I don’t do a lot of “How-to” type writing on this blog, largely because I feel as though it’s something that is covered to grotesque extremes elsewhere on this wonderful world of the internet. Neither will I be one of those begrudging pros who ridicules those sites as being somehow lesser forms of photography (although in many cases they use very uninspired examples for their explanations). Although I don’t generally write about my technique, I think that it is a tremendously valuable thing to share aspects of the craft freely to anyone who cares to find it. While I wouldn’t disclose every trade secret of photography, I doubt that doing so would dramatically increase the pressure in the art. Some people have it, and some don’t. If you don’t have it, reading every blog and book on the subject will elevate you to passable photos, but not stunning.
That being said, lack of talent combined with a certain moral looseness might make you rich.
I may talk a bit about technique in the future (here’s a hint: get a big softbox and a reflector, or go find a roof on a cloudy day), but for now I just want to talk about the nature of portraiture as it seems to be a generally foreign concept to many people. No matter how solid your technique is, if you don’t have a solid grasp of the nature of portraits, you will not be able to create interesting photos. Even among photographers, who I would expect most to appreciate the image above the technical details, seem to get caught up in the idea that 40 lights will make a boring subject exciting.
This ultimately is the distinction that comes down to great portraits. Sometimes you can get away with uninteresting light (best avoided). Sometimes you can get away with cluttered backgrounds or inconvenient locales or unoriginal framing. But the truth of it all is that if you can’t find an interesting subject, your photography will be glanced at, maybe get a quick chuckle, and then left forever. But if you appeal to what makes your subject interesting, the viewer will want to look back over and over again at your photo. If you do an even more amazing job, getting everything technical to line up with a brilliantly captivating expression and subject, you might even instill an interesting in people with your viewer. While I realize not everyone feels this way, I find people to be the most interesting subject of photography. Mountains may change under seasons or time of day or weather conditions, but people may change at the slightest glance, real or perceived. Predictable and unpredictable at once, you never really know what frame was captured until you see it. The smile you believed yourself to be shooting may have made the most gradual shift to a face filled with discontentment or sadness. The moment of seriousness you attempt to capture may raise to a minuscule but proud and powerful smirk.
In some ways (posed) portraiture is like some sort of tug of war in which the subject tries to convey a certain image of themselves, whereas the photographer is attempting to convey some preconceived message, or potentially whatever message the subject happens to be hiding. If the photographer is very adept at controlling and pulling his preconceived image into the equation, what is initially a very consistent visual style can take on a tremendous amount of subtlety that is difficult to achieve otherwise. (See the work of Martin Schoeller or Loretta Lux for examples). If the photographer goes in with the mindset of allowing more of the subjects expression and quirks, they tend to end up with a bit less subtlety, however not necessarily appearing any less interesting. (See the work of Jeremy and Claire Weiss, for examples). Neither the photographer nor the subject are immune to the effects of the other. (Conceivably, if shooting subjects who are not alive, this is an inaccurate statement, although I still suspect that neither is immune to the other, as choices made while alive could dictate future photographic interest).
This reflects a great deal on the adage that photography is not so much exposition of the subject as it is extrapolation of the photographer. Boring photographers make boring photographs. Interesting photographers make interesting photographs. A photographer with great interest in people typically makes interesting photographs of people. Typically, they too are interesting in their own right. This effect is of course heightened by the editorial process, as talented photographers still make bad photos, and have the wisdom to remove those from candidates for publication in any medium.
But in some cases the subject becomes more transparent and the photos seem to display a great deal of the subjects personality. This may be what they deliberately attempt to show the world, or perhaps a side of them that they hide from everyone, but that a talented photographer knows how to bring into an image. If this is the style you ascribe to, then it is generally more effective to exaggerate this. And for the sake of all that is good and holy, do not try to exaggerate the personality of your subject by handing them a prop for an area they’re interested in. If your subject is interested in Tennis, holding a tennis racket will not make it interesting to me. Yes, I held a guitar for my senior photo. Just like 900,000 other graduating seniors that year alone. If you want to make a person obsessed with tennis interesting to people who don’t care about tennis, make them put a tennis ball in each cheek.
Subtlety is king. Art is almost always created by what you leave out rather than what you include. If you can make it clear that your subject loves music without handing them an instrument or giving them headphones, you are off to a good start. If you can make it clear that they love music in a simple headshot, then you are brilliant, and I will buy your coffee table book.
Personally, I avoid using any kind of symbolism to illustrate interests or personality characteristics in a person. I prefer to let the viewer interpret an emotion out of what they see, and more often than not this simply involves an expression on a face. This also becomes the most interesting way to expose a detail of a persons personality that you would not normally be exposed to even by spending time with them extensively. It is this expression between expressions, the chink in the armor, and the spade. It is a subtle glance that the subject does not think anyone sees, and most often they’re right. (Take a look at this photo of Chris Farley by Chris Buck for an example).
Ultimately, as all of this would indicate, great portraiture depends on your ability to know your subject. If this means sitting down and having a conversation with every person you shoot, do it, and if that means you have to be that damn good at reading people, than do that. The quality of portrait work depends on these things.
And as a general closing rule. Making yourself more interesting makes the people around you more interesting, and gives you more experience with which to read people.