Decorating with Portrait Photography: Displaying the Memories of a Lifetime

The happiest homes seem to be filled with meaningful personal treasures—hand-selected for display, either by us or for us. They’re a tangible way of saying, “This is who we are and what’s important to us.”

Our family photos, whether they are carefully posed portraits or images caught during a memory-in-the-making, are perhaps the greatest treasures of all. Therefore, they are worthy of our consideration about how and where we could best display them in our homes.

Allegra Helms, a professional fine art and lifestyle portrait photographer, says, “Something is always the impetus that prompts the decision to have a portrait taken. There’s been a change, something new to celebrate, a special spot to fill in a special room. A professional photographer helps clients analyze their needs and come up with a plan to meet them.”

So, instead of haphazardly displaying your photographs along with the clutter of life (or worse, leaving them forgotten on a disc in the desk drawer), it’s wise to take the opportunity to plan just how and where you will display them, thoughtfully weaving your portrait photography into your everyday décor.

It’s because of that careful forethought and attentive planning that Helms says professional portrait sessions will entail at least three separate appointments: the first one, to define and set the goals for the project; the second one, the photography session itself; and the third, to preview and select images. She says that this is what professional photography service is all about.

Helms says that a besides lending an artistic eye to the subject in front of the lens, a professional photographer can also help you decide the best way to display your images. “We [professional photographers] can help you decipher which images look best hanging on a wall versus in a book… or which ones will look best in a frame on the desk or as a holiday card,” she says.

Photography Geography
When her primary assignment is to provide a portrait to hang in a specific place in a client’s home, Helms says she visits the home so she can see that spot for herself. She says, “What I’ll do is photograph the place where the portrait will eventually hang so that when we meet to review proofs after our photo session, I can show you exactly what your portrait is going to look like in your room. We can digitally mock it up—choosing layouts and trying out processing techniques to specifically suit that space.”

Since certain settings—both the location where the portrait is taken and the place it will hang in your home—will convey certain feelings and meanings, Helms advises clients that even though “your art doesn’t have to match your couch, you don’t want a complete mismatch, either.” Homeowners should put some thought into where the portrait will eventually hang when choosing the location for the photography session and the attire that will be worn in the portrait. She explains, “Perhaps the family portrait is planned to hang in a warm, woody setting, like in a masculine gentleman’s study. A Lilly Pulitzer-clad beach scene might not be the best fit for that space.”

Even so, Helms says don’t let that be a deal-breaker if your family’s tradition is to go to the shore and wear Palm Beach pinks and greens. Besides, she says, “People move, they repaint walls, they take a new family portrait and move the old one somewhere else.” To ensure you’ll be pleased with the outcome of your photography session, planning in advance and thinking through all facets of the project will be time well spent.

Helms says that when asked where a portrait should be taken (at a particular location or in the studio), her answer always points back to the original goal of the assignment: do you want a framed photo for your desktop or something large for the mantel?

The photo shoot’s locale—the environment—might not be that important after all. Since most photographers charge additional fees for photo sessions taken outside of the studio, this might be an important consideration as you plan for your portrait.

She explains, “Unless your goal is for the environment to be the primary subject in the photo [instead of the people]—don’t worry so much about the pretty place. Remember—the photo is for documenting life.”

Helms illustrates her point by sharing an example from a recent portrait session. She explains that from a distance,
this particular portrait, hanging above a fireplace in a large, lodge-like living room, appears to be a beautiful piece of landscape artwork—the subject of which is pastureland at sunset in autumn.

But, upon closer inspection, you realize it’s actually the portrait of a small (relative to the rest of the image, that is) bride and groom holding hands, walking toward the sunset together. Compared to the environment depicted in this image, the happy couple takes up only a very small portion of the canvas.

Why did she choose this approach? Helms says that to adequately fill an expansive space like this spot in the living room, getting the scale right for an appropriately-sized portrait could have resulted in larger-than-life-sized people looming over the room from the mantelpiece. So Helms chose to make the subject of the portrait appear to be more about the landscape—the environment—than the people. It’s a very contemporary, fine-art look that suits the space well.

There are times, however, when the photograph’s environment is secondary to its subject. Helms gives the example of a traditional bridal portrait focusing on what’s important—the bride: the expression on her face, her special dress, the moment in time. In this case, the bride herself will always know where the photo was taken, though essentially it doesn’t matter. “This [type of] photo is about the pretty girl on her wedding day—not the room,” she says.

Casual Arrangements
Unframed photographic display techniques, like “gallery wrap” prints (sometimes called “canvas wrapped” prints) offer a contemporary look that’s perfect for casual photos of children and families. Compared to matted and framed portraits hung under glass, gallery wraps are lightweight and easily moved. Helms says she fulfills 75 percent of her wall portrait business through gallery wraps.

When deciding where to hang a photograph, it’s important to think about the furniture and objects that will be around it—to anchor it, give it life and integrate it into its new setting.

