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

Recently I was talking with a photographer/friend from the East Coast and he showed me some of his latest portraits.  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, a portrait a picture of a person being photo-graphed but more impor-tantly as Oscar Wilde once pointed out, it’s also a picture of the person making the photo-graph. My  friend Rick Sammon says, “the camera looks both ways” and I think he’s right. Cliff Lawson, one of the preeminent high school senior photographers in the Rocky Mountain West, is one heckuva photographer and his images are more like environmental portraits that show more than just the subject’s face. Headshots they are not.

Somewhere 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.The image at left was created as part of series I am working on about women with tattoos. It was shot in my home studio with an EOS 60D with EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens, with an exposure of 1/100 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 200.

One example of this is the images Pedro E. Guerrero they he made later in his life. While initially an architectural photographer he 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.


Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 9.13.43 AMIf you’re interested in shooting portraits and how I use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from Amazon.com with used copies (as I write this) selling for less than $5—the best deal you’ll find anywhere. New copies are $17.50, so take your choice.

Author: Joe Farace

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