going for.

Phoblographer: There’s one specific man wearing a bow tie. Why? What’s his story?

Evan Baines: As I said above, my subjects can choose (within the limits of regulation) what uniform speaks to them. The bowtie is an option the Navy offers in that uniform, and for that particular subject that was how HE wanted to be seen. He had a background in theater and I think that comes through in his portrait. He’s a stellar physician and officer with a great sense of humor.

Phoblographer: Have you ever considered doing this with folks who were injured?

Evan Baines: There are one or two Purple Hearts in the series right now, actually. And beyond the visible injuries, there are folks in the series with profound physical and psychiatric wounds from years spent in harm’s way. While I haven’t had the opportunity to photograph any amputees or other more visibly wounded service-members for the project, I feel pretty strongly that I wouldn’t want to do anything different in my approach and that making the portrait about their wounds would miss the point of the series for me. The wounds, much like the awards, would be important context but should not eclipse the subject him or herself.

Phoblographer: When people look at these photos, what do you want them to feel? How are you trying to elicit that feeling from people?

Evan Baines: It’s funny because lately I’ve been getting some notice and positive feedback on the series, but the “disinterested third party” viewer has never been a primary focus for the project. I make these portraits because I enjoy doing them and I learn something about photography with every session, and because I’m creating something that I hope the subjects’ grandchildren will look at one day and gain some insight into their progenitor.

“So some of my choices involve whether there is a color in the picture that is of crucial significance to the subject, along with the overall feel we wind up with and sometimes the opinions of the subject themselves.”