The Dichotomy of the Photographic Portrait.

Portrait Not as View of the Soul, But as Personal Advertising?

What is the relationship between portrait as collaboration and portrait as unbiased recording? If the eyes are windows to the soul, and if in advance of a portrait sitting you’ve basically had the windows washed and lined up all the furniture inside and put on your favorite clothes for an open house, are the photos that result from that sitting any less “real” than a haphazard photojournalistic snapshot someone grabs of a subject at 10PM on a Tuesday night? Are the results from one portrait style more authentic or merit-worthy than another? I recently wrestled with these questions when I got my hands on an advance copy of the March/April 2007 American Photo “Portrait Issue.” Editor, David Schonauer’s piece got my mind really moving–it’s definitely worth a read.

I’ve long had huge respect for great portraits and pure portrait photographers. Shooting great portraits can be intense–wonderfully exploratory sometimes, but almost always intense. Especially if you set out (as many photographers claim) to capture an image that authentically and reasonably addresses the sitter, and the photographer’s vision of that sitter.

In reading comments from numerous uber-talented colleagues featured in Schonauer’s piece, like Leibovitz, Watson, Rolston and others, one thing that was inferred by many, but not directly addressed to my satisfaction by any, was the idea NOT of portrait as hollowed ground or sacred view into the soul of the sitter (there was some of that), but rather that nearly all portraits–from your high school yearbook shot, to family shots by Yen Lui, from glamour shots by Deb, to Oprah Winfrey shot by Leibovitz–they’re all fundamentally ‘portrait as PR or personal advertising.’

With the exception perhaps of candid street shots or environmental portraiture, surprises, and the occasional lucky grabbed shots, isn’t it legit to consider that all portraits (anybody who pauses, “sits”, for any photographer), where there’s an active collaboration between photographer and sitter, are NOT aimed to produce a balanced and sacred view into whom the subject really IS, but rather aimed at creating a manipulated view of the subject and how his or her photographer wants the subject to be? (a la the perfect little Beaver Clever family, your “good side” for the junior high dance photo, or in the case of Mark Laita’s interesting picture on page 63, always surrounded by prostitutes–and definitely dressed up for the shot, etc, insert your ideal vision here…)

Only one brave shooter in the article, Laita (who does beautiful work btw), claimed outright that he represents people as they really are: “I’m just showing them [his subjects] the way they are.” Whereas another shooter, Hendrik Kerstens (equally talented), almost made as bold a claim in saying he believes he accurately captures everyday life–even during a more formal portrait sitting–when he likens his portraits of his daughter to the portraits of Dutch master painters, “seen as a surface which can be read as everyday life.”

Personally, while I’m always impressed by the work of these shooters, I’m surprised that Laita thinks he–or really anyone–can reach into the honest depths of their sitter, and somehow get at fundamental reality. I fully acknowledge you can get closer through relaxing your subjects, knowing things about them, yada, yada, but I’m of the opinion that a large portion of portraiture is more like façade-laden (another quote from Kerstens) “paintings of the Italian Renaissance where a story is told,” than it is an accurate, honest tell-all of the subject. I’d go even further and suggest that not only is a story told by photographer and a collaborative sitter, but, like all good art, that story is intentional, planned, executed, even scripted–less rooted in honesty and more in, perhaps, fantasy.

If you’re having trouble swallowing this idea, I understand. Heck, I’m not sold. But consider for a moment how you feel when someone points a camera at you, not even for a formal portrait, but even just at a birthday party. As an ad hoc sitter, don’t you now internalize this act? Even if it’s incredibly subtle, you are coerced into something when that camera’s pointed at you; it could be a smile or even attempting NOT to act (smile, turn away, etc.) required some coercion from the camera, right?

I’m inclined to think that photographic portraits are extremely difficult to make in a purely authentic manner. (This begs the question ‘what is authentic?’ of course…but save that for later…) Just like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which says roughly that you can’t actually measure the location of electrons in sub atomic physics because by attempting to measure them, you’re inherently interfering with how they behave, so you can’t possibly get an accurate measurement–it’s equally questionable whether or not you can really get to a person’s unadulterated essence by pointing a camera at them if they’re conscious of it. That act alone interferes.

