What is it that gives a portrait a feeling of depth; an invitation for immersion?

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 a
different 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.


Wolfgang Lonien said...

You're basically describing the difference of an artist vs a commercial photographer. Karsh was both, as is Albert Watson. That former model guy (based in NYC if I mean the same one like you) with his triangular lights certainly isn't - he's simply following a formula which once might have worked for him (as a model?). A one stop shop for those who like that. I'd rather have Karsh, Watson, or you take my picture...

MO said...

Hi kirk

Glad to see you refinding the roots in the love for photography

agree. The second second photo makes me whant to get to know her. She let her guards down down and that makes her so attractive.

But if i whant to make some money i have to meet the client half way. And i tend to shoot some of the streamlined shots mixed with som more "honest" ones. Lucky for me the Honest ones often wins with the client:) sometimes even with tears. Thats my drive for keeping at i and not just making it at pure hobby thing.

Cheers mads

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post which gets right to the heart of the portraiture that I've carved out a little sideline in. (Informal, not to camera, portraits of people who hate being photographed). The guts of the work I do is primarily in getting the sitters comfortable, talking freely and passionately about what they care about. The conversation takes 95% of the time, the photographs success or failure almost always hinges entirely on what rapport I've managed to build up.

In the UK there has been somewhat of a resurgence in magazines and printed media. Not mass publications but a huge number of (widely distributed) niche publications. I've been subscribing to Stack magazine's subscription service (https://www.stackmagazines.com/) since it started and each month I get a random, beautifully produced independent magazine through my door (and occasionally dip in for their Sampler service of discounted additional mags). An american offshoot was launched in 2010, but it seems to have fizzled out after a couple of years. There has been a real boost in the hand crafted industries here too (printmaking, pottery, fabrics & knitting, coffee roasting...). Some of it is a bit, hipster, but there is a real sense that the wider public is looking and paying attention to the aesthetic of what they're presented with.

I have had two 'magazines' which were essentially extended adverts, pushed through my letterbox in the last year, but whose design and production values were soooooo high that they put some commercial magazines to shame. The Hyundai one in particular utterly coonfused me as until you read the small print it wasn't clear who had made it or why I'd been sent it. It was brilliantly produced from the quality of the articles to the standard of the accompanying photographs and the care that had even gone to selecting paper stock. Stunning.

Taking a look at the Taylor Wessing and BP portrait award shortlists each year it strikes me that there are some fantastically talented portrait photographers (and painters) working at the moment, and to an aesthetic which matches what you're crying out for in this post. One caveat is that after a while I think there's only so many gloomy and moodily lit portraits that you can see before your soul starts to cry out for something a little lighter.

Things are a little different with company headshot photos, they are undoubtedly very flat and benign - similar with the ubiquitous high key family shots taken in a white studio with blazing lighting and saccharine smiles. But even that trend seems to have been dying out over the last 5 years.

There has also been a trend around here in talented Street photographers moving into working on environmental portraits for businesses.

So I think that (a bit like your crystal ball predictions about EVFs) you might just be predicting a trend that is underway and building.

Lovely photos, by the way. I'd love to see you have a play with medium format film again. I do portrait sessions with an Olympus Pen and a Bronica SQ, both used at waist level, and find that they complement each other wonderfully.


Frank Grygier said...

The trend toward homogenized photography just took a giant leap forward with "Auto AI" button in Lightroom.

Bruce Bodine said...

Really enjoyed this post Kirk and the photos of Sarah. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments of what really can be done with the "craft" of photography.

Lenya R said...

Dear Kirk,

First of all, many thanks for keeping your blog running for such a long time in such an interesting way, and Happy Holidays! Second, a wish that maybe next year there will be more posts like this, on your thoughts on portraiture and examples of absolutely beautiful portraits. I am probably not the only one who comes back to your blog daily hoping to see things like this. Austin is a beautiful city, and video is an important skill, and small cameras rule the world, but beautiful portraits existed long before any of these things appeared ...


Henk said...

I’m a lanscape and still-life photographer and suck at people photography but I can appreciatie a good portrait. I agree about the horrible plastic look of modern portraits. While the lighting of the sitter is very important I think the talent of the photographer to interact with the sitter and to recognize the expressionis of the sitter is equally important. Thank you.

Gato said...

A very interesting read for one who considers himself a portrait photographer. This was my third time through it.

Depth, in your second sense, has always been my goal. I think of a good portrait as something like a first impression on meeting a person -- it says something about the individual, but not near everything. The important thing is to try to make it an accurate sample. I think Avedon said something to the effect that photographs deal in surfaces, but if captured well the surface reveals clues to the interior.

As to the more mechanical aspects, lately I have been moving to smaller light modifiers but (often) placed closer to the camera. I got the idea looking back at the Hollywood portraits of photographers such as Bull, Louise and Hurrell. But I see some of the same looking now at the work of Avedon and Penn. It defines the shape (or depth) of the face in a different way from the larger umbrella and boxes I had been using, something I think I'm liking.

As to the business, I was pretty well thought of as a newspaper and magazine portraitist, and did OK with headshots for actors and performers. But I did much less well with retail photography -- I do better when an editor or agent is judging the photo as opposed to the person in the picture. Although very often people who didn't care for their photos at first come back a year or so later bragging about how great they are. Guess it takes time.

Happy Holidays, and keep up the good work -- both the photography and the blog.