One nice effect is to hang “found” objects or a small painting related to the scene in the portrait, to bring the display to life and tell the story of your family’s memorable moment. For instance, a large family portrait taken by the seashore could be hung in a grouping that includes smaller, candid outtakes of individuals—plus a sand dollar, framed in an acrylic shadow box, found that very day. Casual arrangements like this thrive in odd numbers and a mix of textures and tones. A display like this would be ideal in the family room or kitchen—the family hub.

Before putting hammer to nail, carefully work out your casual arrangement on the floor. Gather kraft paper, scissors, a pencil, a roll of painter’s tape (it won’t damage the finish on your walls), and a measuring tape. Trace and cut a template to the size of each photo and object. Shuffle them around until you find the arrangement that pleases you. Tape the templates on the wall and let the size and shape of your items determine the distance apart you should hang everything. Depending on the amount of wall you hope to fill with your casual display, consider spacing your items anywhere from 1 to 3 inches apart. Let your eye be your guide; when objects are different sizes and shapes, there are no hard rules, but your arrangement will feel more cohesive if you select a width and remain consistent with it as you hang the other items in the group.

Gallery Walls Go With the Flow
A gallery wall is a look that homeowners can use with great effect. A gallery wall display will be of a much larger scale than the aforementioned small-scale grouping. Whereas a casual arrangement may have three, five or seven items on display, a gallery wall may feature photographs hung virtually from floor to ceiling over an expanse of wall. This arrangement is especially interesting because viewers take in the entire effect, rather than focus on just one piece. Hallways and stairways are great places to set up a gallery wall because these spaces tend to have a long run of wall space that makes it easy to add more photos as life goes on. A gallery wall, in other words, evolves over time.

Helms calls black and white photography “the great unifier” for times when it’s difficult to coordinate people and their outfits—or if you’re taking a new photo that needs to fit in with other photos that were taken at a different time, in different locations or with different people, such as in a gallery wall. She says, “A storyline progresses so well through black and white photography because the focus is on the faces. Black and white eliminates the distraction of colors.”

Because a gallery wall has a wandering nature, some people like to add to the contemporary vibe by mixing in paintings and colorful prints with the photos. Doing so helps break up the sea of faces and allows the gallery to have a more organic, free-form feeling. Choose two, three or even five photographs to be the landing pads for your gaze and place them near the middle of the gallery.

It’s best to establish a layout for your gallery wall before you start hanging pictures. If you’re just getting your gallery wall started, find the focal point of the wall and start your arrangement there. Over time, your gallery wall will fan out from that point and eventually fill the entire expanse.

Remember, for most people, a gallery wall doesn’t happen all at once—it grows over time. But, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? So that you don’t end up feeling like you have a lone cluster of activity on an otherwise big blank wall, find the most interesting part of the wall to be your starting focal point. You might be living with your gallery this way for some time, until you can add to it and expand it. Not sure where it is? Look to the landing area in the stairwell or that bit of wall you first see when you enter the hallway, and see if either of those spots beckon to you.

Formal Looks
When you have a particular theme you wish to uphold (or if you simply prefer a more formal look), have all the photos matted and framed in an identical style and size, and hang them evenly spaced. Whether you wish to display individual portraits of your children, or a collection of wedding photos from several generations of family members, a symmetrical arrangement is the most formal display and perfect for a living room or foyer.

Your family’s portraits are works of art, and an at-home gallery is sure to enliven your home with great personality and flair. After careful planning, perhaps even with the help of a professional, you can admire your family’s beauty on a daily basis when you thoughtfully display their photographs throughout your home.

HANGING HINTS
Hanging a single picture on the wall is easy—so, why not approach hanging a group of pictures in the same way? Visualize an imaginary frame around the grouping. This imaginary frame can help you with the horizontal and vertical placement of all the photos and ensure that your group will have an organized, cohesive look.

When hanging multiple pictures on an expanse of wall and contemplating the proper amount of space to put around each one, DO let your eye be your guide, but also let a little math into the equation, too. You can use an old-fashioned yardstick, or let an online picture hanging/gallery wall calculator like www.datawranglers.com/tools/wallhanging.php do the math for you!

To stay in control of your gallery and create a sense of order, use identical mats in ivory or another soft white shade (all the same width) and similarly styled frames to unify the diverse group. For the most uniform look, use identical frames. But if you want to embrace an eclectic look, you can mix things up by sticking with frames of a consistent material (wood or metal) and color (black, gold, silver, red or even natural wood), but allowing slight variations in style—beaded edges, scrolled edges, ornate frames, plain frames. Each image will dictate whether a thicker or thinner version of the frame will suit it best.

Use the right hardware:
■  Use a nail and a hooked hanger when items weigh between one and five pounds; use a nail that’s at least 1 1/2 inches long and hammer it into the wall at an angle (the hanger will guide the nail for you).
■  Use a screw when the item is between five and 50 pounds. Starting at 15 pounds, that screw should also use a plastic wall anchor. The screw should be drilled in at an angle
and should be at least 2 inches long.
■  Whether using a nail or a screw, it is always best to find a wooden stud to hammer or drill into because it will give you the strongest hold.

Source: Jerry Shore, The Framery

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