It’s important to call out that, while I may be stating the obvious to some, I’m not attempting to undermine the incredible history of this recently refreshed art of portraiture, or the sacred relationship between photographer and sitter–I’m merely likening the process of shooting/sitting for a portrait as a proactive relationship attempting to create a controlled message. Isn’t this something worthy of mention? While I’m indebted to, and often highly inspired by, images that result from great portrait sittings, I feel somewhat compelled to note that these themes of a controlled message closely relate to something that pervades our culture: advertising. From Wikipedia, “Advertising is paid communication through a non-personal medium [print or file] in which the sponsor [sitter agrees] is identified and the message [resulting photo] is controlled [by the sitter and the shooter].” The […] marks are mine. One could argue that the definition of ‘advertising’ seems scarily close to what we talk about when we discuss the collaborative efforts of sitter, shooter, and viewer in photographic portraiture.

Thus, having earlier tossed aside candid street/environmental portraiture and the like as exceptions to this train of thought, and focused here more on all other portraiture, shouldn’t we agree, as most all shooters interviewed for the article claim, that there is collaboration, and this collaboration has an end goal not of capturing the soul, but of creating a measured, “advertising” picture of the sitter? Nigel Parry gets his subjects to “cooperate”, and Matthew Rolston seeks a “private performance.” Only Leibovitz (which surprised me) says she feels “cheap” when she “tries to make something happen”.

So what am I getting at: Are
all non-candid portraits lies? Certainly not. But is there an interesting dance–with image, authenticity, or lack thereof–that shooter and sitter, engage in when portraits are made? Absolutely. The sitter most often chooses her clothes (or his fake blood, note Nicholson when you read the article); the shooter chooses her camera and lighting, etc. It’s an elaborate, sometimes incredibly subtle, plan that often closely resembles some never discussed personal PR or advertising. Kerstens comes clean in a sense when he reminds us that he has to make good images of his daughter because “It’s a responsibility we take very seriously … these pictures will be around for 50 years.”

Sounds vaguely like ‘long-term branding’ to me.

We all seem ready to call the portrait a “collaboration” artists and subject’s alike, but isn’t my point here just really taking this one step further and recognizing that people are motivated to put forward a message? Sometimes happy, other times sad, sometimes powerful, other times subtle, and sometimes the message of a non-message. And isn’t this a lot like advertising?

(FYI, this is cross-posted at American Photo’s great blog, State of the Art – check it out.)

You may be interested in:

41 Responses to The Dichotomy of the Photographic Portrait.

  1. Delphaio February 22, 2007 at 10:08 am #

    I think that this is absolutely true. Portrait Photography as a whole, is just a nice way to say self-promotion photography.

  2. Scott R. February 22, 2007 at 11:07 am #

    I believe that there is a function of time that needs to be addressed here. Surely, it is not possible to “capture the essence” of a portrait subject when working within the confines of busy schedules and tight deadlines faced by celebrated personalities and photographers. Subjects and photographers who enjoy the luxury of limitless time are far more able to develop a level of comfort and intimacy, which can feasibly become so powerful as to negate the existence of the camera. Documentary filmmakers often have the freedom that time affords, and are truly able to capture subjects in an unprotected state. It is a war of attrition with the self-consciousness of the subject, and time is the best weapon. If the subject and the photographer believe in the mission of capturing true reality, it is only a matter of diligence and patience to break down the facade. The art is in the motivation and practice of rendering on film what a subject is conditioned not to show when a camera is present.

  3. Finn McKenty February 22, 2007 at 5:41 pm #

    Chase, fantastic post. What are your thoughts on people like Ricky Powell or Glenn E Friedman? They shoot what are ostensibly candids, taken while hanging out with their buddies, never posed… but when you’re around Ricky or Glenn, you have to know the cameras are rolling. So the question is, is there such a thing as a candid with those guys? How about with you? Is it possible to avoid tainting the subject?

