… and there was me pontificating in the last post about depth of field for portraits and it turns out that I don’t know what a portrait is. I’d cheerfully assumed that the purpose of a portrait was to capture a likeness – physical and psychological – of a person. Wikipedia agrees (at the time of writing):
“A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.”
And then I sat down to read “Secrets of great portrait photography” by Brian Smith as recommended by David Hobby, or ‘Strobist‘. Now, if you don’t know, David Hobby has spent many years encouraging photographers to engage with their local community and more famously, to exploit what can be achieved with thoughtful use of a few inexpensive off-camera flashguns and simple light modifiers and a bit of thought. So, thought I, Smith’s book would be in a similar vein.
I was taken aback. The book consists of publicity photographs of random wealthy people, mostly American. The jokey captions in colloquial US English probably explain to people from that culture what the pictures are about, but I’m left in the dark. To my admittedly prejudiced mind there is only one portrait in the book, of someone who appears to be a Russian thug standing outside a lift. But for all I know he might be the new Mother Theresa. It’s just that this one photo seems to have a touch of sincerity about it. The photographs were commissioned by magazine editors or publicists who want the person portrayed in a manner that suits their commercial requirement. This is product photography not portraiture! The aim is to conceal the likeness of the person.
I’ve discussed this with several people. Some of them disagree with me – “a portrait is a picture of a person’s face” was the response from one person working in a gallery. When I make a portrait I want it to say something about a person and for me the greatest compliment my photographs received in 2014 was when this lady said she thought the photo did say a lot about her and her situation.
But am I kidding myself? A ten-minute walk from home would bring me to Derby Museum and Art Gallery which has a collection of portraits by local painter Joseph Wright (1734-1797), a contemporary of Gainsborough. Now was Wright commissioned to reveal the character of his eighteenth-century patrons? I think not. He was hired to portray them demonstrating their wealth and beauty, not the psychological characteristics that had enabled them to acquire that wealth. And I don’t challenge the notion that these are portraits. So why am I disconcerted by the equivalent contemporary images? Because they are not equivalent.
The equivalent of the oil painting today – and nearly as expensive too – is the vanity (or studio) portrait. I once asked a studio portraitist if people didn’t want to be photographed in their own homes. “No”, he said, “it’s very difficult to squeeze a three-metre roll of white seamless background in to someone’s living room”. Now I’d have thought that someone who could afford several hundred or even thousand pounds on a vanity portrait would probably live in a house with a bit of character that would have added something to the picture, rather than detracting from it. But it seems not – the punters want to be photographed against white backgrounds. Strangest of all is that the white background requires the least skill from the photographer. It’s a world where people will only pay £500 for a joiner-built individually-designed fitted kitchen but £5000 for a self-assembly one from a down-market DIY warehouse…
And then there’s smiling. In both the product photos that kicked this post off and in vanity portraits, people smile. Often manically. Normal people don’t smile (hear me out). I was sent on an assignment in Derby, UK to surreptitiously photograph people smiling and then to approach them and to ask them why. In the course of ninety minutes on a busy day I saw four people smiling. One of them had a 24-pack of bottled lager and had cracked the cap off the corner one. She was drinking by lifting the whole case to her face. I didn’t photograph her… Bill Brandt, speaking of portraits, famously said “Don’t smile, you look stupid”. There’s a bit more to it than that, and the pros and cons of his style of portraiture are sensitively debated on the Bill Brandt site here. But if you’re like me, the reason why you think people smile in the street is that you smile at them! But do you smile at a stranger posing on a street corner as if to say “look at me I’m rich / have a Rolex / bodyguard / substantial codpiece”? Now I’d just hurry on past. And if you’d do the same, who are the people in this product photograph smiling at?