At its origins, it seems that photography has the ability to faithfully reproduce our image. Human beings have a mystical relationship with the representation of our likeness. It is rooted in our unconscious. As if being able to assure that the outside of who we are is a faithful reproduction of what is inside and that this could be of moral reassurance.
In the making of a portrait, we cannot disassociate the act from its intention. There are three elements at play: the photographer, the subject and the viewers. These three crucial factors in portraiture act in harmony with each other, each conveying the strength of the other; to believe that one does not influence the other is to deny the visceral union that binds them.
An Honest Representation
With the advent of photography, the first genre to flourish was portraiture in the form of the Carte de Visite which functioned, also, as a business card. The portrait became not only a representation of our likeness but also a guarantee of our status. A business card that could vouch for our person. However, the fact that the machine can represent the figure in front of it with less subjective distortion than a painting does not, in any way, mean that it does not influence its impression.
The biggest problem, perhaps, with the concept of faithful reproduction is that faithfulness can not be conveyed without the aid or drawback of symbolism. Because (for better or for worse), it is manipulated and channeled according to what we want to convey, or what we are allowed to say, and in the worst cases, what others want to say about us.
The background and the ornaments with which we adorn ourselves as well as the stage for the portrayal are carefully chosen; they signal part of our personalities. It is of absolute importance for the commissioning subject to see themselves reflected and feel represented, often achieved through the use of visual clues. This is still valid nowadays.
It is important in this sense to study, for example, the work of the renowned Lutterodt Studio , which operated in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) during the 1870s who’s employees worked as itinerant photographers along the coast of West Africa. Their extensive work captured the diverse coastal life, free from the stereotypes created by white people.
We can choose what we project on the outside but, in reality, we are complex machines of deeper emotions. Therefore, it's impossible to claim a rounded and deep understanding of a person simply from its two-dimensional image.
To See is to Believe
Taking advantage of its evocative impact, combined with its main characteristic: the representation of reality. The intertwining of these skills has allowed portrait photography (and still allows it) to be a fluid medium that lends itself well to different needs.
At the start of the 1900s, some photographers were tasked with documenting the living conditions of people. The powerful portraits that surfaced from their work are a testament to prosperity and show the power of photography as a vehicle for change. Dorothea Lange, an American photographer, was commissioned to document the plight of American farmers during the Great Depression by the Farm Security Administration.
Her iconic portrait of the Migrant Mother has become the symbol of the crisis of those years. Florence Owens Thompson, the woman portrayed in the photo, was only 32 years old and had seven children to feed. In her expression we can see the overwhelming emotional charge and, in a moment of symbiosis, we feel her pain.
American sociologist and photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine, documented illegal child labor in the cotton mills of New England. The photographic style in its earlier days was usually technically curated in reference to art history, carefully staging the use of light and shadows. The making of these photos is a superb example of photography.
It is evident that the great cheapness, and universality of pictures must exert a powerful though silent inﬂuence, upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations. Frederick Douglass
Even if technical details are overseen in these images, due to the precarious conditions in which the photos were taken, the results are impressive. There is a direct intention on the part of the author to show the reality of the conditions in which they worked. Nevertheless, his cold execution and directness cannot but move the viewer and deliver the message.
The Relationship With Your subject
We have therefore established that if the message is told with attention to detail, it can move consciences and change the course of history. The point of view of the photographer himself plays a decisive role in the representation of his subjects. Between the 1940s and 70s, during the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most influential photographers was Gordon Parks, photographer for Life Magazine. Not only a photographer but also a filmmaker and poet, Gordon Parks had the dialectic of a rounded master of the arts, who could convey a strong and resounding message through his work. Because he was himself experiencing the injustice that he was photographing; his photos became a potent voice that spoke to many.
