Portraits are short stories about the person in front of your camera.

About twenty years ago I was still taking horrible portraits when someone much smarter than me said that my approach was all wrong.  I didn't know what they meant.  I'd read just about everything ever written about the technical steps involved in making good portraits---from start to finish.  I had cool gear.  The best you could buy.  And I had been making portraits for business for about ten years.  But this instantaneous mentor was right.  My portraits just sat there on paper like wallflowers at a party.  I tried everything in the proceeding ten years to improve them.  I went to workshops sponsored by the PPofA.  I asked advice from my fellow ASMP members.  I bought new equipment and tried new film but it seemed to me that I would never be able to break out of doing formulaic portraits.  At one point I thought of hanging up the ole neckstraps and trying to find something I could be good at.

Then a crusty old English professor I'd studied with invited me over to his house for a Bourbon tasting party. (Liberal arts professors did stuff like that back then...).  After I'd tasted  a few different mashes I started to jabber away to anyone who would listen to me about my visual process dilemma and my fear that I would forever be a portrait hack.  A gruff, older character in a tweedy jacket, sporting a prodigious beard and about as far gone as I clapped me on the back and said,  "It always seemed to me that making portraits is a helluva lot like telling a short story about a person.  If there's no intrigue and no story behind the picture then who the hell is going to want to look at it?"  Then the professor of French Art History weighed in.  She was a compactly and delicately built woman with short cropped hair and though she was in her early sixties she had a glint in her eye that warned you that here was a person not to be trifled with.  Especially midway through a raucous bourbon tasting party....

Here is her two cents:  "I want a picture to make me fall in love with the subject.  Or to want to fall in love with the subject.  Or at least make me give a fuck about the person in the picture. I want to smell some intrigue.  See some bare soul or at least be entertained.  Portraits that are just a description are as boring as television."

And finally, from a snarky person around my age and in my general circumstances: "Tell me a story or go wait tables."

I had been looking for people to photograph who were examples of stereotypic advertising imagery. The busty blond, the executive in a suit with the strong jaw,  the athlete with the six pack, and the girl with the perfect hair.  And what I was trying to do, subconsciously, with all these archetypes and all my standard lighting tricks was to say to potential customers: "I can take your order and provide the same thing as everyone else in the business.  Give me a try, you might like working with me."

But when I started looking for people who interested me and made my heart beat faster the whole deal started to change.  I started shooting subjects that people described as unusual beauty and it resonated in a different way.  Lou (above) was one of my patient, early muses in the process.  And making photographs of her was transformative.

I've done some backsliding since digital hit the market but I recently found (the joys of actually cleaning up your space) a journal in which I'd written down all the spicy words of advice from the Bourbon night.  I've probably gotten them slightly wrong as post hangover memory is rarely foolproof. And when I read it I realize that what I've always wanted to do with my portraits is to tell the exciting opening chapter of the person in front of me.  To give you that person's visual elevator speech.  

If I ever give another workshop I think it will be about the process of coming to grips with making portraits.  God knows my process was/is long and arduous.  The path to the next iteration of my career and the photographic careers of many other practitioners is to learn to make the portrait potent and relevant going forward.  Someone once said that out of 100 people 99 have very interesting stories to tell.  And the one percent without an interesting story is interesting by dint of his uniqueness.

Another photographer advised: "When everyone has their camera pointed in one direction there's got to be something equally interesting right behind them.  Just turn around and look for it."


  1. A good story that makes we want to go to a bourbon tasting party. Lovely portrait too.

  2. I am fairly new in my photographic development, and these are the words of advice I have been needing to read. Most of my pictures look bland and boring except for one I took of my daughter -- when I look at it, I indeed see a story being told, which I now realize why it explains why I love it very much.

    Thanks Kirk for this post. Subconsciously, I knew I needed to say something with my photos. Now that I am consciously aware of it, I can further develop my photography.

  3. Another great read, I really enjoy visiting your blog Kirk, and probably make almost a visit every evening with a cup of Tea and a biscuit.

    I have been thinking hard recently about my photography, and have decided to do portraits of my whole family for a book project if only to find a level of passion in taking the picture (product photography can kill that passion). After reading this I think I may reach out to "my" beauty and start taking pictures of people that inspire me for practice (especially as my brothers and sisters, parents etc. are strewn worldwide).

    Thanks for making my cup of tea that much more enjoyable :)


  4. Great words of wisdom.

    I may even have some burbon laying about that needs consuming...

    And lots of issues of "Camera" magazine worth going through...

  5. Brilliant blog post! It resonates with me - thank you for sharing this story and your insights.

  6. You do a portrait workshop and I'll cash in my flex-perks miles.

  7. I have come to the conclusion that really good portrait photographers, like yourself, don't fully understand what they're doing. What I've observed from spending some time with very good people photographers is that every one of them have been wonderful raconteurs. Do you think people like Ingrid Bergman and Picasso hung out with Robert Capa just because he took great pictures? Nah, it was because he was a great, interesting guy to hang out with. These photographers interact with subjects in a way that makes the subject connect with the photographer, and that's the important connection, because that's what appears in the image.

    I don't know how to teach this. It's like teaching someone to be popular. I want to go to Austin to hang out with you over coffee sometime.

  8. Thanks Kirk, this was a very helpful post. I've only recently started taking portraits, I have a lot to learn. My most successful shoot to date was this past Wednesday. I managed to take some nice portraits that my subjects and I were very pleased with. I made prints for them, and we were talking about the shoot and looking at the prints...and we all realized how much fun we were having while I was taking pictures. It was more like we were playing and I happened to have a camera with me. I'm no master of composition or lighting (so much to learn on that front), but I was able to capture something in that moment and it really came through in the photos.

    Funny, I've been shooting a number of years now and only recently have I realized that I really like taking pictures of people. I pretty shy by nature and I find that the personal interaction required to do portrait work is actually helpful for me on a personal level, even though I'm sort of terrified while the process is going on. I get something out of the process that helps me deal with my natural inclination to keep to myself.

  9. I have the same problem as you described, but the good thing is that i'm not giving up on trying to find that special someone that will stand in my viewfinder... Not to mention evolving my own skills.

    I realy like your texts.



  10. Here's to passion. Here's to unusual beauty.


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