I think about camera portraits a lot – thinking about them is a lot easier than doing them. It’s easy to take a photograph of somebody – click, a wash and brush up in a photo editing program and you’re there. Making a portrait with a camera is a lot harder. The great Henri Cartier-Bresson said that “Portraits are the most difficult. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of the person and his shirt, which is not an easy thing.”
Moreover a drawn or painted portrait (from a live model – not from a photograph) contains time. The sitter and the painter see a lot of each other and the result is not an instant in time. A photograph is – sort of.
The idea of time in a portrait came to me several years ago at Bumbershoot – when Bumbershoot was really an umbrella festival for all kinds of art and performance. Gage Academy sponsored a “drawing slam” – bring your own materials, they supplied several models and their faculty was roaming about giving advice as requested. I wandered through the drawing slam and was drawn to one of the models, a not-young-but-very-attractive woman in sort of Italian peasant costume. She was present – beyond the literal sense. Perhaps better described as “belonging” to where she was and why she was there. She was there to be seen and a drawing or a photograph of her would have been a portrait. Sitters like that are few and far between. I have worked with perhaps three.
What brought this to mind recently was a presentation by Robert Kalman, a photographer who does “tintypes” (more accurately wet-plate collodion) portraits. The exposure time for a tintype is 4 to 10 seconds depending on the light. Nearly nobody can hold the “say cheese” kind of expression for that long. Before the photographer opens the shutter the sitter has time to become rigid and suspicious or to become composed, relaxed, and present. Kalman’s portraits (the latter) contain, to my eye, the same feeling of time that a painted portrait carries. One of his sitters told him that was the only picture she had that “looks like me”. Well, a tintype is a mirror image – what the sitter saw was what she sees looking in a mirror.
Now there’s an idea! I recently did a portrait of a lovely 12 year old girl. I sent her two prints one of which was reversed left to right to make it a mirror image. I asked her and her mom to tell me which one looked more like her. Mom chose the “normal” girl the “mirror image”. I’m still figuring out what to do with that bit of insight.
I haven’t done many portraits in the last year. People wearing masks are not exciting subjects.