Portraits: Toward Capturing Moments (Part 1)

One of the more common photographs taken is of a subject we know, which will be shown to friends or family of that subject. This approach to "portraits" allows the photographer to make presumptions about (and to some extent rely upon) the spectator's knowledge of the subject and therefore not engage in a thoughtful process about who the subject is and what particular moment should be captured. The default composition for this kind of portrait results in department-store style head shots which don't tell much, if anything, about the character of the subject.

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.

Paintings require time. Subjects had to sit for many hours for even a rough outline to be made, and the details took months at the soonest. This demand of labor required the painter to emphasize the most significant feature of the subject, and so painting imitated the "portrait" concept of the sculpted bust.

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.

Photography has none of the labor or time restrictions of painters or sculptors and photographers should not be bound by conceptions of the portrait that were merely the result of those restrictions. Cameras can capture the full detail of any scene in a fraction of a second. With its greater power to capture a variety of detail, a photographed portrait can, and should be, an entirely different creation. Instead of the most banal features of a person's posed head and shoulders, a photographic portrait can provide an understanding of the subject by including the context of the scene in which the captured moment takes place. This greater context is what leads to an informative and interesting portrait which only the speed of photography can capture.

In Part 2, we will discuss how to make things right and start making portraits that not only matter, but last.