If we stay true to the goal of having humility and grace as artists and respect for our subjects, then making timeless photographs which capture moments instead of heads and shoulders is a priority. We need to redefine the portrait.
Where it all went wrong
Somewhere in photography's deep dark past, an employee at JC Penney's "Portrait Studio" redefined the "portrait." Likely based upon a lack of understanding about paintings depicting the rich and famous, this unknown technician decided that a subject's head and shoulders would provide enough information for a viewer to appreciate the person as a whole. And so the banal world of head-shots passing as portraits was created.
The premise was wrong and the result is worse. The answer lies in going back to the original idea and understanding it.
It all started with death masks. A wax or plaster cast made of a person’s face following death, the masks were used as mementos of the dead or for religious purposes. These later evolved into sculpted busts of the living. Later still came paintings, which took their cue from the past. Capturing the rich and famous, painted portraits take considerable time—on average, about four days of sitting. (Robin Simon, The Portrait in Britain and America, G. K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1987, p. 131) (Cézanne, however, insisted on over 100 sittings for his subjects.) Because of the time involved, the variety of potential expression is rather limited. As Charles Dickens put it, "there are only two styles of portrait painting: the serious and the smirk." (Gordon C. Aymar, The Art of Portrait Painting, Chilton Book Co., Philadelphia, 1967, p. 129.)
|If you're going to do "head-shots," do them with a purpose.|
Some painted portraits took a wider view, including detailed settings and props. These features were added to inform the spectator about the subject's social standing, wealth, education, and experience. But they are contrived sets. (See, as an example, Pompeo Batoni's portrait of Francis Basset, 1st Baron of Dunstanville.)
|Pompeo Batoni's portrait of Francis Basset, 1st Baron of Dunstanville.|
In Part 2, we will discuss how to make things right and start making portraits that not only matter, but last.