There is a trend that I see in the portrait work of many photographers that I think is counterproductive or at least blandly homogenizing... It's the tendency to light everything with very flat, omni-directional light sources. It could be a big beauty dish or softbox right above camera with gratuitous fill light coming from below camera and it could be as goofy and aesthetically flat as two big soft boxes; one on either side of the camera, giving a 1:1 lighting ratio.
What light like that does is to wipe out any real dimensional modeling on a human face and takes with it any interesting photographic sensibility in the photograph. The way one of these flatly lit documentations gets help to finally appeal to consumers is with tons of make-up or metric tons of post production work. I may be a rank traditionalist but I like a sense of depth in a photography and one way to achieve that is to create lighting that shows off the true contours of the face with light that comes from one main source. And though it is ubiquitous advice, the other tenet is to move your light away from the camera axis if you want it to be interesting.
I cringe when I see the work of a (self-proclaimed) famous headshot photographer who lights every one who comes into his studio with the same triangular assemblage of ultra soft fluorescent light sources. He uses them to wrap the light from top to bottom and side to side, as evenly as possible. All the heavy lifting to add any sort of three dimensional interest to the sitters' faces is done by a make-up artist. The flatly lit image giving the stylist a more or less blank canvas on which to paint. It certainly is an effective way to automate one's approach to making portraits but it rarely serves the final recipient as anything more than mundane documentation. Even the expressions the photographer coaxes from his customers are boringly the same and hopelessly contrived.
But maybe when we talk about a feeling of depth there is adifferent meaning that we should pay attention to --- that would be understanding and conveying something about the subject beyond the surface affectations. Something beyond the cliché.
Sadly, I think the public's understanding of portraiture (and their ability to appreciate good portraiture) died along with many of the printed magazines that worked hard to editorially profile (both visually and with good writing) a person of interest. In editorial shooting the client is NOT the person being photographed but is the magazine and its desire to see reflected their point of view. This means that a direct, "smile for the camera" image was largely a non-starter as readers and art buyers (and art directors) demanded something either insightful or at least of interest. More realism/Less pablum.
This policy and tradition in editorial work is what put the magic into the photographs of great portraitists such as Arnold Newman, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Even Yousef Karsh.
Nowadays the average photographer (whether working or hobby-ing) has come to think of portraiture as only something a that involves direct nod to commerce. A person paying to have their portrait done. A direct transaction, the success of which seems only to be measured by how much a client "LOVES" their portrait. Usually this means a portrait is flattering, banal, stylistically shallow and trendy; and...boring.
No matter how many times you see a portrait of a woman with a fake-y "come hither" expression on her face and a complexion post produced into smooth Barbie plastic by Portrait Pro 17 you rarely walk away thinking about how great the person looked. And if you actually know the person being portrayed you may walk away confused. Where did the other 30 to 50 pounds disappear to? What happened to the concept of skin with pores? Etc. Where did the hard won lines and wrinkles of her face disappear to?
I would love to see an inspired photographic movement push back to the idea of making portraits that don't always have as their primary goal mindless flattery. I would love to see editorial work unshackle itself from celebrity handlers and public relations "professionals" and see some honest, if unflattering, images of the same celebrities. Like Eisenstadt's portrait of the WW2 Nazi propagandist, Goebbles.
Certainly not all portraits need to be unflattering or of confrontational subject matter but couldn't they at least be both interesting and an honest portrayal of what the person on the other side of the camera is like? Between big smiles?
None of these portraits was commissioned. I asked my friend, Sara, to sit for a portrait and she agreed. There was no contract to create only happy, smiling, overly retouched images with which to flatter Sara or garner more retail portrait customers by showing off the work. Just a desire to photograph an artist (and swimmer) who I knew and respected; trying hard to make a portrait that reflected her authentic self. The self that her family and friends knew. I shot a lot of film that day but I'm happy with what I ended up with. I printed them for myself and used them in small shows. Not as items for sale but as items of sharing. It's a whole different thing.
I think we got a portrait with both kinds of depth to it. A true range of expressions I'd seen many times before. A true application of lighting meant to "describe" more exactly what her face looked like at that time. Not to paint a face in the usual homogeneous style of low culture. I am happy with them.