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Thread: The Art of the Portrait

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Currently New York

    The Art of the Portrait

    I'd like to elicit people's thoughts on what portraiture is about.

    Yesterday, I was reading Ansel Adams's book Examples. In the course of a discussion on his portrait of Carolyn Abspacher, Adams says:

    ...I had a strong conviction that the most effective photographic portrait is one that reveals the basic character of the subject in a state of repose, when the configurations of the face suggest identity and personaliity... I am still of this persuasion; the usual "candid" photograph is but one moment of the subject's lifetime, a fragment usually related only to the artifact of the shutter's action... Occasionally an image of a passing expression can represent a broad aspect of the personality, but it is rarely a complete portrait. (p. 36)
    Then this, a page later:

    My picture of Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox is not, in my opinion, a portrait but a rewarding record of a valued moment and engaging personalities.
    This is the photograph of O'Keefe and Cox that Adams says is not a portrait:

    I have also been looking at Richard Avedon's portraits. I'll call them portraits, but I don't think that Adams would. They strike me as an extension of Avedon's work as a fashion photographer. He plays director, and casts his subjects in a role. For example, his brutal portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Or his American West series, where it seems to me that Avedon used his subjects as the raw material for a larger artistic scheme. One can see the same thing in some of Karsh's work. He manipulated Churchill, albeit in a way that suited Churchill's image, but is his photograph a portrait in the sense that Adams used the word? Probably not. Did he do to Churchill what Avedon did to the Windors, but to benign rather than malicious effect? I think so. If Adams is right, none of the works of Avedon and Karsh to which I've referred are portraits. They are something else; what, I'm not sure.

    I have a book of Paul Strand's work that features his Young Boy, Gondeville, France on the cover. As far as I can tell, this is widely seen as his most arresting portrait, but why is that? Is it because of something that Strand did, or is it due to his subject's drop-dead good looks? Is it a portrait, or a splendid photograph of a pretty youth?

    I have the sense that environmental portraits are much more likely to capture "the person", if that is what portraits are supposed to do, than traditional shoulder and head shots. Maybe that's why I think that Paul Strand's photograph of Georges Bracque convinces me as a portrait in a way that his Young Boy does not. I can imagine Strand wanting to capture Braque's casual but elegant dress, and looking into the corner of his ground glass to make sure that the crab was in the frame, and ensuring that his exposure would capture the paraphernalia of what appears to be Braque's studio. I get the same sense of context, and supporting layers of meaning, from some of Arnold Newman's portraits.

    But at bottom, I am skeptical of the whole idea that the purpose of a portrait is to capture "the person". If this is true, it follows that a portrait should be judged on whether it succeeds in this function, yet the judgment can't be made without intimate knowledge of the subject. I'm pretty sure that the Winston Churchill in Karsh's portrait isn't the "real' Winston Churchill, yet it is still a fine photograph. And is it not arrogant for a photographer, who usually knows very little about his subject apart from perhaps the subject's reputation, to claim to capture the subject's "personality" or "inner being"? I think that Avedon did the honest thing, and abandoned the pretense.

    There is a practical reason why I am interested in this discussion. I'm about to embark on a photographic project about the community where I live. I have to decide what role, if any, portraiture has in this project, and, if it has a role, how to go about making the portraits. I've never done a portrait in the sense that Adams uses the word, and I'm not sure that I believe in what he claimed to do. My photographs of people, such as the one below from what is known here as a kitchen party, are what Adams would regard as the capture of a moment, and if I'm going to haul out the large format camera, and do something more formal, I need to get clear in my head what I'm trying to achieve by doing so:

    Last edited by r.e.; 18-Oct-2009 at 10:10. Reason: spelling error

  2. #2
    Claudio Santambrogio
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    At home

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    Don't forget that the idea (the concept) and the praxis of "portraiture" have a history which is significantly longer than the history of photography. Any discussion about portraiture should, in my view, start by asking your question to the history of figurative arts (or at least, of paintings) - and start finding the answers that artists (or, well, "portraitists") have give to it in the course of centuries.

    Incidentally, this also applies to just a more technical level - there's an awful lot that can be learned about composition, posture, lighting, etc from portrait paintings of the "great masters".

  3. #3

    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Kalamazoo, MI

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    With regard to Newman, he seems to say that the individual can be discerned by the environment they inhabit. In many of his images, the individual is dwarfed by their surroundings. In some cases, this works very effectively; but I'd hate to think that a picture of me at work with computers really portrays who I am.

  4. #4

    Join Date
    May 2007
    Ramona, CA

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    I believe there are merits to many different types of Portraiture. I believe it is most true that people are more themselves when they think no one is watching or paying attention to them, so it stands to reason that you could very effectively portray a persons essence in a candid moment.

    I feel R.E.'s image above speaks volumes about the young girl in the photograph.

    I think this is a great discussion idea and I'm looking forward to reading how others feel on this subject!
    Last edited by Tori Nelson; 18-Oct-2009 at 11:13. Reason: spelling

  5. #5

    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    New York City

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    Anything you might learn from a portrait is information that the photographer is giving you, not the person seen in the photo. A portrait is a creative thing. If you think that you are going to photograph a person's inner soul or something else like that, you will always be disappointed and frustrated. If you just accept that portraits are made by the photographer you will have a much more fulfilling experience. You have to be in control. If the "subject" can be a collaborator in your creation, that's a big plus for you but there is no guarantee.