  4. Chase Jarvis February 24, 2007 at 1:06 pm #

    Great point – or rather question – Finn. Both Powell and Friedman’s candid portait stuff seems to fall into the ‘exceptions’ category that I called out regarding candid snapshots. Their friends have ultimately grown numb to being recorded an so truly can be considered perhaps more authentic. Like Scott R notes in the comment above yours about ‘time’, Powell and Friedman’s cases work with time, even more time than a documentary film maker’s normal timeline. Many of Friedman’s subjects have been numbed by his carrying a camera around for years and years. Those portraits can, IMHO, carry a legitimate weight that most portraits cannot.

    RE: your question to me, since I’m normally commissioned to shoot somebody, I can’t wholly buy into my ability to get at somebodies essence in a hour or a day or even several days of sitting or posing. It IS the essence of advertising, perhaps just with a better moniker. Subjects are always aware of the camera unless I’m uber sneaky. (which I can be, but…). On the otherhand, my non-commercial work enjoys a certain secrecy — like street photography can–that I enjoy. It’s what got me thinking about this stuff really….

  5. Benjamin Winters February 27, 2007 at 1:22 pm #

    Context is absolutely key. The perceived value of any shot should be assigned its value within the appropriate context, without a context it is virtually impossible derive meaning. There is value in façade. There is value in authenticity. Why is the staged portrait less valuable than the candid portrait? I would argue that neither is more valuable. Value is contingent on the objective.

    If the objective is capturing the “essence,” this requires a significant investment of time and emotional energy. This investment of time and energy is interestingly related to a practice in social science called participant observation (hang with me here. It’s a bit boring, but it is absolutely relevant and it comes back). All of the old school anthropologists like Edward Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski and Margarte Mead applied this practice (participant observation) to study indigenous cultures of the world. Their observations cumulatively lead to most of the modern discourse on our understanding of humanity. The portrait was instrumental in this process. It is worth mentioning that this research was almost always qualified with the notion that the act of observation changes that which is being observed. So, as it goes the question almost seems unanswerable, but it was well understood that the more time you spent with your subjects the better chance you had at capturing their ‘essence.’ In writing, photographs, conversation or whatever medium. The scientists mentioned above would spend months and even years living among the people they were studying.

    Photography is an immediate medium, but ‘essence’ does not lend itself well to immediacy. So the next time you meet a photographer that loves to capture the ‘essence’ but schedules back to back portrait sessions on the hour. Know it for what it is. I would be more apt to trust a glamour shot. Or is it Glamour shot?

    Here is a recent excerpt from an interview with Juergen Teller that illustrates this point very well. The broad line of questioning goes something like “Hey Juergen, why did you stop photographing other people and start photographing yourself taking a shit in the forest.” I am paraphrasing here, but he really did.

    Vice: What is it about taking someone’s portrait that’s draining?

    JT: You need to listen to them and analyze them and deal with each person. It can be done in a very short time or it can take a long time, but it’s really quite draining to be involved with another human being and to get things out of them. It’s also hard when there’s vanity involved or when the photograph is really just going to be used to promote their product, like a film or a record.

  6. Paul April 18, 2007 at 8:46 am #

    Excellent post and very true – please feel free to add to http://www.photographyvoter.com

  7. David Toyne June 15, 2007 at 2:49 am #

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s a really excellent well delivered article.

    I’m an Engineer who stumbled into photography so finding the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to photography made me raise and eyebrow and smile. It’s a great metaphor.

  8. Chase Jarvis June 18, 2007 at 9:13 am #

    Thanks David: Glad something could resonate. I did a bit of science in my school years and that Heisenberg character really stuck with me ;)

  9. Michael Zahora July 21, 2007 at 5:46 pm #

    Chase, you hit the nail on the head with your analysis. 99.9% (estimated) of all portraits fall into PR category. However, there is that rare instance where the subject drops the facade for a brief second or two and the photographer captures the “real” person.

