I love a good portrait photograph. The play of light, the deep shadow, and the ability to manipulate both with a tweak and the shift of the lights.
I always come from my own experiences of art when it comes to doing a portrait. I’m pretty stubborn, a portrait must have those classical touches that translate well into the modern mind.
Unfortunately, if you’re hoping to discover the delights of what real portraiture is all about, you have to search around a little. You will find it, but there is such a plethora of amateur ideas about what a portrait is supposed to be, that you are confronted with fashion shots, candid street shots, and holiday snaps that apparently, the photographer calls a portrait.
The worst scenario is when an amateur attempts to emulate the first classical idea that comes to mind.
They seem to have an image of a Pre-Raphaelite Lady. She, forlorn, and garbed in swathes of floral clothing, flops herself into a pond (normally the photographer suggest the local village pond, with plastic garbage as backdrop), then, she must look “lost”.
It’s a bad reference with a mixture of John Everett Millais, and John William Waterhouse gone awry. The Lady of Shallot, and Ophelia both mixed into a kitch example of Romantic Classicism. Two separate paintings that invaded the homes of cool wall poster buyers in the Seventies and the Eighties.
There are formal and informal portraits. The objective is to take a photograph of a person, and show their best side. Maybe a little flattery helps, but dressing up as an astronaut, or wearing clothing that has no connection to the person’s life, creates a wonderful fantasy photo that has nought to do with a proper portrait.
The above image is a Modern Art version of portrait. I get it, and I like it. You can hate it, and not get it — that’s your prerogative when looking at art.
The painting is part of a series depicting German officers of World War one. A mixture of the painter’s opinion, and a representation of what the artist sees as most important in the officer’s life. Medals, banners, the military colours, and anything that covers the personality with bluster and brass.
There are other paintings in the series which depict a battle scared face, medals and epaulettes, not much in the way of humanity in the whole scheme of military life.
These paintings and so called portraits, would also serve as response to the madness of the First World War. It’s an interesting and honest way to depict an idea.
Below a self portrait in a flat cap.
A self portrait is a little more like an investigation, and requires some detective work. If, as I say, the photo should show my best side, or at least something typical about my physical appearance, then I have to guess half the time how the rest of the world sees me.
Maybe I appear baffled most of the time, or maybe I don’t. I’d need somebody outside of me to tell me how I look; let them take the photo.
Nevertheless, self portraits are challenging.
I don’t go for smiles in portraits. People generally don’t walk around town, alone, with a big grin on their faces, so why should they suddenly need to smile when a camera is pointed at them?
If a person is a real ‘smiler’, then a smile fits the bill, otherwise better to drop the pretence and keep the everyday, “I gotta a pay my taxes”, face.
If you like taking portraits you can always improve with practice — that’s why it’s such an enjoyable part of photography, think about the lens you use. You might notice that many photographers recommend an 85 mm lens, or a 50 mm.
The 85 mm has the advantage of making you stand back, quite a way back, this ensures that the finished result isn’t affected by the curve in the lens with small distortions in the features.
You end up with a ‘flat’ finish to the composition, and there shouldn’t be any ‘bends’, or curves in the whole photo.
I’m creative, so I go the other way, a la Don McCullin, I love using a wide angled lens that allows me to get up close, and pull the facial features out a touch. It adds to the dynamics in the portrait. This only works when the photo is all about a little art and craft, and isn’t a commercial headshot for a company person.
A good portrait will always be all about the sitter — not the photographer. To get to know your portrait sitter is key to getting a great portrait. Talking, drinking coffees together, finding out who they are all helps enormously.
My baffled look in the self portrait might come from the portrait-headshot gurus of today who claim they can walk into someone’s home, and bang out a family portrait in 20 minutes flat, hand out, gimme the money, and bye, bye.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed my photos, and look forward to reading your ideas in the comments.