Picture This: Notes on Portrait Photography

Willy Vlautin, writer, musician, 2019



Roland Barthes, the great crested mandarin of French literary theory, described the complex experience of sitting for a portrait in his canonical book, Lucid Camera. “In front of the lens, he writes, I am at the same time: who I think I am, who I want others to think I am, who the photographer thinks I am and who he uses to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action. Yes, a strange action. What Barthes neglected to point out is the equally bizarre action that happens behind the lens. The photographer is at the same time: who he thinks he is (pure of motive), who he wants the model to think he is (a competent craftsman), who the model thinks he is (a flatterer hired), and the one that the model uses to acquire an idealized image of himself.

Kate Carroll De Gutes, memoirist, 2019


The photographer I think I am most of the time is essentially a jackalope, part documentary photographer and part art photographer. My hope is always to produce a decent photograph – a photograph that acknowledges the medium’s allegiance to reality and rescues an authentic moment from oblivion, a moment that preserves for me and others a unique and honest sense of the subject.

Henk Pander, painter, 2020


Who the model thinks I am varies greatly depending on what basic “type” of photographer they assume I am. The default assumption seems to be that all photographers are essentially commercial photographers, and they are essentially seen as traders – people employed to provide a service (in this case, to provide models with pleasing images of themselves ). The upper echelons of the profession – the Avedons and the Leibovitzes – are treated with a certain reverence, a reverence dictated by their fame, while the lower echelons are generally approached like plumbers with Pentaxes.

Stephen O’Donnell, painter, 2020


For the commercial photographer, the task is to make everyone and everything better than they are. For the documentary photographer, the work is something else: telling a story. For the art photographer, it is the realization of an aesthetic end. There is almost always a struggle between the subject and the photographer (whoever it is) for control of the image. The photographer wants one thing; the subject wants something else. The model understands that we are judged on our appearance and that an image can predispose a viewer to adopt uncharitable attitudes towards it. The documentary photographer and the art photographer also know this, but they have other concerns, their stories, their aesthetic effects. In some cases, of course, the model wants to be part of a story; in others, part of an artistic endeavor, but most just want to look good, and not just ordinarily good, but extraordinarily good.

Barry Pelzner, artist, educator, 2022


As a jackalope, the first thing I look for in a portrait is beauty. He doesn’t have to be conventionally handsome, he just has to be handsome to me. I should feel something. “Beauty”, observed George Santayana, “begins with feeling”. It’s an experience. This experience is personal, dizzyingly complex and ultimately inexplicable. I respect him.

Katherine Ace, painter, 2020


The second thing I look for in a portrait is, as I said, an honest sense of the subject – a sense of the subject as I have experienced it. This, of course, is the trickiest part – how one experiences another person. In most cases, I don’t have much time with my subjects, so my experience with them will be limited, but it’s one of the quirks of the species that some important things can be communicated quite quickly – that we are evolutionarily equipped to make the most of these kinds of brief encounters. I do the best that I can.

Kevin Jones, actor, director, 2021


“Where do you want me to look? This is the first question that almost everyone who sits asks. It’s one of those innocent questions that turns out not to be innocent at all. This forces the photographer to take an unambiguous position on what is one of the central divisions of the portrait. Where the model is looking indicates one of two things: the model’s awareness of being photographed or the total, partial or simulated absence of this awareness.

Susan Sontag said, “There’s something about people’s faces when they don’t know they’re being watched that never shows up when they are.” This is obviously true, but the reverse is also true. There’s something about people’s faces when they know they’re being watched that never shows up when they’re unaware.

My view is that both approaches provide the viewer with valuable information and one is not more valuable than the other – it is simply different. Even feigned unconsciousness tells us something. I’d like to feel strongly about all of this somehow (there’s no sweeter affirmation than unambiguous), but I don’t. In practice, I tend to favor eye contact – I like the engagement it creates with the viewer and its literal honesty, but in theory I’m not advocating for it to be seen as more real.

Tom Prochaska, painter, engraver, 2020


There is a certain quality to good photography that I call “presence”. He has a unique power. It puts you in direct visual and visceral contact with a person, place or thing that is physically and/or temporally distant from you. Photographs mature – as temporal distance becomes greater and more dramatic with each passing year, it adds to a photograph’s value as a document and as an aesthetic object.

A good photograph is not a faithful transcription, but a faithful representation. It preserves and presents a feeling as well as a form. If he is also handsome and honest, so much the better.

Jackie K. Johnson, painter, 2020


I try to avoid occasions where I am forced to explain my photographic biases – for example, that a portrait should look like its referent, should be beautiful, honest and, if possible, in black and white – but when I can’t, I try to do it succinctly with a quote from the cloistered monk of Croisset, Gustave Flaubert: “I can have no other temperament than mine, he wrote, “nor aesthetics than that which results from it “. In short, I have tried and continue to try to produce the kind of photography that I love.


The photographs above are unpublished portraits taken from a series of ongoing projects. Most of these projects have appeared in one form or another here in the friendly pages of Oregon Arts Watch.


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