    I had the privilege and honour of meeting Yousuf Karsh in his studio in Ottawa, Canada during a college photography course field trip. He told us the story of how he captured the famous image of Winston Chruchill in 1941. Churchill showed up at his studio and during the sitting he wasn’t very co-operative (for lack of a better word). Karsh went up to Chruchill, snatched his cigar away from him, Karsh went back to his camera quickly and snapped that now famous portrait. For that brief second or two Chrchill forgot about the camera and Karsh got the shot. PR shot? Maybe. Churchill pissed off and showing it? Yup.

  10. Chase Jarvis July 25, 2007 at 8:14 am #

    MIchael: I love that image of Churchill ! A great story to accentuate my point. Thanks for the note.

  11. Chase Jarvis December 24, 2007 at 1:34 pm #

    I just stumbled across this quote that seems relevant:

    “I am convinced that any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense. We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man reveals. The inner man is seldom revealed to anyone, sometimes not even the man himself.” -Arnold Newman

  12. Neilson Eney December 27, 2007 at 9:06 pm #

    My start in shooting people came recently taking stills on film sets. Starting out by taking pictures of people who were already pretending to be someone else in a context where we were attempting to tell a story was an interesting way to start out. It got me in the habit of thinking in those terms whenever a person was my subject. I find myself imagining that I’m using them to tell a story. I now habitually treat my subjects in that way even when not on a film set.

    Telling those stories using images is what excites me but until now was just an unconscious habit based on my limited experience. Therefore when you said in your post that, “like all good art, that story is intentional, planned, executed, even scripted–less rooted in honesty and more in, perhaps, fantasy” it totally struck a chord. When I read that a light went off and I became conscious of how my past gigs have formed the roots of how I approach photography.

    Thanks for sparking the thought and for taking the time to share your insights and illustrate what goes on behind the scenes.

  13. Photos for Breakfast March 10, 2008 at 7:29 pm #

    At risk of sparking a science v. liberal arts rivalry, I’d like to comment from the perspective of anthropology and this idea of “truth” and showing the real person in a portrait. Is there even such a thing? Does it even matter if there is? I think all the references to storytelling are actually hitting the mark…a story is being told. How we choose to tell that story is perhaps far more revealing than whether or not it is true or can be proven or measured.

    This thread makes me think of an anthropologist named Dell Hymes who basically said that every act of speech (or how about portrait) is an “act”, and we make all these choices/decisions when we speak (or photograph/pose) that are influenced by a list of factors. Like, who’s the audience? How formal or relaxed is the message? Who’s listening? What’s the intention? Context? What’s the relationship like with the photographer? etc.

    However constructed or ‘candid’ a picture is, a portrait is just another act of communication. — an act. HOW the story is told, I think that’s where the portrait is at. It makes you wonder things like, “why did they want to be seen this way?” or “why did the photographer choose to show it this way?”.

  14. Chase Jarvis March 11, 2008 at 4:17 am #

    @photos for breakfast: well said!

  15. Anonymous June 1, 2008 at 10:05 pm #

    Lipstick on a pig.

    When photographing any being, one is capturing
    * to some extent *
    that being, in one’s “image” of ‘em.

    The better photographers capture more of the being;
    poorer photographers capture just the body.

    Sometimes that means withdrawing oneself from them,
    so their being predominates their space…
    sometimes it means instigating ‘em, until their being amplifies…

    Part of it is timing, so one captures their being
    * when it is more-present *, so more-visible.

    But the “lipstick on a pig” point:
    One cannot capture beautiful being when
    photographing a monstrous or ugly or boring one.

    ( this is why corpses look different from sleepers
    – one is somnolent being, the other isn’t being, at all )

    One can hide the nature of the thing by
    showing more of the surface, the convention, the busy-ness,
    and less of the depth/heart/meaning, but one can’t change
    that entity’s entity.

