Friday, January 14, 2022

On Portraits II

You might consider skimming/reviewing the post to which this is kind of a follow-up: On Portraits but of course I am also following up on the remarks which immediately precede these.

When you're photographing a person, there's a lot of stuff that goes on with that person.

The early photos or Diane Arbus are all about the moment when they subject sees the camera, but before they are able to assemble a response. You see their in-repose face as it closes down, subject to further analysis.

Most portraits we see take place a little after this, with a willing subject. The subject elects to submit to the camera, and arranges their features into what they think is the right thing for a picture to be taken. They think they look good, they think this expression will please, or at least satisfy, the photographer, and so on. Retail portraits of all stripes are essentially this:

It is usually a kind of amiable smirk, and represents a kind of honesty in that this is the mask the victim wants to present to the camera. But it is a mask. The smile is the same whether the person is happy or sad inside. These are easy to take, you literally get your lights set up, get the camera in-focus, and say "cheese!" I call this look "camera face."

If you don't want the smirk, then the next thing you can do is to discourage the smirk. You can tell the subject to be serious, or otherwise let them know that the smirk is unwanted. I think some cultures, at some times, have in fact defaulted to this next thing. This was their camera face.

It is a neutral, perhaps slightly hostile, look. The driving force appears to me to be a complete loss as to what should be expressed. The subject does not want to display emotion at all, but the desire to remain hidden remains. Whether because of cultural forces, or by explicit direction, the victim settles into an opaque deadpan neutrality. This pose is just as much as mask as "camera face" but without the false, pleasing, decoration pasted on.

This is also a very easy photo to take. Get your lights and focus squared away, and tell your subject to wipe that ridiculous smirk off her face, and this is what you get. If you're blessed with a cultural milieu that does not smirk in the first place, you can skip the last step.

Again, it is a mask. The inner life of the subject is completely hidden, on purpose. The subject is not interested in being emotionally available to the camera. This closed-ness always seems to border on hostility, because in our normal social circumstances this expression would likely be hostility. In normal conversation, in normal social interactions, we expect, we nearly demand, a certain degree of emotional openness. It is essential to our communication that we emote at each other, that we body-language at each other. This expression is the physical equivalent of the silent treatment.

In photography it's pretty normal and not necessarily hostile. It is a kind of body-silence, but usually is driven by a lack of anything to express. It might be, as it were, a momentary silence that the camera preserves forever and which therefore stretches out eternally like a lover who turns away and will not speak.

Neither of these postures have any emotional life to them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps you're not interested in the inner life of your subject. You're interested in their clothes, or their bodies, or their surrounding. Perhaps, like Arbus, you're actually interested in the mask itself. There's a lot of stuff to do here.

However, if you want emotional life in your pictures, you have to either do a candid:

In which the emotional/inner life of the subject is visible, but not consciously projected toward the camera, or you have to do what is often called a good portrait.

The latter is very hard. The photographer has to work through the subject's instinct to close up, to hide, to mask. The subject has to be coaxed back into revealing themselves, to expressing their emotional life on their face, while simultaneously aware of the camera. Then the emotion is both present, and projected toward the camera, and thence to us, the viewers.

Kirk Tuck has a whole bunch of these things. I don't have any. All my "good portraits" are actually candids.

The trouble with modern writing about photography is that the writers lack the imagination, and the conceptual framework, for talking about anything except "good portraits" in the Kirk Tuck sense. A few may also imagine the "candid" which they probably conflate with "street."

The result is that when some part-time critic is told to wrote up someone like Diane Arbus, or Judith Joy Ross, or August Sander, they are given to understand a) that these are Good Pictures and that b) they are portraits. They conclude that the only possible reason these pictures could be good is because it reveals the emotional inner life of the subject, therefore Arbus, Sander, and Ross (as well as innumerable others) must be doing that. So they write that down, spellcheck it, and send in their copy.

An even superficial glance at the pictures would reveal that they're not doing that thing. They might well be doing something wonderful, but they're not revealing emotional inner lives, and they're not because the subjects are furiously hiding those emotional inner lives behind a deadpan mask.


  1. Well now I'm embarrassed for the New Yorker, an old pal. But a lot of this is just complaining about the stupid term 'inner emotional life,' which isn't an unworthy complaint.
    We love looking at people, and especially well-lit, attractive faces. Probably our lizard brain is telling us we're in love with them.
    A portrait is fundamentally a photograph that shows what a particular person looks like. This inner life stuff is ridiculous. Even if I sat in the studio and watched Kirk Tuck work his magic neither he nor I would learn much about the subject's inner emotional life.
    Kirk would make them comfortable and find something that made their attractive face perk up a bit, and then through experience know how to catch it just right. Voila, a good portrait.

    1. The point isn't that we actually know a lot about the emotional inner life, the point is that we think we do! There is something on the face to read, or there isn't. If there is, we make some sort of sense of it, whether we're correct or not is immaterial.

      I don't think I've said anything odd these remarks here, I think these are all familiar sensations to anyone who has been photographed and paid attention to the process!

  2. Kirk Tuck is a skilled and even talented portraitist, but the tiled web presentation does him no favours.

  3. I agree. Am better at, and enjoy more, candid portraits. As an introvert am not capable of establishing a relaxed, comfortable subject, so my formal portraits are all "camera faces."

  4. Ok, so here's a montage of four portraits, artists nominated for some prize. Hooray for them, right? But their expressions all look to me like they've just been fired from their jobs, or received a traffic ticket for jaywalking. I believe this expression, commonly affected by professional models for the fashion industry, is controversially labelled, 'resting bitch face.'

    1. This look to me like "book jacket portraits" which certainly tend to the sullen/blank.

      It's definitely a popular modern style, though. They're pretty easy to knock out, so you can do them in your spare time between schmoozing sessions and tweeting.

    2. Would it kill these fuckbags to crack a smile for a publicity photo?

    3. Smile? For pity's sake, they're FRENCH!