What is a Portrait?

29 Oct 2019

Copyright © 1993- Ganesh H. Shankar

A Portrait

What is a portrait?

This question has been bothering me for sometime.

"Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses"

I am aware of such characterizations, as for example, described in this Wiki link, Portrait Photography. However, I think there is something deeper, which is missing or may be attempted.

Can "personality of the subject" be captured using "lighting, backdrops and poses" as defined above? What do we mean by "personality of the subject"?

I feel very uncomfortable to accept limitations and boundaries posed by such characterizations for larger appeal of the work. I clearly understand, in the Darwinian world of survival and commercial portraiture, these discussions/thoughts may not make sense, where both photographer and subject need to make a living from photography. The trouble I have is when I do portraits for myself.

I will attempt at describing the problem than attempting at defining what a "portrait" is to me. Today, I am not in a position to clearly articulate what it is to me.

I think, the link between the subject and the photographer is often very weak and shallow which limits the essence of an image to just light, clothes, colors, eyes, textures and few other visual elements. This is at best an opinion of a photographer formed during a few minutes of transactional interaction with the subject.

A few weeks ago I made this above image of a gentleman in a remote village waiting for a bus at a road side. When I requested him for an image he readily agreed, with a smile on his face. He was happy to be photographed. Why did I make this image? I think there were a few reasons. Beyond the artistic cap and colorful contrasting threads on it, I thought he was probably in his late 80s. It appeared that he had a need to work at this age. His hard life was visible in his eye cataracts. However, his energy and probably a positive outlook was visible in his chuckle and sharp looks. I made a few images of him. We were together for about 10 minutes. He looked at me a few times, I looked at him through the view finder a few times. I made some opinions about him, he must have made some opinions about me. Neither of them is probably true. He went home, I returned too. Not sure where he is now. All I am left with is this image. What does this mean now to me as a so called "portrait", beyond just a "memory"? Beyond feeling proud about my photographic skills? Beyond textures, wrinkles, contrasts, compositions, wide open blue eyes and color of clothes? Is it fair to expect a "meaning" now? Or should I just move on? I am really not sure. Now, I miss something in this "portrait", for sure!

Here is another "portrait", of a lady. She seem to have fought her lone battles in life before giving it up at the end. She appeared very tired. She just looked at me when I pointed my camera at her. Outward expression seem to hide a mountain of struggle and stories of the past. How do I know? What does this "portrait" mean to me? It means a lot, for sure, because she is my mother, who passed away couple of years ago.

When it comes "portrait" of near and dear ones, the question of "what it means to me?" generally does not arise. The challenge is doing portrait of an unknown person, beyond colors, contrasts, wrinkles and textures. What lasting truth can I portray beyond the visual and Darwinian (survival and progeny) attributes which are well understood? Are there any such thing? Or am I living in an imaginary world? I am inclined to believe more is possible in "portrait" photography. I think portrait photography has three elements, subject which looks at the photographer (which is a challenge!), the photographer who looks at the subject and the audience (if any) who look at the final "portrait". Making it relevant to all the three need not be a goal. A difficult one though if you want it that way. How do I make a portrait of an unknown person which is as strong as my mother's portrait is to me? Am I chasing a wild-goose?

Some time ago I was in a small village and found eyes of this below boy very beautiful. Seeing through the viewfinder, I told him that his eyes are very beautiful. In no time another kid standing next to him opened his eye wider so that I could get a better view of his eye! How innocent these kids are! When I was searching through my archives for a some portraits I just found this image. I had forgotten this long ago otherwise. Or in other words "portraits" like these which portrayed an interesting moment are short lived too. I have seen attempts at creating "portraits" with eye as the main anchor. My belief is these formulas based on visual cues alone will not make a portrait long lasting.

One winter early morning I found this below gentleman sitting infront of a campfire. His piercing look and ambience appeared very compelling to make a portrait of him. I must admit however the main inspiration to make this image was the light. I knew nothing about the person. No wonder the image did not last a few weeks in my mind.

Here below is a portrait of a passenger sitting on the stone bench, which is a typical village bus stand, in this part of the world where I live. He was waiting for bus having enough time on his clock. In his village attire he appeared very interesting. I looked at him, he looked at me. I was curious to understand his view of the world, while my presence at that remote place appeared like a riddle to him. The next moment the bus he was waiting for arrived. He boarded the bus, we never had a conversation. I made the image below of him sitting on the stone bench after he left.

Portrait of a passenger

Yes, you are right, this is an imaginary portrait of an imaginary person! No one was there waiting for the bus.

Does this make sense to me as a "portrait" of a person?

I think it does! Probably makes more sense as a "portrait" than the first portrait of the gentleman above. The first portrait is a closed one with some visual cues like cap, colors, eyes, and textures as my opinion. This latter "portrait" is also my opinion, less visual cues but more open. I think this is a more satisfying "portrait" for me.

As an ending note, I think good part of "Portrait Photography" revolves around our notion of good and bad which is related to morality and ethics. If ethics is a human made subject having its Darwinian roots then I think "meaningful portrait" (whatever it means) is a myth. A compelling portrait in the context of a war may have its roots in the ethics that we have in place for the equality and survival. It is not very clear to me whether any work of art has to be contained within the Darwinian boundary of survial and continuation of our progeny. If a photograph of a semi-nude torso looks compelling with any/many heads on it then I think the power of such portraits stem from the inner natural Darwinian desires than the intrinsic merits of the external portrait itself. On the other hand if ethics is a priori  in Kantian sense then I am very hopeful that more is possible in the world of "Portrait Photography".

I stay very optimistic.

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