My Hungry Heart

People on Portraiture

Posted by shermancharles on February 6, 2008

© Sherman Charles

A great post on the Conscientious blog asking the question – “What makes a great portrait?” The question was sent out to some in the photography community.

In every portrait session I do I learn something new about portraiture. I am not sure if I am “making” a portrait. Sure I am determining lighting, camera angle, camera settings and lens, all things that determine the resulting image and how that image will be interpreted. A portrait with a shallow depth of field will have a different feel that one that is sharp to infinity. So my choice in these factors is a direct statement on my intent. Now the much more difficult and unpredictable variable is the portrait sitter. The person who is having her portrait taken is really the wildcard in the whole equation. Is she in a good mood, a soulful mood, playful, angry, depressed, overjoyed – and if she is anyone of those things is she going to portray the exact opposite when siting before the camera. Is she honest in what she is portraying? Do I, the photographer, care?

If she is happy can/will she portray someone who is sad? If she is sad, can she portray someone who is happy? Of course this happens all the time. Shuffle through the months entertainment magazines and you will see any number of made-up, stylized portraits of celebrities and socialites that may have very little of that celebrity’s true personality. The photographer and team are hired to photograph with a specific look being the result. Selling more magazines, promoting movie/tv show/record/product. This takes us back to the subject of intent. In my eyes, a portrait is a battle of intents, the photographer vs. the sitter. In those magazines I see more the intent of the art director/creative director/publicist/photographer than anything else. So are those really portraits if they are more sales pitches than anything else? It is confusing. I find myself confused even as I write.

Of course we have the cases where the intent of the sitter wins and the photographer does not think it is a good photograph. Perhaps the person being photographed is not conveying any real emotion, feeling, personality – anything that will make a photograph interesting. However it is a portrait. It is capturing an individual in the way they are. But why isn’t it good? Is that what a portrait is supposed to do? Capture someone in the way they are?
I am not quite sure. But I have seen plenty of good portraits. And they all have that “thing”. I think it’s that intangible thing that escapes definition or description. Like some others said in the Conscientious posting, it’s that thing you see when you see it. You don’t quite know why but it touches you somewhere and you say – “that’s fantastic”.

For myself I think a portrait that I like is more a portrait of me than that of the one who was photographed. I think it speaks more to who I am, my likes and dislikes, my mood and personality, my sense of who I am and what is good. It’s like listening to a song when you’re in a certain mood. Or hearing an old song from years past when you were a much different person than you are now. You remember who you were when that song came out. So you liking that song then speaks of who you were then. Conversely how you feel about it now speaks of who you are today.

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One Response to “People on Portraiture”

  1. Amy Stine (Blue) said

    I think that ‘thing’ you have written about (the intangible) is really about capturing the essence of the person. Aside from commercial portraiture, in an individual portrait sitting it should be about capturing a piece of that person, perhaps one that could describe them without words. I have seen this essence captured many times in your portraiture, even in your self-portraits. You definitely have the talent and ability to capture that essence of a person. It’s like you bring that person to life, capturing something about them that perhaps they don’t even see. I have never seen one of your portraits where that is not present (quite impressive). It goes beyond emotion, it is more about capturing the spirit of the person. Amazing.

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