What Makes a Great Portrait -Jim Colberg | Portrait Photography | Perception

A little while ago, I asked an assorted group of photographers and gallerists What Makes A Great Portrait?

It‟s one of those questions where it‟s fairly straightforward to point to a portrait and say “Now this is a great portrait!” - but explaining what it actually is that makes the portrait great is quite a different story. I am infinitely fascinated by portraiture, and I decided to continue my little quest, trying to find out what made some portraits great, so I asked a different group of people the same question: “What makes a good portrait? Could you provide us with an example of a portrait that you really like - either from your or someone else‟s work - and say why the portrait works so well for you?” Here is what I got back. (more; image above taken by Paul Stuart)

At the same time. Hawkins is photographed as one might a classical bust.Adam Bartos: “Lee Friedlander has photographed Hawkins.in fact. (see below) . from inches away. it‟s an unconventional picture of a man usually photographed wearing a dapper suit. it‟s a conventional portrait . who is absorbed in thought and/or sound on a hot day. Formally.

and the concentration and grace of the man. But it‟s not the novelty of seeing Coleman Hawkins shirtless that makes the portrait. that I think makes the document of the moment transcendent.it‟s clear that the photographer and subject are comfortable with one another. as if carved from stone. but he seems huge within the frame. some deep empathy.” Adam Bartos is a photographer and music lover living in New York City. and that reinforces the stillness of the moment. The quality of the information the photograph presents works against its initial sensationalism. We see how small Hawkins is. but his expression is present and expressive in a way I can‟t describe.“The photograph is a loose collaboration . Hawkins is isolated in the picture but we know there are other people around. The saxophone fits perfectly his body. Friedlander sees all of this. but there is a tenderness to Friedlander‟s regard. in the instant. . His head and face are monumental.

You are asked to stare back with the power to reject if need be. they are no exception. you are already invited to engaged with the subject. With a more refined sensibility as an artist. The eyes are usually flypaper and though these are not fixed on the viewer.Nelson Chan: “A portrait is one of the hardest pictures for me to take and to take well. There‟s always a sense of uncertainty that haunts your own insecurities with rejection and humility. It becomes an instant sense of fixation and draws you in to investigate the details that hide in the image. The impulse that arises when wanting to take someone‟s portrait is similar to that of high school puppy love. took with his view camera of a friend sitting in a pond close to our hometown in New Jersey. Love at first sight is what I use to gauge a great portrait and this picture was successful at that. the bluish/green water engulfing yellow/pinkish flesh. I‟ve often compared asking to take one‟s portrait to asking someone out on a first date. droplets beading down her shoulder. The awkward dance of collaboration while shooting isn‟t present. You are fascinated by someone‟s physical appearance and the immediate emotions that surge before evening connecting deeply. you become hyper aware of the emotional evocation someone can offer. Jesse Chan. and her hair . You then study the person‟s posture. But as a viewer. “The example I chose to include is of a picture that my brother. Most of what I have described as a photographer remains the same as a viewer in what attracts me to take a portrait.

it perhaps deserves to be answered by asking another question: is it possible for a good portrait to be a bad photograph? Is it possible for a bad portrait to be a good photograph? If you allow that the viewer of the portrait and the subject of the portrait may have wildly different views. “In any case.‟” Greg Girard is a Canadian photographer living in Shanghai. will be published in May 2010. Greg Girard: “In trying to answer this diabolical question. I think I will have to side with a painter. In discussions about „what makes a great portrait‟ I suspect that the subject‟s views are of little consequence.suspended on top of the water‟s surface tension.” Nelson Chan was born in New Jersey and grew up between Hong Kong and the States. correcting a reviewer who referred to her paintings as portraits: „they‟re not portraits. they‟re pictures of people. he has been exploring notions of a dual cultural upbringing between two countries by immigrant parents. Through photography. Much like medical doctors conferring around a supine but alert patient. It becomes a very hard photograph to look away from and transcends a very superficial feeling into a deeper emotion. He holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is currently enrolled in the inaugural class the University of Hartford’s new International Photography MFA program. “In the Near Distance”. a third. “Phantom Shanghai” and “City of Darkness”. then the answer to both of those questions is probably „yes‟. He has published two books. .

