Judging Portraits

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by cliveh, Sep 25, 2013.

  1. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

    Messages:
    4,773
    Joined:
    Oct 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    35mm RF
    I find this very difficult, because if you don’t know the subject, how do you assess if the image is a valid representation?
     
  2. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

    Messages:
    87
    Joined:
    Jul 3, 2013
    Location:
    San Francisc
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    This reminds me of a story that one of my photography mentors once told me. Not totally on point, but speaks to the issue of context...

    This mentor of mine is fairly accomplished as a commercial photographer in a smaller market town. He has previously worked in some of the larger markets (NY, LA, etc.) and knows some of the bigger commercial shooters. He happened to be at the LA home of one of these shooters and, as he was perusing some of the guy's better and more popular celebrity photographs, he comes across a poorly lit, poorly composed "snapshot"-ish image that was prominently placed in the middle of all these images. My buddy was curious as to why this "crap" image was sitting in the middle of all this great work. The photographer responded that it was the most valuable photo he ever took - it was of his parents before they set off for a cross-country trip, a trip on which they were both killed in an accident (i.e. the last photograph of them).

    Not totally on point for this thread (I get that) and certainly not applicable in the context of a judged competition where your work is expected to stand on its own, but that story always pops into my head right before I'm about to say "gosh, I really don't like that...", forcing me to think a little bit more.
     
  3. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

    Messages:
    4,773
    Joined:
    Oct 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    35mm RF
    Very valid and thanks for that.
     
  4. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

    Messages:
    20,097
    Joined:
    Jun 21, 2003
    Location:
    local
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    hi clive

    sometimes there are snapshots that tell volumes.
    matt's post speaks to that, also sarrah connor's polaroid snapshot
    in the first terminator film.

    i try not to judge portraits too much. often times they are interesting enough as they are.
    but sometimes the photographer does his or her best to make some sort of image
    where it is lit and posed and photographed in a certain way, a " studio portrait "
    and "i guess" they are begging to be critiqued because the history of studio portraiture is
    closely linked to formal painting-portraits even down to lighting and poses.
    i was trained with a portrait photographer who herself was trained in the great depression, when
    formal painting and karsh were on people's minds.
    rembrandt lighting techniques were the rage here in the states until the 1980s ( maybe they died off but she kept doing them )
    and you were trained how to light people and how to make them look "their best" ... different placement of the light
    different head tilt, different side to photograph them on ( always their "good side" unless there was a physical deformity )
    you figure if someone has gone out of their way to photograph someone looking like a peter paul rubens portrait
    but they don't get the "good side" and the subject isn't "idealized" the photographer should probably want to know that
    but then again, it might have been done LIKE THAT on purpose to mock idealization of people and flemish baroque painting ?

    snap shots are always different, they are the ultimate photograph of a person as them selves, not as a demi-god.
    sarah connor and matt's friend's friend portraits are the ultimate, they are perfect portraits, since they are linked with memory too ..
     
  5. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,985
    Joined:
    Nov 6, 2002
    Location:
    Wine country, N. Cal.
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Firstly, what is a VALID representation?

    People are multifaceted and the myth of the perfect portrait of someone is probably usually a myth. There are lots of great pictures of people and as others have said snapshots are equally great at capturing unguarded moments even though they are often quite unflattering.

    I have photographed a few people who have died before their time and I can tell you that those photographs are some of the most valuable things their love ones own.

    In fact a crappy picture from Sears can have more value that a Karsh portrait to someone who loves the subject of the picture.

    Also on famous people we tend to put our own spin on what they should look like even though it may just be a caricature of who they really are.

    But bottom line is if your life/personality can be captured by a single photograph you are probably a very boring one dimensional individual.

    I think the term portrait has really lost all meaning since its overused and in some cases it means vertical.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2013
  6. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

    Messages:
    87
    Joined:
    Jul 3, 2013
    Location:
    San Francisc
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    In my mind, this is the crux of the issue - what, exactly, are we judging? Sam Jones (http://samjonespictures.com/), for instance, is one of my absolute favorite commercial photographers working today. But, I realize that it's his aesthetic that I like - his aesthetic. In other words, I understand that I am looking more at his vision and less at what a true representation of his subject's personality may or may not be. His subjects, in a way, are just props. I'm sure he and others would object to that, but that is a different conversation.

    By contrast, Platon seemed to be all the rage a few years ago (and may still be for all I know). Obviously, he is an immensely talented photographer, but his aesthetic simply doesn't resonate with me. But again, my core point is the same, which is that we are looking more at the expression of the artist and less at the nature of the subject itself.