    The gold satin wrapped model, for instance, ( top of page )
    no matter how comfily she’s wrapped,
    no matter how luxuriant the stuff lavished around/on her,
    doesn’t make me want to know her:
    her being isn’t an entity I want to know, isn’t Interesting(tm),
    to me.

    For those who ignore depth, it’d be attractive,
    but for those who live in it, not so much
    ( where’s the curiosity in her?
    where’s the interest in her?
    she looks mentally-dull or bored! ).

    Also, entities aren’t static, in case you hadn’t noticed
    ( weird to imply so, in some of your post, but… -shruggeth- )
    Your emotions swing ’round through the full human range?
    Which one is “your” emotion?
    Bogus Question, right?

    Therefore, it’s bogus a question
    to hold that one single moment can “define” a someone.

    “What is the relationship between
    portrait as collaboration and
    portrait as unbiased recording?”

    It’s a continuum, obviously: not an either/or.

    “Are the results from one portrait style more authentic or
    merit-worthy than another?”

    A raw/candid capture of that being is more authentic,
    but both kinds, candid & sat, have merit.

    Their purposes are different:
    one captures a raw moment of that someone,
    the other captures a moment of that someone
    the way they want to be.

    Consider how different music makes your emotion+behaviour different:
    Work in heavy metal, your work becomes coarser, savager, forcefuller.
    Work in joyously-played Bach/Mozart, etc,
    & your work becomes balanced, subtle, etc.
    ( “the Mozart effect ).

    This is a simple consequence of the way our brains/minds work:
    our context isn’t deemed separate from our inner condition,
    to our brains.

    I ask my brain: How do I feel?
    brain checks body,
    body’s posture says happy,
    brain reports back “Happy!”.

    Brain doesn’t keep a separate model of one’s state,
    when the physical-model of reality is already-there.
    ( for some reason this discovery surprises the scientists who
    discovered/reported it -
    - the scientism-assumption that some separate Model must exist
    is immoveable, it seems )

    For someone to have a portrait of them showing wellbeing,
    on their wall, will “shape” ‘em just as music will:
    shown wellbeing will bring ‘em more into wellbeing.

    It isn’t just P.R.,
    it’s changing their remaining eternity.

    This is ( part of ) why
    some native/eastern cultures are horrified at
    the kinds of use photography is put-to,
    by westerners:

    To capture ( make-permanently-influential )
    horror, failure, hurt + injury, & death?

    What sort of world are such makers-of-context making,
    and do they accept any responsibility for that change?

    ( to the second-part, No, they don’t.
    I’m not talking about compassionate & true photojournalism:
    I’m talking about photoparasitism & photopredation )

    Another part of the native/eastern horror at western style photography,
    is that it captures a moment of someone’s being ( not the photographer! ),
    and from then on,
    that life is torqued by that capture.

    The photographer owns the rights,
    the one whose life is torqued doesn’t.
    ( western convention rejects shared rights between torqued capturee & capturer )

    that isn’t this discussion, tho…

    ( stopping here, could continue much more on the rest of the points, but who cares? go with what you grow… )

  16. ANDREASPHOTO INC July 17, 2008 at 6:47 am #

    Chase, I found your blog and video entries last night, and watched all of them! It was…a late night!
    So, in regards to the “authentic portrait” I agree, once you point that camera at someone something in them changes, but what if they don’t know?
    I’m a wedding photographer and 99% of my work is completely documentary in nature – reportage, no posing, no directing, but I focus on getting portraits of certain people at the weddings as well – but without them knowing. I have managed, over the years to get some portraits of family members that could not be taken if you tried all week long with them in a sitting – there is something “authentic” when a person is in their own space, without them being aware that they are being photographed.
    I’ll post some more portraits on my gallery this weekend, but for now you can see some of the work at http://www.andreasphoto.ca

  17. leonard lopp July 30, 2008 at 6:54 pm #

    Chase, the quote from Arnold Newman is so true.

    The idea of capturing the “essense” of a person in a photograph is pretentious.

    At best, a photographer can capture the “essence” of their interaction with the sitter.

