Emphasis in portrait photography

Over the past few weeks I have been reading “The Art Spirit”, a 1923 book [1] by American painter and teacher Robert Henri. Henri’s volume was recommended by Lenswork magazine editor Brooks Jensen in one of his podcasts about two months ago. Henri was a painter, and the book is, unsurprisingly, largely about painting. Yet there are many things in the book that mirror issues with photography, and Brooks strongly recommended reading it for that reason. And if a book is good enough for Brooks, who am I to argue?

Robert Henri loved both portrait and landscape painting – my favorite subjects, too – but felt that landscapes were beyond him since he believed a painter could do only one of them well. Here is an excerpt (pp. 112) with my substitutions for photography thrown in:

In considering lines as a means of drawing composition, it is well to remember that the line practically does not exist in nature. It is a convention we use.

I think I am safe in saying, until you became an art student, you never saw an outline – you never took the outline into consideration. You saw forms and these forms had character and motion.

If you use lines now as a means of drawing composition, try to find the way to make them express what you see – forms of definite character and movement. Don’t become a victim of line.

There is a certain kind of penmanship made in schools which seems to draw around the letter of a word like a wire, and there is another penmanship, much more human, that seems to be the word. In drawing photography, there are lines which travel fast, which carry the eye over space with a surprising rapidity and land you at a nodal point, where you are forced to rest, and then take new departure at the same or quite a different speed. There are lines that are heavy, dragging, lines that have pain, and lines that laugh.

A canvas photograph may be measured with inches, but the speed with which you travel over it is regulated by the artist.

A line may plunge you into silences, into obscurity, and may bring you out into noise and clarity.

These remarks, written by Henri as instructions to his students, have equal weight in photography: they are about interpretation. In Henri’s day photography was not considered art because it was felt that photography rendered an image too “realistic”, that is one without the hand of the artist. Today most argue that photography is an art form because we have come to recognize that the degrees of freedom for the photographer, while not as broad as the painter or sculptor, do exist and it is a photographer’s ability to interpret the scene that provides meaning, depth, and interest about the content of the photograph.

Arguably, in photography there is no greater need for interpretation than with portraiture. It would be easy – but incredibly boring – if people were always photographed under identical circumstances. As evidence I note the ubiquitous school picture – rarely, if ever, completely satisfactory to the subject – and the more ubiquitous “selfie”, usually shot with a smartphone camera at close range using a wide-angle lens, its distortion (fore-shortening of facial features) hardly flattering to any subject, let alone a person. Simply browse any Facebook page for examples.

I once listened to a presentation by well-known and acclaimed Kitchener photographer, the late Charles Belair, on portrait photography. After describing the setup in his studio, I asked him to what extent he made changes to his setup in order to suit a particular subject. HIs answer was “none” – all photographs were largely the same, the only adjustment made was to the hair-light boom in order to accommodate a taller (or shorter) subject. The lighting and camera position remained the same, for women or for men, short or tall, bald or not. You can see Belair’s standardized technique at various places in Kitchener-Waterloo – one is the boardroom of the Waterloo Region District School Board offices on Ardelt Avenue, where portraits of prior board Directors line the room – male or female, all of Belair’s images in the WRDSB boardroom have the identical lighting and composition.

That sameness may be appropriate for that venue, but ideally shouldn’t a photographer offer one’s own interpretation of the features of each character that they photograph? Celebrated portrait photographers such as Karsh knew this very well. Minor White is quoted as saying “It is very difficult to take a poor photograph of a beautiful woman”, a phrase I like to use (the actual quote is a bit more risqué than that, but I digress) but in portraiture we don’t always have the good fortune to photograph attractive subjects. This is where emphasis and interpretation come into play – to minimize less admirable features, and emphasize the subject’s best ones. In my experience, these tradeoffs are differ tremendously between male and female subjects, and between children and adults.

In an earlier part of the book (pp. 80) Henri writes:

Your model can be little more than an indifferent manikin of herself. Her presence can but recall to you the self she was when she so inspired you. She can but mislead if you follow her. You need great time to paint your picture. It took her a moment, a glance, a movement, to inspire it. She may never be just as she was again. She changes momentarily. As she poses she may be in the anguish of fatigue. Who can stand all those hours, detained from the natural pursuits without being bored? At least there is a drifting of mind, pleasant, gay, sad, trivial – and, imperceptibly the forms and attitude change to the expression of the thought, and it gets into the brush of the careless artist and it comes out in the paint.

So it is as well with photographic portraiture; to capture on film that “moment” when the subject’s character is best revealed by the coincidence of a number of simultaneous events, including the press of the shutter.

I am enjoying Henri’s book – it is making me think about art, about the relationships of painting with photography, and making me think hard about my own photography and my own ideas of what makes a quality portrait.

[1] Robert Henri (1923). The Art Spirit. Basic Books, New York. Basic Books edition 2007. ISBN 0-465-00263-3.

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