    You may disagree with all the above, but in some ways, that simply highlights my initial point, which is "what, in fact, are we judging in the first instance?"

    Great topic. Thanks to the OP.
     
  7. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,023
    Joined:
    Feb 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    Interesting that I have seen his work, and it is perfectly fine. But I have favorites right here, illumiquest just today posted a striking portrait of a barkeep that moves me more. But not to detract from your point, I want to add.

    I appreciate the backstories. When a photographer knows the subject personally and a reflection of this fact is tangible in the photograph... Then I am moved. I can only truly verify this in my own portraits that I have taken of people who I know. But what I see in this work of mine, I occasionally see in the work of others. I am always pleased to see work by a subscriber here regularly photographs his reluctant son... You can sense there is a genuine connection in his portraits. (I thought his username was Bilog, but no, memory fails)...
     
  8. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

    Messages:
    87
    Joined:
    Jul 3, 2013
    Location:
    San Francisc
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    I know exactly the image you are talking about. I probably spent 10 minutes staring at it before spending another half hour to hour reading about the bar, their propensities for a lovely manhattan made with rare bourbons, etc. A fantastic image. But I think its an image that furthers my point (at least as I saw the image) - the collodion process and the imperfections in the final image make the image. Consider this - had the same subject been shot at the exact same time, in the exact same position, with the exact same lighting with a Canikon 5d800Eor whatever else, would you have said the same thing about the image? I don't know your taste, but my educated guess is that the answer is "no", which means that we are again talking about the aesthetic presentation of the artist and not the subject in and of itself.

    Thoughts?
     
  9. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

    Messages:
    87
    Joined:
    Jul 3, 2013
    Location:
    San Francisc
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    BTW, I just want to go on the record as having said that I would much rather be having this conversation at that bar, with you, the photographer and the bartender...and, obviously, a manhattan. Bourbon makes my sun rise...

    :D
     
  10. Jim Jones

    Jim Jones Subscriber

    Messages:
    2,428
    Joined:
    Jan 16, 2006
    Location:
    Rural NW MO
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    As Matthew says, ". . . what, exactly, are we judging? . . ." Yes, indeed. A portrait of someone we are particular interested in should reveal individual personality or physical characteristics, or invoke memories. Karsh's famous portrait of Churchill deprived of his cigar recalls (to me) the great man's life from a dashing soldier to an aged statesman, and the panorama of England in WWII. But in Karsh's iconic photograph of Hemingway, I think not of Hemingway's literature or cultivated public persona, but of the intensity of the portrait. In Ruth Bernhard's nudes, the individual is nothing, but the lyrical image, "The Eternal Body," is all.
     
  11. BrianShaw

    BrianShaw Member

    Messages:
    6,710
    Joined:
    Nov 30, 2005
    Location:
    Los Angeles,
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Valid to who (or whom, whichever is gramattically correct)?

    I have a favorite subject who disagrees every time I declare a portrait of her as "valid" (looking just like her). She will always find a flaw, which I believe is a God-given feature. The more posed and fake a portrait of her is, the more she thinks it looks like her.
     
  12. verian

    verian Member

    Messages:
    41
    Joined:
    Aug 15, 2013
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Rankin has a big reputation, but his portraits leave me absolutely cold. The majority of the ones I've looked at appear as though they are to accompany an article in a magazine (which may be the case) and rarely capture anything I would think of as real about the subject. They don't move me, give me pause to ponder, or make me feel much at all, other than, yes, it's a good/clever image, but, for me, they lack any real emotion.

    "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange is more thought provoking than all of Rankins portraits combined I think.

    LangeMigrantMother375.jpg
     
  13. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    9,522
    Joined:
    May 24, 2005
    Location:
    Washington DC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I'd say you judge the success of a portrait not on its accuracy, but in its resonance. The two may or may not be mutually inclusive. Think of the Karsh portrait of Churchill, after the cigar snatch - it carries a very potent sense of Churchill, which only tells you ONE thing about the man - far from a complete picture, or even the most dominant thing about him. Ditto the famous portrait of JP Morgan with the "dagger" chair-arm, or the Arnold Newman photo of Krupp, lit with "monster-lighting". Or the Avedon portrait of the Duke and Mrs. Simpson right after he told them he just ran over a dog on the way to their sitting. You look at any of those portraits and they hit you. Or even the Migrant Mother above - it's a powerful portrait, but the accuracy of it is questionable. Dorothea Lange captioned the photo with some exaggerated/inaccurate information to tell a story about rural poverty that didn't necessarily apply to the woman in the photo. Doesn't lessen the impact of it, and the emotional truth it captures. But historical truth? not so much, and to a great degree irrelevant.
     
  14. Sponsored Ad
  15. BrianShaw

    BrianShaw Member

    Messages:
    6,710
    Joined:
    Nov 30, 2005
    Location:
    Los Angeles,
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Well, not a very decisive or discriminating statement... but completely accurate! :laugh:
     
  16. Chris Lange

    Chris Lange Member

    Messages:
    780
    Joined:
    Aug 17, 2009
    Location:
    NY
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I think a good portrait does not capture a singular instance of the subject's existence, rather it should show the fervor that resides within.
     
  17. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

    Messages:
    4,773
    Joined:
    Oct 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    35mm RF
    I like this.
     
  18. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

    Messages:
    87
    Joined:
    Jul 3, 2013
    Location:
    San Francisc
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Seconded. I think Chris has the right of it. Reading that post, all I can think of is Steve McCurry's NG cover. Chris' statement exemplifies why that photograph works (among a myriad of other reasons...).
     
  19. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

    Messages:
    15,239
    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2003
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    It really matters who the portrait is for, too. I'm sure that many photographs that we see in museums, by famous photographers, are commissioned works. Somebody wanted a photograph, and the photographer hired tried to appease.

    A portrait of a young child, as a gift to the child's mother, would be approached in an entirely different way than say a portrait for a TV documentary about World war 2. Two completely different aims, but without knowing that we'd look at them with the same pair of eyes.

    To me, the appreciation of a portrait is an individual journey. Some speak to me and others don't. Others might have the exact opposite experience. One man's ceiling is another man's floor, according to Paul Simon, and I tend to agree. We don't all appreciate the same things, hence it is, again, a matter of subjectivity.
    That is, unless you have trained to look at works of art objectively, which is a very different skill, but that's more of a value assessment than an emotional journey.
     
  20. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,023
    Joined:
    Feb 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    Found who I was talking about: Bliorg
     
  21. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,023
    Joined:
    Feb 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    One useful measure of a portrait (not a requirement but something you can judge) is whether you can show it to someone and they can recognize the person.

    I have a print of a friend, which I thought was a great portrait. But over dinner, talking with a friend who is sending her daughter on an upcoming camping trip... My wife mentioned his name. Our friend didn't immediately remember who we were talking about, so I went to get the print.

    Showed it to her, and since a baseball cap shaded his face, she couldn't recognize him - even though the portrait reflects his essence TO ME, it failed to help show who we were talking about.

    Got out the 4x5 film from the freezer and am going to load up some Grafmatics... Got another shot at portraiture on the camping trip.
     
  22. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    9,522
    Joined:
    May 24, 2005
    Location:
    Washington DC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I don't know that you can hold yourself accountable on those terms - she may never have experienced the side of the man you were talking about that you see reflected in that portrait, so she doesn't recognize him.
     
  23. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,023
    Joined:
    Feb 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    True. I still love the print. But a feeling of "unfinished business" drives me. I had planned to leave the cameras behind on this (third-annual) camping trip... But now I have a chance to correct my photograph's (literal) shortfall.
     
  24. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

    Messages:
    4,773
    Joined:
    Oct 9, 2010
    Shooter:
    35mm RF
    Err yes Bill, that could be a good starting point.
     
  25. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    9,522
    Joined:
    May 24, 2005
    Location:
    Washington DC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I think that's the goal of an ID photo - making sure the person is recognizable. ID photos are a subspecies of portrait, but I don't think a Portrait (with a capital P) has the same goals as an ID photo. A capital-P Portrait is as much about the photographer/portraitist as it is about the subject - it's an expression of the creator's perception of the subject, or at least some aspect of the subjects' persona that resonates with the creator. It doesn't have to be accurate to be "true".
     
  26. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,985
    Joined:
    Nov 6, 2002
    Location:
    Wine country, N. Cal.
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    I agree and think its fascinating to see portraits of a person done by a number of great photographers, each showing THEIR perception.

    As I've stated before on the issue of portraiture, is the difference in who is paying for the portrait. If the subject pays its a far different animal than if a magazine/publication pays or no one pays.

    The whole dynamic of flattery/ego enters the equation when the subject is the one with the money or power behind the creation of it.

    As with almost all aspects of human interaction when you "follow the money", you get a far better picture (pardon the pun) of intent and influence behind everything, and a portrait is no different.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 27, 2013