What is a Portrait?

Olivia Dantes as she appeared for the shoot. San Francisco, CA, 2011

I am always wrestling with the idea of what constitutes a portrait. Wikipedia defines a portrait as “a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.”

I suppose this is a good starting definition. In displaying the likeness of the sitter, who defines that likeness? I once heard it said that a portrait is four such likenesses. The person as they want to be seen, the person as the artist sees them, the person as the viewer sees them and the person as they really are. I think this last one is what I prefer to strive for, but often only achieve with great difficulty. To get to that true likeness, there are a lot of barriers to break through.

Olivia Dantes, American Apparel Dress, San Francisco, CA, 2011

The person as they want to be seen is a huge barrier. Everyone has a mask they present to the world, especially to a photographer.  They pick clothes they might not usually wear, thinking it makes them look better. Hair gets cut or styled. Makeup is applied. Families all show up in matching clothes. When I am shooting a model, I have them bring several outfits to the shoot. But I try to start out photographing them in the clothes they arrived in.  The first photo of Olivia Dantes is in the clothes she arrived in – black tank and sneakers. I had Olivia do her own make-up rather than bringing in a make-up and hair person. At least then, I get the person’s own view of themselves and probably a more realistic representation.

The person as the artist sees them is similarly difficult to transcend. I see Olivia as a beautiful woman and tend to accentuate that.  For this shoot I brought an orange dress and blue fishnets, with the idea that they would highlight the tattoos – an essential element of her personality. Since there is a lot of orange and blue in her tattoos, I wanted to bring those colors out. We ripped the fishnets to expose the tattoos. So we almost ended up creating a character for Olivia to play, rather than getting a true portrait.

Olivia Dantes, Nude, San Francisco, CA, 2011

The person as the viewer sees them. This is always in my mind. For my tattoo series I enjoy breaking through that prejudice that a lot of people have that tattoos are garish or unfeminine.  To me they are a big part of determining a person’s personality, at least in what they want to project to the world. One subject told me that she was always nasty and rude until she got her tattoos. Then they became her shield and she relaxed and could be more herself.  In this nude, the gentle lines and elegance of her pose soften the edges of the tattoos and present a peaceful and graceful portrait to the viewer.

Olivia Dantes, Black Dress, San Francisco, CA, 2011

Finally, there is the true likeness, the holy grail of portrait photography.  We put Olivia in a black dress. There is an elegance and simplicity that does not distract. The eye focuses on the face, arms and hands. These are the most expressive parts of the body. In this shot, we have her beautiful elegance, simple hair and makeup. Her eyes sparkle showing her intelligence. The slightly uplifted chin telegraphs her strength. My favorite thing is the interlocked index fingers. Perhaps they betray a little bit of unguarded vulnerability and create a gentle counterpoint to the vibrant, strong images tattooed on her arms. This portrait illustrates one of those in between moments we photographers crave. It gives us that insight into the true likeness.

As the great portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh wrote, “Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. 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 lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.”

4 Responses to What is a Portrait?

  1. Jack November 3, 2011 at 4:58 am #

    Very nice, Scott. I enjoyed spending time on this page.

  2. Roger Aben November 29, 2011 at 4:36 am #

    I really like your writing style, fantastic information, regards for putting up : D.

  3. Bed bugs no more December 23, 2011 at 1:43 am #

    I like this website it’s a master piece! Glad I discovered this on google.

  4. Ernest Foslien January 2, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    Loving the info on this website , you have done great job on the articles .

Leave a Reply

WPU and WOO on WP