  18. facebook fans February 24, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    I love you ws assurance may able-bodied yield amusement there.I realize that every of those capacity ability be far bigger aces a bulletin lath article, however anticipation they can anniversary be accordant on the column and remarks.Appreciate it

  19. telecom expense management March 4, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    I’ve been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this site. Thanks, I’ll try and check back more frequently. How frequently you update your website?

  20. Leather Bomber Jacket March 5, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    Thank you, I’ve recently been hunting for facts about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have found so far.

  21. manon October 17, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    Exactly what I was searching for, value it for posting . “There are multitudinous victories worse than a crush.” by George Eliot.

  22. IronMan November 4, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    How long did it take to research this?

  23. Juliana Schryer November 16, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    7. I like the helpful info you supply on your articles. I will bookmark your blog and check once more right here regularly. I’m fairly certain I’ll learn lots of new stuff proper here! Good luck for the next!

  24. Josefina Edghill December 23, 2012 at 2:46 am #

    Always good to find something new and interesting to learn from. Great website you’ve got here.

  25. Rebecca Schoonhoven February 16, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    lenovo service center in Surhera Gdbo

  26. Abel Penaherrera April 24, 2013 at 6:36 am #

    The 2011 Frazier Canteen dinner & dance is SOLD OUT! If you’d like to be added to our mailing list next year, call (502) 753-5663.

  27. Lyla April 30, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    I really like the design of your blog, the information is also very interesting

  28. matura przecieki April 30, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

    In case you do not views my asking, do you make excellent dollars from this web page?

  29. Ricardo Mitchem May 2, 2013 at 1:36 am #

    Hello there, I discovered your web site by the use of Google at the same time as looking for a similar topic, your web site got here up, it appears to be like good. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  30. Roy Budhu May 2, 2013 at 2:02 am #

    In case you are however undecided: snap up your favorite earbuds, venture into a good Biggest Score and get to be able to connect him or her perfectly into a Zune afterward an iPod to see what type appears easier to an individual, and additionally of which slot allows you to be look additional. You will understand that is ideal for you.

  31. best polo shirts May 2, 2013 at 2:49 am #

    Lacoste Polo Shirts – Men manner Bill

  32. Christian Louboutin Nude May 2, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Scope out river levels and the weather forecast before heading out. The three films ranged from made a 5th one? and finally heard of it When I was done with the interviews I was a tad more excited for Yes!, thought I would probably see the 5th one, and cannot wait to share with you the heard of it Those are not my first impressions.

  33. Leena Coalter May 3, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    I¡¦ve read several excellent stuff here. Definitely value bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how so much effort you set to make any such wonderful informative site.

  34. resources May 6, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

    Only wanna input on few general things, The website design is perfect, the content material is rattling fantastic. “Earn but don’t burn.” by B. J. Gupta.

  35. Oscar Malenfant May 14, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any helpful hints for newbie blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate it.

  36. Penis Enlargement May 18, 2013 at 12:26 am #

    You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I most certainly will highly recommend this web site!

  37. Sell My Home June 12, 2013 at 3:32 am #

    It is perfect time to create a couple of plans for the future and it is time to become delighted. I have study this place up and if I may well I wish to suggest you couple of attention-grabbing troubles or advice. Maybe you could compose next articles referring to this short article. I wish to read additional troubles about it!

  38. test psicolaborales online June 19, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    Soon after examine just several with the blog posts in your web page now, and I basically like your strategy of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark internet internet site record and can most likely be checking back soon. Pls attempt my web site as properly and let me know what you assume.

  39. software download June 22, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and amusing, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is something that too few people are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something concerning this.

  40. wie schnell geld verdienen im internet June 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    I am delighted that I found this blog, just the right information that I was searching for!

  41. geld verdienen im internet March 13, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    Woah the following weblog is a plus i enjoy reading your posts. Sustain the great do the job! You already know, many people are hunting round due to this details, you are able to help them significantly.

Leave a Reply

Highslide for Wordpress Plugin