I purposely left portraits out of my previous post on aesthetics because by putting a person in the frame it automatically changes the way we look at it. In most cases, our eye goes directly to a person in the frame, or some human element, before we see anything else. This either makes common portrait aesthetics more simple than non-portraits, or more difficult.
Instances where the aesthetics of a portrait become simplified occur in many of Richard Avedon’s photographs. In his portraits, it is as if the person is the image and the actual photographic skills appear less important. Avedon’s true skill seems to be in his relationship with his subjects. The viewer becomes so drawn to Avedon’s subjects that the careful framing and tonality are noticed less. If one takes a closer look at most of Avedon’s famous portraits, they will find that in many instances the use of negative space is really quite unique and impressive. In the instances that it is not, it is usually because the subject is so completely captivating that possibly sacrificing the moment of the portrait to aestheticize the image is out of the question. In other words, the viewer is completely caught up in looking at the person that we can easily ignore average aesthetics.
Here is one famous portrait from Avedon’s series titled In The American West, notice the wonderful use of shape and negative space.
Rineke Dijkstra is another photographer that seems to concentrate more on the subject than aesthetics at first glance. Again, like Avedon and others, she focuses on interesting subjects, but she most certainly does not ignore aesthetics. In this photograph of a bullfighter Dijkstra utilizes a beautifully subtle color palate, and negative space to bring attention to the bullfighter. Also, the red tie and his cuts help the viewer’s eye to move throughout the frame.
While Dijkstra also photographs adolescents in a more straightforward full-length pose, the aesthetics in those images are also carefully considered. The lighting and the gray sky isolate the subject against the backdrop. The frame works perfectly to bring attention to every detail of their gesture. Dijkstra lets us believe that her subjects have personality and feeling, every one of her subjects has a presence in the frame that is undeniable. Part of this presence is due to the aesthetics.
Avedon and Dijkstra allow the subject to be themselves in front of the camera. They isolate their subjects, to focus in on the their characteristics. Both Avedon and Dijkstra seem to have an uncanny ability to bring a vulnerable fascinating element out of the people they photograph. The viewer gets the sense that each person they look at is not acting. Part of the reason it is easy to look endlessly at a photograph by Avedon or Dijkstra is that they set up the photograph to allow you to continue looking at the subject. This is an important, often overlooked skill.
If one is to photograph in this manner, they must realize that the use of negative space, the light, and the subject make an incredible amount of difference in how the images look. In portraits by Avedon and Dijkstra, these items are often subtle, and thus sometimes overlooked. Another reason for why a young photograph may fail trying to photograph in the manner of Avedon or Dijkstra is that the subject’s personality and presence is not enhanced by the photographer. Instead it looks like a mannequin was photographed, something that could be more interesting if it was a mannequin instead of a person looking dull. People just standing there, in fort of the camera, is not worth extended in-depth attention.
Hellen van Meene makes portraits of adolescent girls that are more visually dynamic than Avedon and Dijkstra.
Van Meene uses both awkward poses and composition to evoke a sense of awkwardness in adolescents. This is a very different tactic than what Dijkstra does in her photographs of adolescents. Dijkstra accentuates the subject’s own awkwardness through isolating them in the frame, van Meene does this by putting the subjects in odd poses and using somewhat unique framing devices. In other words, van Meene coaxes the awkwardness out of the subjects through her direction.
David Hilliard is a photographer who extends the frame with multiple photographs. By doing so he creates more than simple portraits, he creates complex scenarios about himself and his subjects, and their subsequent relationships.
Due to his technique, Hilliard creates an incredible amount of depth and visual movement. He tweaks the plane of focus to lead the viewer’s eye through the photographs. The other advantage Hilliard clearly gains, is the ability to stretch time. A photograph can only capture one moment, but since Hilliard makes multiple photographs to create one object, he has the subject shift poses throughout the images. This creates a scenario within the single artwork, through multiple photographs.
In portraiture, there seems to be two way of making portraits. One is to focus on the subject, make them important and visually allow interesting aspects of them to come through in the photograph. The other method, is to leave an amount of mystery in the person being portrayed. Make the subject apart of a scene that describes and informs the viewer about the photographer and subject and this all begins to tell a story.
In the work of van Meene, Hilliard, and Philip-Lorcia diCorcia, they bring out interesting emotions through what appears to be more set up situations. In many ways, the photographers are creating stories through their subjects. Typically in these kind of portraits there is a substantial amount of depth that helps to create drama. The important aspect of these portraits is that the surrounding area is nearly as important as the subject. The surroundings, the aesthetics, and the subject all play roles in informing the viewer about the photographer and the subject.
Obviously, not every portrait will fit into the above two categories. For instance, one photographer that appears to fall in-between these categories is Alec Soth. His portraits are structured in a fairly simplistic way, but they also tell a story as he connects his images (both portraits and non-portraits) through subtle free association.
While I am suggesting that there are two different approaches to portraiture, both methods have a slight bit of overlap as Soth clearly shows. Avedon and Dijkstra have the beginning elements of story telling in their subjects. Their messages are in groups of people. This might be because as humans, we want to both look at other people and we want a story about them. I find myself using both thought processes quite easily. I look and think about the individuals photographed, and how the photographer’s own personality might come across in such images. I also enjoy thinking about the stories that surround a differently structured photograph.
I would say the challenge for contemporary photographers trying to get their own portraits recognized, would be to try to avoid focusing on just one kind of portrait too much. If you photograph people to look at them and see what the subject is doing, great; but try to see a story develop in at least an abstract way. If you photograph in a pseudo narrative way, then do not forget to pay attention to the subject as well. Both elements are important to portraits. We want to look at people, but was also want to know about them. The greatest portraits seem to allow both to happen.