to develop a relationship with the subject. said “the portrait I do best is of the person I know best.‟ . If an emotional reciprocity is evident it enables the viewer. “I believe a good portrait is the result of collaboration between the photographer and the subject. The shared moment of exchange that occurs when looking at a good portrait allows the viewer to know that which what was once „other. who photographed Parisian society members in the late1800s. in turn.” Nadar‟s relationship with his sitters allowed him to make compelling images that show a certain complicity of mind.Michael Itkoff: “Felix Nadar.

. Avedon.“I have always been compelled by Avedon‟s portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. knowing they were dog lovers. Avedon was able to evoke a fleeting emotional reaction whose sincerity he captured for all time. told the couple that his taxi had struck and killed a dog on the way to the shoot. The Windsors were quite used to having their photo taken. To make the picture. By manipulating his subjects. but Avedon did not want to make another generic smiling portrait.

“Of course. Take this fantastic image of three farmers on the way to a dance made by August Sander. a good portrait is not always based on familiarity. Sometimes a momentary rapport and its attendant ambivalence can be a subject all its own. .

“In the case of Joel Sternfeld‟s Stranger Passing. writer and a Founding Editor of Daylight Magazine.” Michael Itkoff is a photographer. the moments of reflexivity that arise between the photographer and subject create an engrossing portrait. Here still. . it is the chance encounter itself that is foregrounded.

I‟m kidnapped momentarily. It asks more questions than it answers. the viewer. to exist with the subject in a whole new sphere or dimension. and exist or float somewhere in between. It stirs up emotions.Anne-Celine Jaeger: “A great portrait becomes more than a two dimensional representation. “A portrait I come to again and again is Frank Stolle‟s Sophie. It has been hanging in our . It transforms into an invitation for me. The portrait invites me to enter into the print. from my reality into theirs.

Michael Mazzeo: “A good portrait is one in which the viewer can disregard the veil of the lens. It‟s that NON-invite. “„Fuck off. in San Sebastian in September 2000. trying to recover from months of hard work. “Sophie had been working long nights in Munich setting up and managing a string of restaurants and clubs. bed-head hair. Image Takers: The Essential Guide to Photography by Those in the Know. as he would fall asleep whenever he visited. rings under her eyes. that mix of hostility and vulnerability.” Anne-Celine Jaeger is the author of Image Makers. the hand of the artist and the limitations of the picture plane and enter into a dialog with the subject. allowing for new interpretations and a renewed dialog.” Michael Paris Mazzeo is a gallerist. devour Basque food and learn how to surf like the locals. to steal a Madeleine cake and make a cup of tea.‟ she said. Frank caught her deep in that „Don‟t come into my space before I‟m ready‟ zone. looking at the woman. Where is she from?‟ One friend fell in love with her. Here. but it doesn‟t make it any less powerful. She found it impossible to get up in the mornings and used to tell us not to address her before midday. The photograph was taken by Frank Stolle. We shared a flat for a month. published by Thames & Hudson. which draws us into the print and doesn‟t let us go. that twilight of consciousness and sleep. still wrapped up in the bed sheets. “But that‟s precisely why we want to come in. She would sleep or read in her nocturnal den. Sophie is my oldest and best friend. The mythology created by friends and visitors around the woman in the portrait are testament to how powerful the photograph is. Sophie‟s boyfriend at the time. conjuring up stories about her. Our mission was to study Spanish. A great portrait will evolve over time.living room for the last five years. she had crept out of bed before noon. photographer and educator based in New York City. . having never met her. “Only I know how the portrait came about. “Whoever sits down on our sofa immediately start discussing: „Who is that girl? What is she doing? Is she rolling a joint? Is she doing a line of coke? Why is she so moody? She looks pissed off.

