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The 'Folded Arms' Portrait: Cliche or communication?

Some of the most common corporate photos are portraits of people posing with their arms folded over their chests. This pose can be traced all the way back to the early years of portrait photography. Primitive cameras and chemistry forced 19th-century portrait-sitters to hold poses for a long time. Photographers frequently helped them keep still by posing them with arms folded.

Why, then, are people are still asked to pose stiffly in this manner over 100 years later? Probably because most portrait sitters simply don't know what to do with their hands or arms. The easiest thing to do is to fold them. Folded-arms portraits made for that reason are cliches. The pose will say little, if anything, to viewers.

On the other hand, folded arms often do say something, for better or for worse, about the person before the camera. Aloofness, hostility, strength, stubbornness, confidence and pomposity can all be expressed by such posing. Often environment, body language, facial expression and costume can add context to help define attitudes.

For example, freelance photographer Pete Byron of Morris Plains, N.J., asks a father and two sons to fold their arms for a family portrait. By itself, the body language is meaningless. But the youngest son spontaneously turns to scowl playfully at his father, and his father returns the compliment. Meanwhile, the older son concentrates on the matter at hand, and misses all the fun. In Byron's portrait spoof, the viewer meets, at least for the moment, a family where each kid feels free to go his own way.

Now let's look at a range of five more environmental portraits -- all of them published in issues of SCANA Corporation's internal/external magazine Insights, Columbia, S.C.

The folded-arms portrait of the executive in the white shirt is just that. The pose seems merely handy -- it fails to express any significant aspect of the man's character. The commercial photographer who made this portrait concentrates on technique, rather than expressing a message. He produces a cliche, not communication.

A portrait of a power station manager standing before his facility with bare, folded arms uses a low camera angle to stress the muscular pose. The subject is complemented by the powerful industrial setting. This portrait implies a "can-do" attitude. The result: communication instead of cliche.

The triumphant full-length portrait of a coal miner, also made by a commercial photographer, is just as successful. The miner's costume, as well as the leg casually placed on the machinery, make the archaic folded-arms pose look right at home. This man is obviously master of all he surveys.

There are times, however, when the folded-arms pose just won't work. Good photographers instinctively sense this. Mary Green Brown, editor of SCANA Insights, makes a relaxed portrait of an executive by allowing her to fold her hands naturally instead of her arms. Her elbow rests casually on a forklift load of wood behind her, indicating the nature of the work going on here. Her serious facial response evokes a no-nonsense attitude.

Drawing on open, rather than closed body language, Brown makes another portrait of an enthusiastic manager standing on a catwalk high over a power plant. Needing something to do with his hands, the man simply grabs the railings at his side and laughs. Unlike the other portraits, this response implies the pleasure of scaling the heights of a business. His hands accept the support he needs to maintain his lofty position.

Both of Brown's portraits seem to be more naturally posed than those made by the commercial photographers who shoot for her magazine. There is a very thin line between cliche and communication when it comes to "folded-arms" posing, and Brown takes the safest approach by avoiding it altogether.

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, director of The Douglis Visual Workshops and widely known photographic consultant and critic, now offers his comprehensive six-person Communicating with Pictures workshops twice each year in Sedona, Arizona. He also continues to present special seminars on photographic communication on a sponsored, in-house basis to companies, associations and IABC chapters. For information on either, call Douglis at 602-493-6709 or e-mail him at pndl@home.com. Douglis also welcomes tearsheets for possible use in this column. Send to The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Avenue, Phoenix AZ 85028.
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Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Words:712
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