    Look outside of photo history for some good knowledge about portraits. Cheers.

  6. #6

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    While this is an interesting subject, I doubt anyone can recommend a valid approach for you.

    And I'm not sure it's a worthwhile endeavor to fix a meaning of "portraiture" either. Form should derive from content with a minimum of conscious effort. Why are you taking pictures of this community? What are you trying to evoke or reveal?

    Without suggesting that you adopt his approach, take a look at "Asakusa Portraits" by Hiroh Kikai. His portraits, all taken with a Hasselblad and standard lens in natural lighting, are diverse in content but share an austere form. The subjects are usually in natural-looking poses of their own choice, and the backgrounds are neutral temple walls (vermilion in reality, but expressed as medium grey in the photos). Because of the consistent background, it would be difficult to argue these are "environmental portraits" after Newman. But the subjects are nonetheless revealed through their posture, their clothing, and objects they are holding (a stuffed bear, a bag). Further, while Kikai's portraits reflect a "studio" aesthetic in their careful composition and controlled (but natural) lighting, his subjects are chosen from passers-by. According to the essays in the book, Kikai makes an effort to depict people at the margins of society; his chosen subjects reflect a certain democracy of form (they are not paying clients or public figures) as well as a coherent geographic and ideological focus (he only takes portraits at the temple in Asakusa, and intentionally selects subjects outside the mainstream of Japanese society).

    Instead of deciding that "portraiture" must be part of your project, and then attempting to define it, why not consider your values and desires towards your subject? In my opinion form should follow from this inquiry, rather than being imposed as a diktat intended to bring your photographs under a particular genre title.

  7. #7
    Mark Sawyer's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Stuck inside of Tucson with the Memphis blues again...

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    R.E. ~ As you've already noted, "portrait photography" can mean many different things to different photographers. Your image falls outside what I would consider portraiture, being more in the 35mm street photography or documentary style of someone like Cartier-Bresson. (Did you notice Adams used a 35mm ofor the image of Cox and O'Keefe?)

    Many (important qualifier!) large format portraits follow the traditions of painted portraits, being formally posed, carefully composed studies concerned not just with the person, but with vision, technique, and the physical presence of the work itself. Only rarely do we see that critical "decisive moment" or a candid glimpse in a view camera portrait, and it is often staged...

    If you want the more candid moments in large format, a 4x5 press camera or Graflex SLR would be a more appropriate tool than a view camera. But the big question, as you already know, is "what do you want to do?" I'd suggest doing both styles. You may choose one or the other, or (more likely, I think), find a place for both...
    "I love my Verito lens, but I always have to sharpen everything in Photoshop..."

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Currently New York

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    Thanks all. If I said that there is a practical reason for raising the issue, it was because I didn't want to be accused of raising academic questions. It was my perhaps hamfisted way of trying to provide a concrete context for the question. Same for the way that I framed the issues. Others might, and probably will, frame them differently. It was just my attempt to get a discussion going. I'm not really looking for advice on my particular project. That would constrain the discussion. I'm interested in seeing what people think about this subject generally.

    Mark, yes I've read what Adams had to say about how he made the O'Keefe/Cox photograph.

  9. #9

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    For all his other magnificent abilities I think Adams was a weak portraitist. IMO, his best portrait is the one he states to be not a portrait. (O'Keefe and Cox) I find many of his portraits to be wooden.

    I suspect that to Adams, O'Keefe and Cox is not a portrait because he made the picture without the same intention he would have applied to a "portrait assignment". I call it a portrait largely for the iconic placement of the figures against the sky. The picture also begs for an explanation from the viewer. Gesture and expression pose a question. What were they saying? Why the mischievous grin on O'Keefe's face? Orville looks like a bashful suitor caught in an embarrassing moment. Everyone else probably has their own take on this but that's mine. The caption or knowledge of who the subjects are almost detracts from the picture. Almost.

    All that said, I'd look beyond Adams for a definition or example of a great maker of portraiture.

    My advice for anyone who wants to make great portraits is to strive to make your pictures make viewers wonder, make up an explanation or ask questions. If you don't move viewers you didn't do much special.

  10. #10
    Abuser of God's Sunlight
    Join Date
    Aug 2004
    brooklyn, nyc

    Re: The Art of the Portrait

    I agree with Csant; portraiture is a big topic. You might not find One True Answer, but you'll find some involved and interesting conversations.

    Also agree with Henry; I've never seen an Ansel portrait that went that far beyond a run of the mill headshot.

    Maybe that's a way to frame the conversation ... portraiture has existed long before photography, but photography has given us the headshot (and its equivalents). I see these as pictures that are just descriptive (drivers license pictures, yearbook pictures, realtor pictures, etc.) or ones with a commercial bent that try to sell the person (actors' headshots, model portfolio shots, pics you post to your online personal ad, etc.).

    We don't expect the kind of depth from these headshots that we do from portraits.

    There are other categories of posed people pics that fit neither category ...

    Oh, and the OP's question about that strand portrait of the boy ... I love Strand, and many of his portraits, but I've never really gotten that one. It's always struck me as really strained. Maybe someone can explain what I'm missing.

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