Parks (much like the early photographers) knew the importance of the intersection in visual language between painting to photography. When he created the image "American Gothic" , Ms. Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew of the FSA building, represented the backbone of American society. By recreating that same feeling from the painting by Grant Wood, Parker rewrites the narrative about who is the actual pillar of society. In this case, a faithful representation of the different layers of society is given by the storyteller, who is directly touched and involved in his own story. The last and the less acknowledged are the ones to whom we own the most.
When we are personally connected with our subjects, there is a level of intimacy that is undeniably deeper. The consciousness of what your camera is recording and that you are part of history is not always a clear line for the photographer involved.
"When I do a portrait, I'm doing a photograph of how that person feels to me; how I feel about the person, not how they look. I find that for the portraits to work, they have to make a mental connection as well as an emotional one. When they do that, I know I have it." - Antony Barboza
Barboza was one of the founders of a black artist collective, the Kamoinge Workshop, based in New York in 1963. They regularly met up to discuss their work; this practice helped to raise the collective voice and each participant with their style.
They developed a distinct body of work that is a crucial mark in the way the group recorded a misrepresented part of society. The practice of collectively confronting and discussing each other's work helped with reinforcing one aesthetic while developing compelling storytelling, consolidating a vision and elevating their message.
What The Collective Makes of a Photograph
The third decisive factor, therefore, is the public. The ultimate recipient of a picture is the consumer, who interprets and responds accordingly. Lastly, photographers and viewers might be the least connected in this relationship. However, a photographer is a part of society and, because of this, they are trying to make sense of it as well.
It is at this moment that the subject tries to regain some control of the image that will be taken of them. We are all aware that it will be seen. Judgment is what terrifies many. It doesn't matter if the audience is your immediate family or the public opinion. The struggle to transmit who we are through a picture is a challenge to everyone.
There can be a vast discrepancy in who we are and what we project. For many public figures, putting on a mask is often part of the job and they embrace this to become a character.
Throughout history, we have seen nugatory attempts by the powerful to control their image where often the person commissioned to create their representation cannot help but show their essence.
Yousuf Karsh has been described as "One of the greatest portrait photographers of the 20th century" . A refugee from the Armenian genocide in the 1920's, he relocated to Canada where his uncle taught him photography.
To be able to capture the essence of a character in his work, Karsh, never took the subject by surprise. Instead, he developed a deep knowledge of the sitters and their history, through research conducted beforehand. It was his custom to talk with all of them before a photo session.
"If I succeed, the portrait should tell not just that X has a heavy jaw and Y drooping eyelids,[...]It should convey the message that here we have a man of willpower, iron determination, singleness of purpose—that here is a thoughtful, perhaps calculating, perhaps careful man who weighs and ponders before he makes up his mind.”." Yousuf Karsh
We have all seen René Burri's famous image of Che Guevara This is one of those photos that have made history. Burri was on assignment for Look magazine with an American reporter. During the time they were having the interview, Burri recalls:
"He never once looked at me, which was extraordinary. I was moving all around him, and there isn’t a single photograph in which he appears looking at the camera."
In this case, the subject was so intensely focused on what he was doing that there was no interval between what he was and what he chose to portray of himself. Perhaps he didn't feel the need to build a persona as he truly was what he believed. The photographer didn't have to find out, he just had to observe and record. Che Guevara was an open book.
If our aim in portraiture is to better understand who we have in front of us; to achieve that, the photographer will always come first. They are still the primary force behind a picture.
But is it truth? There is a certain directness in portraiture. Perhaps it comes from staring at the camera or the use of lighting, or the atmosphere during the photo shoot. Those are all factors that will affect the outcome. A portrait will always show either what the photographer wants us to see, what the sitter wants us to see or, ultimately, the viewer will see what they want to see.
One thing we do know: the collective remembers strong pictures. Myths have been built, as well as fallen. If we break the trust, that is, to believe the feelings that a photo evokes in us, then photography becomes a dangerous practice.
What do you think a portrait must have? Which portrait do you remember and why? Comment below, we want to know your thoughts.