What is a Portrait?

“every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

pam.headshotRecently I was talking with a photographer/friend from the East Coast and he showed me some of his latest portraits. And I was surprised to see that his portraits were basically just headshots. Really, really great looking headshots but headshots nonetheless, which got me thinking Seinfeld style, “what is a portrait anyway?

OK, it’s a picture of the person being photographed but more importantly as Oscar Wilde pointed out above it; also a picture of the person making the photograph. My  friend Rick Sammon says “the camera looks both ways” and I think he’s right. Cliff Lawson is one of the preeminent high school senior photographers in the Rocky Mountain West is one heckuva portrait photographer but his images are more like environmental portraits that show more than just the subject’s face. Headshots they are not. (Here are example of my portraits of the same model. The Top photo is a headshot; the next one is not.)

pam.noheadshotSomewhere in this quest for the ultimate portrait, you encounter portraits that are conceptual and these while seemingly about the subject more often than not reveal more about the photographer than you might think. A perfect example of this is the work Pedro E. Guerrero made later in his life. While initially an architectural photographer he later became interested in photographing artists and their work. The PBS documentary about him (trailer below) is well worth viewing and is available for streaming on the PBS app.


So what is a portrait? It a picture of a person and it can be anything that you like—and maybe something they like as well.

Posing bookJoe is the author of Posing for Portrait and Glamour Photography ’available at book or camera stores as well as Amazon. Signed copies are available for $25 (including shipping) and include a 5×7 print of one of the images from the book. To order click CONTACT above.

Author: Joe Farace

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