Portrait photographs come in basically two varieties: the formal and the candid. These days, with selfies monopolizing the social media, almost all portraits are informal. And when asked, most people say they prefer the candid picture, perhaps because the formal portrait has fossilized into the Olan Mills mall photo, in garish color against phony backgrounds. It would be hard to make an esthetic case for these assembly-line excrescences, with their banal smiles and enforced familial geniality.
Then, there is a prejudice against artifice: Many people prefer the snapshots because they seem more natural, more spontaneous. If you look at one of those highly massaged portraits by Yousef Karsh, there would seem nothing less spontaneous. Every light, every specular reflection in an eye, seems calculated, even marmoreal, like his portrait of composer Jean Sibelius. If we’re a “rock and roll” nation, we are one that values the brash, the riff, the off-the-cuff: Indeed, we trust it to be more “truthful” than the rhetoric of the planned, controlled and considered. As Allen Ginsberg mendaciously preached: “First thought, best thought.” (Despite the fact that his best poems, such as Howl, were thoroughly revised and rewritten; we have the typescript for evidence, with all its emendations.)
Yet, some of our most iconic images — the ones we remember, the ones that fix in our minds some large truth about their subjects, are exactly the careful, posed and arranged portraits, such as Karsh’s take on Winston Churchill — a photo that might have won the war all by itself.
The idea of the formal portrait survives, even in the gaudy, awful Olan Mills photos: The idea that the subject wants to be seen in his Sunday best, with his best teeth put forward for posterity: “This is how I want to be remembered.” Even though the actual life may be more squalid or confused, or complex– certainly infinitely richer. But “this version is the one with the barnacles scraped off.”
The photographer Richard Avedon said, “What ends up in your scrapbook? The pictures where you look like a good guy and a good family man, and the children look adorable — and they’re screaming the next minute. I’ve never seen a family album of screaming people.”
But when done well, it isn’t the vanity of the subject that is portrayed, but the insight of the photographer. A good portrait should tell us something about the subject that the subject doesn’t want us to know, or is not aware of, or is somehow larger than the public face intended.
A photographic portrait also tells us something about the artist who makes it. This is something that Avedon always stressed.
“My portraits are always more about me than they are about the people I’ve photographed,” he said. You can spot an Avedon immediately: It’s style is uniquely his. The same can be said for Irving Penn, or for Arnold Newman, or Yousef Karsh — any of those who made a name as portraitists. An Avedon portrait — or a Penn — is a world view, consistent from image to image.
And it is in this sense that the portrait rises from vanity icon to art. The picture tells us not merely, what does this person look like, but rather the larger message: This is what being human is.
It is in the eyes, most often, that the humanity is tethered. You can see the light behind them. Nothing is worse than a picture of someone who is bored with the process of being photographed: The eyes turn into ball bearings, lifeless and extinct. A good portrait is a picture, instead, of being alive, of being in the moment, even if that moment is for posterity, or for eternity.
I bring all this up, because in the age before I became a writer, I thought I would be a photographer. It was in the days of chemicals and dim amber lights, and I became a proficient darkroom worker: My prints, I say with some pride, were as good as anyone’s.
And I took many portraits, working my way through the learning and development that any artist goes through: Imitation, innovation and finally, something personal that emerges.
Most of these portraits were friends or more. I went through cameras, always seeking the right one, never actually finding it: Nikons, Rolleis, Hasselblads. I went through lighting schemes, through backdrops.
And I went through the history of portraiture, from Holbein to Raphael to Rembrandt to Gainsborough to Chuck Close. The model I felt closest to was the Renaissance portrait, such as Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione. Here was a face to look at: Eyes that had seen a good deal of the best and worst of the world: It registers. There is also a sense of moment; this is for posterity. The figure makes a pyramid in the frame, giving it foundation and security. The background is broken into interesting shapes — the so-called negative space, not ignored, but make essential to the impact of the image.
I saw something of the same in the photographs of Avedon: formality, interesting negative space, and the centrality of eyes.
There is one major difference between these great images and the Olan Mills smile-o-thons: So many of them have equivocal expressions on their faces. They aren’t genial and smiling; indeed, it’s hard to quite know what they are expressing. There is a neutrality to their faces; not slack, as if thoughtless, but rather as if thoughts were unresolved.
In other words, the faces were not billboards flashing their message, but rather something denser, meant to be read and fathomed. Not the momentary but the monumental.
This is a portrait of Henry Parrish Lippincott Hackett, I made it in about 1973. It is a model of what I was trying to get in those years.
Of course, they were also shapes in a frame, and the graphic quality of the images counted for a lot, such as the eye of Picasso in Penn’s version, or the indistinct edge of Eisenhower’s head in Avedon’s portrait.
Other imitations, conscious or otherwise can be found in other portraits I made from 1970 to about 1986, when I gave up teaching photography and became a writer at The Arizona Republic.
This is Doug Nufer in 1978, when he was officially dubbed “The World’s Most Obscene Man,” against Avedon’s portrait of Willem de Kooning. Nufer has since gone on to become one of the avant-garde literary lights of Seattle.
But it wasn’t all imitation. It was an education, and a slow development of what I was trying to find in portraiture. I wanted it to be formal; I wanted it to be graphic; I wanted it to be more than a snapshot reminder of who my friends were. When I was teaching photography, I ran a course on portraiture and I was not so much concerned with the usual lighting schemes or lens choices, but with engaging with the sitter, finding something human there. And while book after book told us that we should use a long lens for more natural perspective, I found that a normal lens, or even a wide angle lens brought the photographer and the sitter closer together, making interaction unavoidable: The photographer could not be aloof from the sitter, as though the sitter were a mere object, and the sitter could not be indifferent to the photographer invading his private space. The interaction was forced. Always use a short lens, I taught. Get in their faces.
Second lesson: Always have the sitter look into the lens, so that in the photograph, he gazes out of the picture into the eyes of the person looking at the image. This makes the portrait not a neutral event, but it forces the viewer to have a relationship with the subject. In other words, the photographer confronts the sitter; the photograph confronts the viewer. This makes for a more active work of art.
These are three photos I took for The Carolina Peacemaker, when I worked for that weekly black newspaper in Greensboro, N.C. I was looking for that directness, rather than the mere animation that most photo editors want.
Third, no smiles. Unless they are genuine and are more than a tightened muscle at the mouth corner. There is a story about Greta Garbo, when an observer at a studio shoot said afterwards, “I couldn’t see her doing anything,” and the film director said, “But it will show up on film, just wait and see.” And of course, when the dailies were screened, every emotion ran riot across her face — primarily because she didn’t underline each one melodramatically. The film sees things you don’t. Let it do its job.
There were many other points in the course, but these three were most important, even if they ran counter to what is usually taught. After all, I told my students at the beginning of every class that I considered it my job as a teacher in the art department, not to train them for careers, but to make them unemployable. I wanted them to dig deeper than the stereotype. Many of them did. It was a great class.
When I moved to Arizona and started work at the newspaper, I stopped taking as many photographs. I spent my time writing the two-and-a-half million words I pumped out in 25 years. There were photos meant to illustrate stories, but my emphasis had shifted.
And I’ve gotten older, and so have my friends. You saw my Ingres-photo of brother-in-law Mel Steele. Here he is a couple of months ago, more informal — almost a snapshot, but with the lessons I learned from years of looking.