Richard Renaldi: “This portrait of Liao by Shen Wei is a great portrait. and our thirst. and thirst for images is metaphorically being quenched by looking at this photograph. there are some sensibilities that we can assume to share . relaxed moment that Shen has captured and he has done it beautifully. I‟ll attempt to put forth a relative truth but while I will argue for the truth of my assertions and believe them wholeheartedly. what makes one portrait “good” and another „bad‟? I think that one can address this question on a few different yet ultimately parallel layers. The reveal is also found behind his relaxed eyelids. the mattress without a bed sheet. It‟s great because it is both revealing and mysterious. human progression and our predecessors within the tradition of photography or art for that matter. Most of these . This is a quiet. Liao‟s dark spikey hair stands apart so distinctly and proudly from the background. I think despite the mystery the viewer has such a sense of the moment and the feeling in this photograph. The mystery is found behind his three-quarters closed eyelids. his nakedness. and the beautiful window light that accentuates his taut body.” Richard Renaldi is a photographer and owner and co-publisher of Charles Lane Press. So. We are given the proper balance. These elements divulge very little. his sip. Doug Rickard: “The success of a portrait is a very subjective notion. subjectivity surely never removed.considerations that have been honed by time. These qualities affirm comfort and warmth. and the minimal white walls and furniture. Certainly. and the relationship between the subject and background is harmonious.

within the context of this inherent inaccuracy and variation. this visual language is unwieldy and incessantly open to an interpretation that varies for each viewer. So.all examples in the use of undertones and language to stamp an impression of themselves and their vision on to the faces and places of subject and by extension. But different than the written word. even on a scale that involves the tiniest of measurements. We can essentially then construct and adjust expression to capitalize on this understanding. yet also mention the changing elements. Lisette Model. These symbols are then „read‟ and understood like words. as humans. It speaks in a similar manner to words. A „great‟ portrait will make use of these dynamics and manipulate these undertones to provoke.the portrait becomes as much about the photographer as it does the subject. In some situations. can dramatically alter the „language‟ and change the scope of the information or atmosphere that pores out from the picture. Diane Arbus. such as the words that you are now reading which allow you to follow my thoughts. The implications of this dynamic are then this . Human expression and our ability to read its nuances allows one to load a portrait. But. repetition and experimentation. the viewer. “Within the context of portraiture. The viewer is then left to consciously and unconsciously „understand‟ and „feel‟ their call. the subject becoming almost a prop of sorts to do this „bidding‟ of the creator. the „language‟ can speak with massive volume. to interpret. This photographic equivalent of written language is based on visual cues and visual statements and taps into our ability. I want to firmly emphasize that there is an atmosphere or „language‟ that runs through a photograph. “For clarity purposes. Rosalind Solomon and some of Avedon‟s work . Strong portraits tap into this and manipulate this language certainly by intention and often by accident. the layers themselves shift over time and our perceptions of what is good and bad should and will change. to make matters more complicated. Also. evoke and stir a response in the viewer.layers are visible and easy to discuss but some will remain partially hidden from view. What is lacking in accuracy and precision can be made up by the power of immediacy and complex „undertones‟ or „atmosphere‟. portraits can become almost solely about the photographer. Volumes of information can be put forth and projected implicitly on a myriad of levels. based on the individual experience and baggage that we carry. the slight tilt of a chin or the act of lowering the eyes. I will try to focus on what I perceive to be the constant. Todd Hido. It can be pronounced and aggressive and it can almost be absent. process and react to the information within a picture as symbols. The portrait then becomes .

