Effective portrait photography is created through the connection between the photographer and the subject. A portrait should convey the subject’s character: its individuality, strength, weakness or even vulnerability. Often this connection is made through the eyes or gaze, but a portrait can be equally effective with little or no eye contact. It should evoke curiosity from the viewer, teasing out queries, questions and conjecture about the subject.
Faces are familiar; we look at and see faces everyday, all the time. They stare out from all manner of media, in all shapes and sizes, which makes it all the more challenging to create a striking and absorbing portrait. A portrait where the photographer bears not only the subject’s soul but imprints part of their own self there too, quietly and invisibly.
The best portrait photographers include the viewer in their picture and bring them into the equation by allowing them to share the connection and revelation of character.
In his early photographic work, iconic fashion photographer David Bailey used the same formal composition as many of the great portrait painters, such as Holbein, Vermeer, Velázquez and Rembrandt. These artists studied composition and knew what was most pleasing to the eye, generally following the rule of three by composing in triangular shapes and in thirds. Bailey’s black and white images are powerful and stark, and use these guidelines to marry contemporary media with traditional arrangement which makes them so successful.
Master of studio lighting, Yousuf Karsh of Ottowa on the other hand, used a plate camera that picked up each and every detail of his subject – warts and all – giving his images an ethereal and compassionate quality. While Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra allows the viewer to inhabit her world with her photography in a series called Beaches. For this she set up her camera on a carefully chosen beach location and approached adolescent subjects to pose in front of the camera for their picture. The result is a gallery of gauche, slightly embarrassed and self-conscious portraits, the subjects of which are both vulnerable yet defiant in their constant gaze.
It could be argued that a good portrait photographer needs to like people – or at least be interested in them and their faces. Be someone who looks rather than sees, who watches through the viewfinder, and someone who is brave enough to rely on their instinct to let them know when the time is right to make that connection.