Friday, December 11, 2015

Possibly the Best Thing Ever

Years ago, Kirk Tuck wrote this piece on making portraits. It is definitely the best thing I have ever read on this process, and it's one of the best things I've read period. It's beautiful and true and packed with information.

I've seen a video of Karsh at work, and I read a detailed essay on Snowdon's approach. Both align with what Kirk has written here (Snowdon more than Karsh, one does not get a sense of collaboration but rather of combat with Karsh), but give only the external view. Kirk tells us what's going on inside. In all cases it is about seeking a moment. The technical details are minor, assumed to be dealt with, the subject and the moment is all. How you get there seems to vary, a little. In a striking contrast to the above portraitists, read this obituary for Jane Bown. And yet there are similarities.

This will sound goofy and woo-woo, but it feels almost as if the process arrives at a sort of Zen inversion where the camera simultaneously becomes nothing and everything.

I am, as the attentive readers likely know, fascinated by the process of portraiture. I have no chops with this device, but I've read a lot, and from time to time I take a pretty good photo of one of my kids. That's a very much more dynamic process, but ultimately the goal is the same. Every so often, mostly by accident, I find that moment when the kid has stopped mugging for the camera and is genuinely engaged elsewhere. Often with eating (the small one is two, after all).

Anyways, thanks ever so much to Kirk for digging this one out of the archives. There's also a list of links in a comment at this post, and they're all worth a read. One of them sounds very much like things I've said, but said better and a couple of years ahead of me. I don't think I plagiarized it, but one never really knows for sure what one has read, internalized, and forgotten.


  1. A well-written piece by Kirk, certainly. And, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I find much of it familiar practice. But what is perhaps slightly disconcerting in his account is that his imagined portrait subject is a beautiful woman. What would KT be writing if he was describing the process of photographing an ugly middle-aged man?

  2. Kirk finds almost all women and most men to be very beautiful. That's one of the secrets of portrait photography sometimes lost on the more judgmental....

  3. Yeah...this would be the one you subconsciously plagiarized...errrr, I mean regurgitated from subconscious've harped on these points so specifically that I INSTANTLY recognized this article in your writing.

    1. I like to think that the best looking people think in similar lines!

      To be fair I've only harped on that particular theme in detail once or twice, and in passing a handful of other times, I think.

  4. Kirk Turk is obviously right: to make a good portrait, one must establish a collaborative rapport. Except that it goes both ways: people must be willing to establish a collaborative rapport with you, as a photographer.

    Therefore, if you are an uninteresting person, you will not be able to make good portraits. That is the reason I stop trying to photograph portraits. I went to a few exhibitions some years ago and was baffled by the energy in their portraits. I wondered how the photographers made it... until I met them and realized they were all cool guys (or cool women). I am not. I can't build the same rapport as they can. I've literally seen them take out their camera and have people smile, while when I take my camera people tell me "please, no picture". The same people, 5 minutes apart.

    And there lies the key difference: the people discussing photography on Internet forums or going to portrait workshops, they are not cool. They will never be able to build this rapport. That is why the workshops teach them key lights and how to use photoshop filters. You can't teach them how to be cool and attractive (as a photographer), that will not work.

    1. Anonymous, you say you are uninteresting and yet come out with an interesting observation.A paradox, no?

    2. Hi,
      That may or may not be true. However, for the sake of argument, let's suppose it to be true.

      Isn't it strange that you give full credence to the points in your last paragraph concerning technical education, but obviously ignore the masses of information available to so-called uncool people (read less interesting people) that would assist them with possibly developing an interesting or even a remotely intriguing personality?

      Did not Jay Maisel make the comment that “If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person” or was he wrong?

      Using lack of coolness as an excuse for not being able to build rapport with potential subjects is quite remarkable.

      That's not to say that every potential sitter will always respond, heck - even the best talk show hosts have come across the interview from hell. Nevertheless, it is part of your arsenal as a photographer to get the job done.