if there are no undertones and if there is little manipulation of language. “A quick note on aesthetics. The success is linked to complexity of language and the manipulation of it. some portraits can still succeed by neutrality but the examples of this are few and far between. It is linked to the impression of the photographer. if there is no calculation. It is in this arena that I want to play. on the subject and . Aesthetics are essentially like a chameleon and you can never place a definition of something great in the context of the look and feel of pixels or the grain on the surface. The emotion that is important is that which exists and is created within the act of manipulation. In a great or „strong‟ portrait there is never really much „neutral‟ going on. not necessarily. sometimes the fiction may match the reality. A great portrait can only be defined by what is deeper. you may loathe in the coming years. “It is important to note again that subjectivity does enter the equation as I don‟t find the „neutral‟ to be appealing. reality and real emotion become unimportant. the reality. you may go back to in a decade and what you love now. And portraits now may look radically different in aesthetic to portraits of 2050. Even if a portrait becomes in essence. Also on composition. a portrait will fall flat and simply fail.it is about „creating‟ something.an act of glorious fiction and although the subject dominates the scene. the tricky and shifting element that I mentioned above. For example. Obviously. manipulation of the language under the surface and the tapping into complex undertones is where I like to find myself going.it is about communicating by intention and creating your reality. Obviously. A portrait is not about capturing reality . For example. the look and feel of portraits in one decade. Ultimately. expression. “Ultimately. What you may despise now. nor do I find the surface or the empty to be very rewarding. the Jeff Walls or the diCorcia may look radically different from portraits in a prior decade. You can use a multitude of techniques to wield these tools but aesthetics or „style‟ and our embrace of them will change over time. light.for disharmony and even „ugliness‟ can become the „beautiful‟ and the „beautiful‟ can become the „ugly‟. a photograph is a two dimensional „object‟ that is created with a set of tools and treatments. there is no constant benchmark and classic forms of harmony and balance will not stand up . Sometimes this manipulation can be used to mirror that of the subject. shadow or even pure emotion. a strong portrait cannot be summed up by style. a work of massive fiction. A portrait is not about „capturing‟ something . The important concept here is that the manipulation itself is what is driving the „magic‟. a fiction if you will. color. the August Sanders or the Cartier-Bresson. aesthetic.

But in this one frame. rather than „the person looks good right now‟. “Which brings me to a related thing that I‟d like to ask other photographers reading this article — do you ever just shoot „when you‟re not supposed to be shooting‟? Purposely shooting at the wrong times? Sometimes. bank on it. I try to do that — I shoot based on feeling of the scene. and you‟re doing the edit. and there is the full contact sheet published. what you projected onto it was probably not true at all — it was probably just a normal kid. And sometimes the results are fascinating. no matter what photographer it is. maybe). maybe even without realizing it. Founder of American Suburb X. (in a questionable outfit. But then. ever. there you are. “Regards. he‟s so much more than „just a kid‟.the viewer. and for me. Sometimes shooting not even looking thru the viewfinder — just shoot when the feeling feels strong. The kid looks so normal and everyday in so many of the other frames — just a normal dorky kid. goofing off in Central Park one day. Mark Tucker: “I just happen to be rereading the “Revelations” book by Diane Arbus right now. it‟s rarely correct. “One final disclaimer. he‟s a threat. But everyone projects their own scene over the top of a portrait they see. he‟s scary. well beyond our immediate future. you always make up something in your head — some elaborate drama at an institution or something — but I guess. but it‟s kinda different . and there‟s this one cool frame. You project your own past experience. I just find it fascinating when there‟s that one frame that just leaps out at you. Doug Rickard” Doug Rickard is a photographer and publisher. It‟s one of my favorite images from her. and you‟re reading her book. But there‟s that one frame that just transcends all the others — on a whole other level entirely. but then you realize. You see what you want to see. and inevitably. and I always wondered “What was the scene here? What was the situation?”. This access to a complex language and the intentional manipulation of the undertones should remain a constant key to greatness and contribute toward the notion of a good portrait. “Or. All this thought about portraiture is flowing through me strong right now. it pulled the whole rug out from underneath me. when I‟m in clear mind. there are always exceptions to the „rules‟. One thing that always struck me in that book was the story and contact sheet behind “Boy with Grenade”. he‟s a troublemaker. another question to photographers reading: Do you ever get the contact sheets back.

