Friday, December 2, 2011

Just What the Heck Goes into Making a Portrait?

In 1994, while still using film cameras I was asked by a camera club to
give a presentation on Portraiture.
I named it,
“Strangers in the Light”

The following is a condensed version of what I now feel are the most salient points.

What is a portrait?
In its simplest definition, it is an image of a person which gives us information.

Famous person’s portrait pixilated by
the electronic engineers at Bell Tele Labs
How is it that we recognize this person?
Unique qualities

Through the right equipment, lighting, psychology and timing, portraiture must reveal more than just skin and bones and pixels. And so this is our challenge - the making of the image that is in the sitter’s mind to become one and the same…and more!

“Facing” the Challenge
Our subjects will come to us with a certain style they require for a certain end purpose.
Portrait Types-
Literal -
Aware of camera
Looks into lens
“Active” e.g. Publicity/Promotional; for loved ones
Interpretive –
Unaware of camera
Not looking at lens; environmental; documentary
“Passive” e.g. workers on the job
Observed or “Found-Face” –
The combination of some of the above or any single element
Candid’s of captured moments of friends, family, strangers

Be on the Out What You Are Inside
Some Thoughts on the Psychology of Portraiture

Can, and must, the photographer capture the elusive revelations of the internal psychological truths offered by the face and body? Are the psychological attributes and expectations that of the subject, photographer or both?

Paraphrasing Yusuf Karsh: It is my task to reveal the secret that is hidden within the sitter.
Richard Avedon (on influencing the total mood): “A dark background fills, a white background empties”
Karsh: “The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lighting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting moment of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.”
H.F.Peters, describing in Rainer Marie Rilke’s MASKS AND THE MAN: “The mask serves a dual purpose; it conceals and it reveals.”

The trick, I believe, is to make the mask cease to exist.

So can a photographer capture character without capturing his own influence on the subject…his own sense of beauty or truth?
Duane Michals: Labels most portraits lies, because they are, he says, “the mere geography of somebody’s face having an artificial encounter with an object…the lens.”
Avedon: Insists a portrait is not a likeness, as the moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact, but an opinion.”

Finally, in surprising comparison and contrast-

Sculptor Alberto Giacometti: Quoted by writer James Lord while painting his portrait,
“I have enough trouble with the outside without bothering about the inside.”

Environmental versus Studio

Environmental – Reveals more about the truth of the subject
Studio- Artificial surroundings call upon the face/body to perform the most

The Environmental Portrait
– To achieve a translation of our experience of this person beyond their size, shape or color.
One notable study has shown that people are judged more attractive when they are seen in rooms which are themselves aesthetically pleasing. Cautionary Note: The use of certain lenses and especially, placement and quality of lighting, can have the capacity to detrimentally intrude and alter the character of the room. Judicious use of these elements is advised. Many photographers pick a time of day whereby ambient/available light plays the major role in recording the naturalness of the scene.

Expression, gesture, lighting and d├ęcor are the keys to revealing class, vocational interests, and an enhanced psychological complexion.
Should inform viewer with an interpretive record about the subject.
Can be an inventive collaboration with the subject to make it work.
It may be environmental in nature, but it still is the face that matters most. The right selection of light for a particular individual can make obvious all the wonderful modulations of the face.

Leonardo DaVinci: “Very great charm of shadow and light is to be found in the faces of those who sit in the doors of dark houses. The part of the face which is lit draws its brilliancy from the splendor of the sky; the shadow side lost in the darkness of the house revealing a face which stands out in great relief…and beauty. The relief is the summit and the soul of painting”

The Studio Portrait- More on this in another article.

Some concluding thoughts
In facing the challenge of creating a portrait, or in other words, creating APPARENT PICTURES OF UNAPPARENT NATURES, I think about the face that comes before me…what does it want me to do? Does it want to be transformed into the idea of itself behind the skin; an idea or an image of which I have no access to?
If my rendition of the face, and the owner of the face, give the same visible communication, than all is well.
And finally, and this IS the challenge…making the face say only what it has come here to say.