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The word portraiture in these days invariably bring up one of two possible images.

In the first, one sees a man or woman in period attire, standing in front of props and before an artist, palette in hand, aiming to create the most flattering picture while maintaining some semblance of the subject.


Photo by Peter Lippman

In the second, one sees a brightly lit studio in a mall, with a family posing unnaturally while a long line of would-be Holiday-Card makers wait impatiently for their turn, all the while with a photographer working furiously trying to take that same technically-perfect photograph he has taken a million times before. In that same day.

Well, at least that’s what came to my mind a couple of years back.  For these reasons (among others) I have always shunned the photographic portrait in my work.  To me, it often seemed no different than a tourist trying to take a photo of an ancient building during a day trip – how can one ever hope to capture something true and new of a  subject without spending time trying to get to know it/him/her?

Much of that changed when I read Kirk Tuck‘s recent posts on his blog.  After a 2-week (?) hiatus some time in March/April, Kirk’s come back strong and has been posting many entries about the art and business of portrait-taking.  Long story short, the key to a good portrait, as far as I am concerned, is connecting with your subject. In that single frame, the photographer needs to crystallize the essence of the subject at that time, in that place.

So how does one go about doing that?  I suppose the secret is a relationship between you as the photographer and the subject.  Now, it is hard to do that in a matter of mere minutes.  It is like a little love affair that you enter with the subject (it is easier to think of this for a subject of the opposite gender. For one of your own gender, let’s call it ‘bromance’ or some other such thing).  The connection is at the emotional level, even though it is only for a matter of hours.  While the technical aspects are important, what, in my opinion, makes a great portrait is one that reveals an (the?) essence of the person sitting in front of you.  You have to peel the subject like an onion, getting past the dried outer layers and approach what lies inside, that is still moist and living.  That is why, of late, I have desired to take intimate photos (not boudoir or glamour, just intimate), though I have yet to find a willing subject.

Since I am unable to do any portraits of strangers at this time, as an exercise, I will attempt to do a study on the work of one of my favorite photographers – Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Known primarily for his documentary/photojournalistic works, he also made portraits, however rarely, of some famous people.  This work is compiled in a book called “An Inner Silence”, and I will (for as long as my determination allows me) choose a portrait and form a first impression of what I think the person depicted is like (e.g. proud, gruff, grumpy, etc).  Then, I will research as much as I can about the subject, and see how much of that person is in fact captured in the photo.  It helps that these are often celebrities in their time, and as such plentiful information should be available.  At the same time, I have no idea who they are, so that will allow me to approach the portrait without any preconceived notions.  So, here’s to a summer of portrait focus.

An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Photo from Amazon.com