      Anyone who fights for the limitations of their personality/coolness etc. will surely be allowed to keep those limitations.

      To state that "if you are an uninteresting person, you will not be able to make good portraits" is a patently false assertion.
      I have known several excellent portraitists who would never be classed as the most interesting person around. They did however, know how to elicit the response required to make great art.

      Your comments may apply to you - perhaps even to your immediate circle of friends but as a generalisation, it is quite wrong.

      Go read a book, take a class, do something to alter your view of others and more importantly, yourself.

      All the best

    3. Whether I am interesting or not is not really the point of this discussion. The point of the discussion is that a portrait is not just a representation of the model, but a representation of the relation between the photographer and the model. And that relation will depend of what kind of person the photographer is.

      For example: if the photographer is a pro and the model comes to him and pays, the relation will be of a certain kind. If the photographer is an amateur and the model is paid, the relation will be of a different kind. If the photographer is a woman, the results will be different than if the photographer is a man. It will be also different is the photographer is gay. If the photographer is from the same social class as the model, the results will be different than if the photographer is from a different social class. Etc...

      The photographers who spend time on photo forums and on photoblogs dealing with technique and the photographers who are spending money for workshops are predominantly of a certain type, summarized on this blog as "portly retired white males". This is about the worse kind one can be to build a trust relation with anyone and that is the main reason their portraits suck.

      Now, you are arguing that they could change. Technically, yes, they could chose to live a more interesting life and become a different person. But, realistically, they won't. If they were capable or willing to do that, they would probably have chosen a different hobby than photography and discussing the workings of cameras on the Internet.

    4. Certainly this sort of hour+ collaborative session will reflect the photographer as well as the subject, but isn't that true of any photograph anywhere?

      Jane Bown shoots Margaret Thatcher for a few minutes one day, and nails the shot where Thatcher exhibits an exceedingly rare moment of vulnerability and humanity, as she touches her hair. Bown seems to have been almost anti-collaborative at times, her work is far more her vision of the subject than the subject's.

      Karsh seems to have been, on occasion, outright antagonistic. The famous portrait of Churchill has a well known story. Watching him shoot Lenny Bernstein was a lot like watching a boxing match.

      Collaboration is one way to evoke something from the subject, but there are others.

      The portraitist must, somehow, evoke or arrange to have evoked, and then must shoot at the moment.

      My portraits of my children never involve me evoking anything. As dad, and the guy with the camera, my ability to evoke anything other than mugging from a 6 year old girl is nil. I have to wait for something else to generate the moment.

      But even then, the photo is as much me as it is her. I choose the moment to squeeze, and then I choose the frame.

  5. There is a weirdly pre-modern assumption lurking behind most photo-portraiture i.e. that someone's face is an index of their character, and the closer the two can be brought together, the more successful a portrait is.

    Well, maybe, but in a situation where the subject is unknown to us (and that would include Churchill and Thatcher, wouldn't it?) we can only imagine (or project) what character traits that face would seem to be expressing; it's the same process that film actors use in reverse.

    And yet... Ever seen a portrait of the feared Brazilian bandit and folk-hero Lampiao? Check it out... Eli Wallach he isn't (to put it mildly). There's a deeper truth about appearance and reality that Central Casting can't work with and that, by the same token, the camera -- however skilled or empathetic the photographer -- is not suited to capture.


    1. Well, yes. I think that a "good portrait" from the point of view of a third party who does not know the sitter is a portrait that creates the illusion that we grasp something of the sitter's life and personality.

      See, for instance:

      A third party who does know the sitter, and the sitter, will probably have different standards. Generally the sitter wants to be flattered, or at any rate made to look interesting or whatever. The sitter's friends and relations probably want something similar, but are less likely to be fooled by a well-played act.

    2. I think Lampiao's relatives would have been more easily fooled than most. What, Virgulino, a bandit? In that hat?