Hand Portraits in Black & White

Hand (Self-)Portraits: On the Visual Language of Hand Gesture Captured in Black and White

I was introduced to the idea of hand portraiture when interviewing artist Avram Finkelstein for the World Pride 2019 issue of A&U Magazine. At the time he was working on an art piece commissioned by The Shed, an enlarged hand portrait, “an exercise in the heavily meditated nature of image reproduction within our social spaces […] based on two nineteenth-century image reproduction techniques—the Ben Day dot pattern and the Jacquard (loom) processes—as seen through parallel, modern-day means of creating images that are shared and seen by everyone, and their role in exploring the way images function in today’s imagistic culture.”

When The Shed exhibition opened in New York City, last summer, I went to check out Finkelstein’s gigantic hand portrait–it was so detailed that, from a distance, one could easily notice the shape of each nail, on each delicate finger. Quite mesmerizing!

Open Call art show at The Shed in NYC included new work by Avram Finkelstein. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Open Call art show at The Shed in NYC included new work by Avram Finkelstein. Photo by Alina Oswald.

I’ve always been fascinated by Finkelstein’s work, ever since I set eyes on the Silence = Death poster. His more recent work, the enlarged, enigmatic, hand portrait, is no different. In the same time, and for a very long time, I’ve been fascinated by black-and-white photography, in particular black-and-white self-portraiture, ever since I discovered the work of award-winning, legally blind photographer Kurt Weston, back in 2005.

And so, lately, inspired by the work of these two artists and while working on a new project, I came up with the idea of hand self-portraiture (in black and white) and the role of hand gesture in our everyday communication and self-expression.

Many people talk with their hands. I’m guilty of that, myself! Personally, I find it quite interesting and mesmerizing watching individuals talking with their hands. It’s like watching a hand dance performance. For some, it’s an intrinsic, defining part of who they are, of their personality.

I find hand gesture to be a rich, intense, passionate way of communication that helps us express what we might not be able to put into words.

Katyn Soldier Memorial. Hands detail. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Also, we often associate hands with touch, through which to express a variety of feelings–support, encouragement, safety, despair, sadness, loss, hopelessness, rage, unity, love, and so on. Hands, or touch, is also a way of exploring new surfaces, of discovery, learning, reading using our fingertips….

It reminds me of an essay I wrote many years ago, as a student, an essay in which I was sharing memories of my grandfather Holding My Hand as he was walking me to and from school, and how I felt (safe, protected) when he was holding my hand….

Truth is that we can, indeed, say a lot and express a myriad of emotions through hand gesture. But how do we use it to tell our own stories and what stories can our hands tell?

Fight Back. B&W hand portrait by Alina Oswald.
Fight Back. B&W hand portrait by Alina Oswald.

Oftentimes it’s easier to pose and photograph hands when they’re someone else’s hands, but not so much in hand self-portraits. And so, here are a few ideas on photographing our own hands (hand self-portraiture):

Power. Empowering Tattoos. B&W hand portrait by Alina Oswald.
Power. Empowering Tattoos. B&W hand portrait by Alina Oswald.
  • write down a shot list, while thinking of the story, mood, look or message you want to convey through your hand self-portraits
  • relax and relax your face; it’s not part of the photograph
  • practice posing with your hands, first in a mirror, to make sure you capture the mood/look/story you’re after ; practice on someone else’s hands, if possible
  • use lighting patterns that help you enhance the mood or look you’re after
  • also, consider direction of light, framing, selective focus, leading lines (especially if you want to include forearms), and how to use them to tell the visual story
  • practice, a lot!
Hands - Portraits in Black-and-White. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
“Silent Rage” – Hands Portrait in Black-and-White. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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