We don’t load cameras much anymore, but we still aim them and shoot pictures. With that in mind I get a bang out of describing my pursuit of portraits as hunting big game: sometimes famous, always fascinating. I try to get close enough for a good clean shot — close as in rapport, not just proximity — to avoid gratuitous wounds. I bag my quarry with only a lens, but I still hang their heads on a wall to admire like trophies.
For me, the memorialization of an encounter with an extraordinary human being, in one shot so to speak, epitomizes the hunt. When it goes well, when I’m proud enough of a portrait to add it to my collection, it’s because my subject has allowed me to reveal something personal within a two-dimensional frame, a graphically engaging composition embellished by light and shadow.
I enjoy the privilege conferred by my camera to meet movers and shakers; once in a while to exchange ideas and opinions, if only for an instant of egalitarian conceit. Sometime’s, I feel like I’m engaged in a perpetual series of graduate-course lectures about — well, practically everything. I always learn something, no matter whom I photograph.
More than illustrations of interesting people or handsome faces, portraiture is about making allusions to the character of a human being, a persona. I try to to show as much about what someone does, often professionally, as much as who they are personally. Despite my best attempts to prepare in advance, any photoshoot can go sideways; and, like a MacGyver episode, it becomes necessary to solve a cascade of unexpected challenges involving lenses, cameras, props, wardrobe, lighting, location, deadlines, weather … someone’s temperament. It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes, the big one gets away.
Ultimately, my relationship with each sitter is the photograph. It is also my reward. Rarely does a long-lasting relationship ensue. Always, however, a record remains of what we each saw, looking at each other. In that moment, frozen in time, the camera is a surrogate for the viewer.
Looking at a photographic portrait is, to paraphrase neuroscientist Sam Harris, a hack of human psychology, a novel experience in evolutionary terms because you can stare at a portrait — right into someone’s eyes — with no compulsion to flinch and look away. It’s crucial to know that you can’t help forming an idea in your mind about what the subject is thinking or feeling, even though the subject is observed neither in real time nor moving about in the real world. Yet you will still experience empathy for the subject of a portrait. So what if it’s what the photographer wants you to think or feel, what the photograph evokes in you, the viewer? Harris points out the irony of losing one’s sense of self in this condition, becoming self-effaced when looking at someone else’s face, if you will. Portraits also help us understand that other people are always looking at us; that we are all subjects for others to perceive.
Today, everyone has a camera. We all take pictures. We’ve all had our picture taken, often with family and friends. We’ve all got our selfie faces now, too. But the experience of being portrayed can hardly be taken for granted. It is an act of total engagement, often executed by a total stranger. The photographer is that stranger.
Few of us have been invited to face a photographer’s punctilious attention. It’s uncomfortable taking direction, being manipulated into a pose. It is unnerving to be stared at through a lens. Rarer than posing with only a camera on a tripod between you and the photographer is the experience of being isolated, precisely the subject of attention, amidst a forest of light stands, cables, booms, flags, cookies, umbrellas, and other arcane paraphernalia; to flinch at the loud pop and bright flash of strobe lights while production stylists, editors, and photo assistants hover about. Regardless, in my opinion, every successful portrait is contrived — in the best sense of the word. It is a collaborative effort, executed with deliberation and care. A portrait takes time. But you can’t take a portrait. A portrait is made. Otherwise, it’s merely a snapshot.
I don’t capture anyone’s likeness surreptitiously; my subjects participate knowingly. Sure, I take advantage of spontaneity, but a portrait cannot be described as “candid” just for being fleet or unrehearsed. The idea of a “candid portrait” is an oxymoron. A portrait photographer must be prepared to react to unexpected mannerisms and expressions. However, luck is incidental to the conceptual rigor that goes into the creation of a telling portrait, the thoughtfulness that goes into it, long before the photographer plonks down a camera.
Imagine the close-up of a wrinkled old man in some far-flung locale, probably wearing a turban, or the typical “pretty girl in native costume.” Despite being sharply focused, well exposed, and adequately composed, those kinds of pictures are souvenirs made on the fly by camera enthusiasts and tourists. Photojournalists, I concede, will include stereotyped depictions in their reportage, but only as grace notes to compliment a larger set of pictures that, when well edited, tell a broader story. When seen on their own, however, do such photographs really exhibit the benchmarks of a portrait? Personally, I don’t think so. It should be more than an agreeable likeness. More than superficially, it should dramatize one aspect or another of its subject’s persona, yet with concision, and be able to stand on its own. Portraiture is an art form, not a format.
Whether shot with an iPhone or a $47,000 digital Hasselblad or an oatmeal box with a pinhole, a portrait is the result of a photographer’s interaction with a sitter. It is rarely a photographer’s one-sided depiction because, to one degree or another, it reflects the sitter’s intellectual participation. It should also be self-evident why it was made, certainly not to recreate a cliché. In the hands of an artist, even an iPhone or an oatmeal box is a fine tool for creating portraits. Only the result counts, not the kind of camera, merely a tool, used to create it.
On another note, a portrait should not be expected to flatter, although there is no reason why it cannot. Many great ones do. It’s just not the general intent; not a prerequisite. It’s reasonable to say, however, that a portrait should never be deliberately insulting. That said, the parties on opposite ends of a camera, let alone critics, don’t always agree on what is good or bad. For instance, I have no compunctions about showing every whisker and pore on a man’s face. But would I dare show such sharp detail on a woman’s face? There will certainly be exceptions; but I might expect to get some pushback about the latter from someone or another, if not the subject herself, if I did. What about makeup? What about retouching? There are no rules governing personal style and technique.
Personally, I like the reductive drama conveyed by black-and-white when character is the essential theme of a portrait, particularly when I’m focusing in tight on a face. I don’t disdain color; color is often complimentary to what I want to say about the subject. Or the location won’t look right without it. It is usually obvious, at the outset, which medium to choose (unless a client makes that decision for you); although both a color and a black-and-white version can sometimes be equally compelling.
Portraitists, whether they rely on film, pixels, pencils, or paint, are storytellers. Those who use a camera are concise storytellers indeed, working in a medium with only two dimensions (unlike sculptors) and only one frame (unlike moviemakers). Photographers have less leeway than writers (in particular biographers) who can exploit their readers’ boundless imaginations. One also hopes to make a portrait during an important episode in the subject’s personal life or career because it adds to a good story; and the moment itself is preserved in historical context.
Creating art makes us human. Looking at humans as the subjects of art comes full circle with portraiture. When photons bounce off living beings, yanked through the barrel of a lens by an occult force called “the mind’s eye” to converge at a focal point on a light-sensitive substrate inside a dark box, two parties on either side of this contraption, a camera, are committed to telling a story for one endlessly enduring moment. That’s portraiture, the still life of a human being. It’s magic.