Why is this one of my favorite portraits?

Program Note:  for more information about shooting portraits: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/01/thinking-about-art-while-swimming-how-i.html

What is it in a portrait that makes me stop and take a long second look and decide that I like it better than most of the others I have seen or taken?  It's an interesting question because it has so many layers.  This portrait has one attribute that's widely considered to be a flaw.  The subject is nearly precisely centered in the frame.  I could fix that by cropping but, contrary to common strictures, I think it works just fine the way it is.

I like a portrait that makes me want to know more about the person being portrayed.  I want the image to spark my curiosity in a way that pronounces the person's uniqueness.  I want the portrait to have a visual appeal that supersedes the subject herself, and by that I mean that I want the tones of the print and the contrasts between various elements in the print to have a life and vibrancy all their own.  I like portraits better when I don't have to decipher intentionality in the background elements.  In fact, I am so linear I don't really like background elements, which is why I try to consistently make them go away by putting them as far out of focus as I can.

Male or female I want each portrait subject to have a direct engagement with the camera.  There are very few portraits I like where the subject is looking out of the frame.  And in those few, if I am critical with myself, I know I only like or admire them because the subject is famous or so visually compelling (beautiful/sexy/powerful/grotesque) that I am influenced by the energy of the emotionally charged aspect of the subject's image.  I want the eyes locked on me as in a conversation.  I want to feel the engagement that the subject had directly with the photographer.  I want to be able to imagine myself in the place of the artist.  If I was the one who took the portrait then the direct engagement always seems to have more spontaneous and visceral impact  when I view it than a more indirect and more passive subject countenance.  

I am drawn to portraits where the subject is not locked in a grinning smile but in a responsive attitude that signifies a conversation was being conducted.  That he or she was sharing collaboratively in the process.  But most of all I want to feel that the subject had a genuine interest in the process.  And a genuine interest in the artist.


Richard said...

"I am drawn to portraits where the subject is not locked in a grinning smile but in a responsive attitude that signifies a conversation was being conducted."

Right on! I have always felt that portraits reflect the subject's interaction with the photographer/artist. With that said, it has been suggested that the Mona Lisa's wonderful smile reflects her relationship and insight into who Leonardo DaVinci was...

FotoEdge said...

This is a Strong, Relaxed, Confident Portrait. In much the same method like William Christenberry makes a Portrait of a Sharecroppers Old House, a Palmist Shop or a Country Church. Simple and Clean Photography finds its own pathway to grab a Viewer's Eye.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

A wonderful image indeed. 'nuf said.

Frank Grygier said...

Paul Strand defines the portrait.

Daryl said...

Besides a spectacularly beautiful model?

It's in the engagement. There's genuine eye contact there. She could be sitting across the desk from me.

When we're fully engaged with someone, we're face-to-face with her. She is the center of our attention, not offset according to some "rule of thirds" or other pedantry.

robert e said...

Yes, this woman sparkles with engagement; it's in her eyes, face, body language.

An obscure photographer named Avedon also was not afraid to center his subjects at times. He, too, seemed to have an aversion to background elements. Despite this, he did alright with his portraits, if I recall.

Having said that, I think in this case the background harmoniously adds to the energy of this portrait. The tonal story of the background softly picks up and reinforces the tonalities in the model's skin the way a backing chorus supports a singer, while the strong diagonal mitigates the symmetry of the centered head. (Not that the portrait wouldn't be just as good without this stuff going on.)

Scott Hone said...

Well said (and typed).

I think a peculiar thing is that people often underestimate the ability to be able to draw expressions, emotions or responses out of their subjects when taking/making portraits.

It may seem a bit odd, but I think a good clown course does wonders for being a photographer.

You learn to be in the moment. You learn not to push or rush. And the main thing is that you learn to let go of your ego. And eventually, you learn to relate to people.