The Art of Portraiture

The world is awash in an endless sea of selfies. I want to make an important distinction between a selfie and a self-portrait. It’s the difference between the image that might contain the caption “Here’s me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower” and an image that says something true and essential about me, or at least reflects something possibly ineffable about the way I see myself or feel on some deeper level. There are gray areas, of course, but the point is that a “perfect” snapshot taken with an iPhone isn’t necessarily a window into the soul. However, accidents can open things up a little.

What we call a snapshot—a scrapbook image—is often best represented by the a declarative statement such as here’s my dog running for a ball or my cat Freddie dozing in the sunny window; my sister and her friends enjoying their trip to the beach; my daughter’s sixth birthday; the baby’s first steps; that breathtaking sunset. They mark a moment or an event to be recalled sometime in the future, with fondness, regret, love, incredulity, nostalgia. They confirm that we were there and saw that. They point to an object like a child naming a bird or a tree. And we rely on that object’s associative power, along with the power of memory, to bring back the moment and enhance it. Or we simply come back again to enjoy a beautiful or evocative image for its own sake.

In contrast, a portrait is a product of a kind of conversation. The most powerful examples of this type of representation express some truth revealed by the subject but are not entirely independent of the observer. This kind of portrait requires a certain trust established between subject and observer, a degree of intimacy that brings forward—and captures—an element of character beyond and beneath objective features, ambiguity notwithstanding.

Masters of modern portraiture like Annie Liebovitz have the capacity to evoke and record such expressions in photographic images. Rembrandt’s ability to represent a quirk of his own personality in an etching—unalterable lines scratched into the surface of a metal plate—that appears to us as a fluid doodle of a scowl or a look of surprise, offers a glimpse into the artist’s mind, a playful exploration of self.

Even Edgar Degas, perhaps not so widely known for his self-portraits, sensitively followed Rembrandt’s style and technique to produce powerful and evocative images of a shadowed self. Not necessarily what one might expect from his famous pastel studies of ballet dancers.

Whereas a more traditional formal portrait may, through the canny eye of the painter or photographer, capture more than just the likeness of a president, monarch, benefactor, or celebrity, it’s a big step to go beyond the declarative Here is so-and-so, in that context. In the best representations of the everyday, the artful personal portrait carries forward a dialogic moment. 

The artist creates an opening, however brief, in which—thanks to his or her expressive attunement and understanding of his or her medium–we’re able to witness an essential element of who the person in the photograph really is, not just how they want to be seen or who they aspire to be. I may believe this only because my earliest–and some of the only–experiences of being seen were the rare moments when my father was looking at me through the lens of his camera.

Of course there’s always an element of chance at play, and perhaps there’s an art to being in the right place and the right time. Sometimes it might be as much about the observer’s ability to set the stage for such revealing moments as it is about the artist’s ability to capture the spirit of that particular moment. But an artist knows or intuits how and where to look for such moments, in order to be, as Dorothea Lange observed, “a professional see-er.”

My work with animals has given me the opportunity to develop—and now to examine—my approach to portraiture. I admit that my iPhone has played an important role in this process, mostly out of convenience and circumstance, though I would never think of giving up my dedicated digital camera. But as I have begun looking back on my photographic interests and the results of my efforts, without regard to which camera I’ve used for a particular shot, I see that whether it’s been my children, grandchildren, wild animals, or their domestic cousins, I have often sought to achieve a higher level of exchange in the act of producing an image.

Though I’ve never had formal training in photography, I can’t imagine that the artists I admire most wouldn’t be working toward a similar goal.

That’s not to dismiss many beautifully and disturbingly provocative images of entirely unselfconscious subjects by artists like Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. Inspiring as they have been to me over the years, those aren’t the kind of images I’m concerned with here.

The funny thing is, until I began sifting through thousands of photos and discovered a veritable showcase of portraits, I hadn’t fully realized what I’d been doing all these years. As my childhood sketchbooks and art-school experiences show, I’d always been drawn to portraiture without doing so consciously. In almost every case, and initially to a fault, I sought to use my image making to say as much as I possibly could about my subject. And more recently, to go beyond the declarative
this is a chicken, a bear, or a first encounter with a new baby.

In reflecting on this now, I see that to me, deeper beauty is bound up in the combination of patience and readiness that is sustained through the exchange, in reaching toward the spirit.

Of course, in photographing I’ve had my eye trained on composition, light, and color, focus. That’s not to say that I’ve never sought to capture a beautiful visual image for the sake of beauty alone. 

But I see now, without a doubt, that the primary objective has more often than not been to find that intimacy, to follow a deep sense of empathy and touch a facet of my subject’s spirit in that instant.

Case in point: over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time in other people’s homes caring for their animals, which has given me delightful opportunities to make images that reflect my relationships with these critters and draw out their attitudes, idiosyncrasies, moments when they express who they are, how they feel, how they experience having me in their space.  

When people leave their animals, they often ask to see photos reassuring them that their loved ones are happy, safe, and comfortable, going about life in as normal a way as possible without their owners.

This was the initial motivation for my interest in capturing animals’ moments of being themselves while in my care. 

But I see now that during this time, and even back to my earliest representational work, I’ve been building a fairly large archive of the kind of portraits I’ve been describing here.  At least they aspire to be those kinds of portraits. 

Isn’t the family portrait where most small children begin to represent themselves? Here’s me, here are the people I love, here’s my house, my dog, etc. And isn’t an image that makes a statement that this is who I am something to appreciate in a different, perhaps deeper, way? I see in my images that this is the most interesting thing for me to try and capture.

Now that hardly anybody is traveling any more or leaving home to go to work, the need for my services has mostly disappeared.  That business is mostly gone, at least for the foreseeable future. So, too, is my diversity of subjects, including ready access to the grand-kids.

Luckily my small flock of chickens (along with our two cats and elderly dog) have provided an important source of daily entertainment and photographic subject matter during the Covid crisis. But I miss the portrait work and working with animals beyond our little world of home.

We’re likin’ this lichen

Who knows how long we will be living under the constraints this strange new world has placed on us. Perhaps I’ll have to search my archives and immediate environment for material with which to begin a new chapter in my photographic odyssey: portraiture with a story to tell….

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