Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Further on Portraits

The term “portrait” originates from 12th Century French:
portraireMiddle French
  Verb
portraire
      1. to portray (represent with images, words, etc.)
Used in art, a “portrait” is an image which depicts a person’s likeness, mood, personality—in short, what makes that person an individual. We use the term as a colloquial phrase: “paint a portrait for me,” meaning “tell me all the details so I can visualize this in my mind without actually seeing it.”

In painted portraits, the subject’s face and expression usually predominate, but invariably include other details about the person. Painted portraits often contain significant symbols which clue the audience in to what this person’s life was about. That could be the objects on a desk, the trappings of a room, or the features of a land-owner’s pasture. A value of a painted portrait is that it contains these environmental factors, because it is those which inform us about the subject’s values and desires, and indeed how he wishes the world to know him.

Unfortunately, “portrait,” like a lot of other terms, has lost its significance as it has been passed down through different methods of expression. The term portrait has been co-opted into photography without all the elements which exist in painting and it has been bastardized to the point that there are very few “portraits” taken these days. (Consider the horror that department stores have “portrait studios"!) 

The key to successful portrait is to provide environmental factors about the subject which inform the audience about the essence of the person. In painting, those elements are included by the painter. In photography, those elements have become a matter of chance. Few portraits focus on anything other than the particular subject. As a result they tend to be rather flat and uninformative.

Worse, the supposed experts of modern portrait photography do exactly the opposite of capturing portraits: they are scene designers—not portrait makers. This horrible reality is described in a recent interview with the man considered to be one of the greatest living portrait photographers. He says:
It’s also about composition. The way I shoot my portraits a lot is by figuring out my frame, then putting the subject in there. A lot of what people consider portraits to me aren’t portraits. It’s not like shooting a canvas shot with a 180mm lens. That’s not a portrait. It’s a picture of a person, but it’s not a portrait.

A portrait to me is much more figured out and collaborative. I’m actually figuring out my frame very carefully on the tripod, and then the subject comes in and they become a part of this frame that already exists. 
 
* * *
If you remove a subject from the portrait—if you put your thumb over them—would there still be an interesting picture there? And with my pictures, it’s not always, but to a great extent, they would still be interesting to look at. That’s a big reason for the tripod. 
(I won’t provide a link, because I don’t want to take part in that sophistry.) 

Yikes. Nothing could be further from the meaning of “portrait” than to arrange a frame which could happily exist without the subject.

Portrait photography in its proper meaning was described by Henri Cartier-Bresson:
If the photographer is to have a chance of achieveing a true relection of a person’s world—which is as much outside him as inside him—it is necessary that the subject of the portrait should be in a situation normal to him. We must respect the atmosphere which surrounds the human being, and integrate into the portrait the individual’s habitat . . . . Above all, the sitter must be made to forget about the camera and the photographer who is handling it. Complicated equipment and light reflectors and various other items of hardware are enough, to my mind, to prevent the biridie from coming out. 
(The Mind’s Eye, 30-31; see also the previous post: A Lost Generation.)

The key to a portrait is understanding the subject and then observing the subject—and decidedly it is not about placing the subject in a pretty frame which could exist independently without the subject. Again, that is not a portrait: it is set design.

Sadly, our “greatest living” “portrait” photographers are doing substantial damage both to the understanding and acceptance of photographs as art, and to the understanding of how good images get made. Making great sets and lighting them well has little, if anything, to do with the advantages which photographic equipment provides. Small, silent cameras and fast lenses provide the photographer with the ability to be in the subject’s space in an unobstrusive way, allowing the photographer to observe the subject and what is important to the subject. Tossing that substantial benefit in favor of controlling the environment in a studio and creating a fictional environment for the subject which fits the photographer's idea of what the subject should care about is damaging to photography as a whole.

There are great images which appear in books and magazines of famous people, taken by famous people who use cameras. Some of those pictures may even rise to the level of art. But the fact that a camera was used to make the image is irrelevant. Regardless how those images were created, they simply aren’t “portraits.”