I think for me. I just thought it was a cheap shot. I‟ve always remembered that. or be forgotten. right? Why is that? Why are they seeing something so different than what you‟re seeing? And they‟ll always say something like „I don‟t know. or portrait. And the first day after shooting. from Nova Scotia — extremely intimate and personal. as of course the later stuff from Robert Frank. . the other day. Paolo Roversi nails it most of the time. She wanted to get inside our heads. especially the multi-frame storytelling. and you can‟t remember shooting the picture? But you like the picture. she could best see that through the contact sheets. “Another thing about Contact Sheets: I remember being a kid. in B/W 8x10. but I was always concerned by some of Shelby Lee Adams‟ work from Appalachia. It sorta reminds me of that story about Garry Winogrand. badmouthing other people. I just love what they‟re doing with their body in that frame‟.Sally Mann’s early work with her children. and the tools and techniques and approaches that we use have power — power to deliver a message — a message that‟s either good or bad. with portraiture: Duane Michal’s early work. Also. from Poland. and Mary Ellen Mark was the teacher. in order for his own personal memories about shooting the images to go away. the stuff I respond to has empathy for the subject — empathy and respect. and unfair to the subject. she did not want to see our Edit. and you might show the take to someone else. “Another related topic that I find interesting is the difference in your own edit of a take. Like someone else sorta snuck up and pressed the shutter release? I love it when that happens. or can‟t claim credit for it. and ask them to pick their favorites. and how we thought. whenever he‟d drop the strobehead down below the level of the lens of the camera. for some reason. she said she wanted to only see our Contact Sheets. “In terms of other photographers and who I think gets close to the bone. Alessandra Sanguinetti goes to another level for me. So does Vanessa Winship. as portrait photographers. and see how we shot. But it‟s as if you didn‟t shoot it. “I don‟t want to be the drunk guy in the room. And obviously. very strong work. being there. a trusted friend. He thought that his memories of that day. and they *always* pick the worst frames.from all the others somehow. and not allow him to edit the take as accurately and objectively. you get home from the job. I just think it‟s a delicate line we all walk. and I was taking this class at Maine Workshops.Raymond Meeks does the same thing much of the time. where he would purposely not edit a certain set of contact sheets for a good long time. I saw this guy Adam Panczuk. the Andrea Modica “Treadwell” book was powerful. talking to the people. would bias him. compared to another person who was not at the scene. So anyway.

I just think that anybody that goes putting the strobehead below the lens knows exactly what they‟re doing. Rent the documentary to see if you agree. But this is a frame that Gideon Lewin shot. and Richard Avedon as your students.Respectful or not. this has nothing to do with this topic. during an Alexia Brodovitch class. you‟ll realize the power of the photographer. and they have a message that they‟re trying to deliver. and there is Diane Arbus. everything is on the right place. other than these are incredible portrait photographers. Mark Tucker is a advertising photographer based in Nashville. TN. the look. and you look out. Enough said. . props. Talk about an All Star Class — imagine being the teacher. “And to end. Hellen van Meene: “A good portrait is a photo that you feel in your guts. Hiro. Incredible. the chemistry. But agree or not. He specializes in portraiture and lifestyle. and directs. You know it when you make it and you see it in the end result. in the way he lights.

“There is no basic trick to explain or to follow when you know that your photo will be the right one. it is something that I sense it when I see the right face in front of me with good light on her. . For me. Her most recent book is “Tout va disparaître”. and then my stomach knows it. “I know this sounds very vague but I don‟t know how to describe it otherwise…” Hellen van Meene is a photographer.

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