Saturday, May 12, 2007

What Makes a Picture a Portrait?

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1946, by Henri Cartier-Bresson

While proctoring today I was flipping through some books I picked up at the library. The first I looked at was A Virtual Zoo by Frank Horvat, a book comprised of digital composites of zoo animals placed on wilderness backgrounds. Maybe it was the purposeful disparity between location and habitat, but I didn't really get into it.

Then I picked up Tete a Tete by Henri Cartier-Bresson ("HCB"), a legendary french photographer (if only I knew how to do accents in Blogger!). For the record, my favorite photograph is HCB's Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris. Everytime I look at it I can feel the lone figure just taking off and flying away. Anyway... Tete a Tete is a compilation of many of HCB's portraits including legendary figures like Picasso, Faulkner, Jung, Monroe (Marilyn, that is), Stravinsky, and many others. While reading it, I finally realized the difference between a picture and a portrait.

Wait, let me back up a bit.

Lately, I've been pondering what makes a good portrait for purely practical reasons. If I am going to photograph my friends and their children, I need to know what will please them. Also, I've been thinking more and more about doing some senior pictures for some of the students I meet in my other job. But in order to do these shoots, and do them well, I need to know what to aim for.

Obviously, the technicals need to be right, such as focus, shutter speed, depth of field, composition, and dynamic range. I still haven't completely mastered that stuff but I am getting there. But what takes a photo from a snapshot to a portrait that the parents and grandparents want to stick on the mantle and brag about? For senior pictures, what will please both Jane, Jane's parents, and make all Jane's friends go on and on about how it looks just like her?

Well, E. H. Gombrich's introduction to Tete a Tete cleared that up. Pictures stop a moment in time. Portraits are pictures where the captured moment represents the personality of the subject. Put another way, portraits capture an essence of the subject's personality.

Note I say an essence. Good portraits will capture one element of a person's personality: her happiness, his authority, her anxiety, his pain... Depending on the purpose of the portrait, certain elements might be prized. For public figures, especially in historical portraits, the public persona is what is prized, so the portraits are strict, authoritative, and show the subject as very strong. Other portraits are designed to show the softer side of the subject, such as maternity portraits.

To take it a step further, great portraits capture more than one element of a personality. Everyone has multiple sides to their personality -- I act differently around my kids than I do at work or when I play poker with my buddies. In order to teach, I often feel that I need to put on a character, an exageration of me who is more extroverted, more engaging, and more lively. While it is easy to capture a single expression, it is difficult to capture an expression nuanced with more than one aspect of the subject's personality. If you can capture the decisive moment (HCB's term), the portrait will appeal to a large audience. Furthermore, those that don't even know the subject will be drawn in and engaged and feel a connection with someone they've never met. The Mona Lisa smile is more than just a happy smile.

Returning to Tete a Tete, Plate 47 (reproduced at the top of this entry) is an excellent example of a multi-dimensional portrait. Jean-Paul Sartre caught my eye and I was immediately drawn in, learning new things second by second about the person and photographic artistry. First, I examined Sartre himself: intelligent, thoughtful, distracted. Wait! His eyes are looking in different directions! Who is he talking to? Then, the background drew me in: a bridge, probably Paris, misty buildings, a few out of focus figures. And then back to Sartre: this is the place he inhabits, his environment. After all, it should always return to the subject in the end.

Simply beautiful.

So, how can I please my clients? Capture personality as much as possible. Personality is contained in facial expression, posture, gaze, location, and props, among other things. Of course, all of that stuff is hard to keep in mind as you struggle with the technical stuff. It should get easier with practice though.

And, if I want to be a portrait artist instead of a simple photographer, it needs to be done.

No comments: