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  1. #1
    cliveh's Avatar
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    Judging Portraits

    I find this very difficult, because if you don’t know the subject, how do you assess if the image is a valid representation?

    “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention”

    Francis Bacon

  2. #2
    MatthewDunn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cliveh View Post
    I find this very difficult, because if you don’t know the subject, how do you assess if the image is a valid representation?
    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.
    "Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur." - Alfred Eisenstadt

  3. #3
    cliveh's Avatar
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    Very valid and thanks for that.

    “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention”

    Francis Bacon

  4. #4

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    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. #5
    blansky's Avatar
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    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 blansky; 09-25-2013 at 10:40 PM. Click to view previous post history.
    I couldn't think of anything witty to say so I left this blank.

  6. #6
    MatthewDunn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blansky View Post
    Firstly, what is a VALID representation?
    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.
    "Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur." - Alfred Eisenstadt

  7. #7
    Bill Burk's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MatthewDunn View Post
    Sam Jones (http://samjonespictures.com/), for instance, is one of my absolute favorite commercial photographers working today..
    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. #8
    MatthewDunn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Burk View Post
    ...But I have favorites right here, illumiquest just today posted a striking portrait of a barkeep that moves me more.
    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?
    "Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur." - Alfred Eisenstadt

  9. #9
    MatthewDunn's Avatar
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    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...

    "Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur." - Alfred Eisenstadt

  10. #10
    Jim Jones's Avatar
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    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.

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