Beware the photographic portrait


Portraiture is the most duplicitous of all photographic genres. Not only is the deceit calculated, it is known to all parties in advance.

This situation arises because there are four people in every portrait. There is the person the ‘subject’ tries to project, the person they really are, the person the photographer is trying to present and, finally, the person the viewer thinks they are seeing. While they may not know each other personally, each is aware of the others’ existence.

Of course, every portrait tells us that this person was present in a particular place at a specific time, that they were surrounded by these objects and wearing those clothes. These are the descriptive facts before us.

But people are inclined to think a portrait is capable of revealing much more. Even sophisticated viewers are susceptible to the belief that portraits somehow communicate some essential quality about the person in the photograph.

In the case of cultural icons, we want to believe Steve McQueen was composed and cool at all times, that Audrey Hepburn was always elegant and demure, or that James Dean was a tortured soul. We want to believe despite knowing that such celebrities conspire with photographers to mytholgise their public selves. 

Romantically (or naively), some people continue to believe the ‘real’ identity of a person, perhaps even their soul, can be captured in a portrait.

The fact is portraits are inherently unreliable. Sontag said photographs represent “inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy” (On Photography, p.23). In the case of portraits the invitations are extended to the subject, photographer and viewer. It is, consequently, impossible to separate fact from fantasy in a photographic portrait.

If I seem to be over thinking the nature of photographic portraits it’s because I recently spent a concentrated period of time making new portraits on the streets of various Indian cities. Reflecting on these new images has reminded me of the disconnect between the power of the images and the fleeting nature of the circumstances in which they’re made.

Each portrait ‘session’ – brief encounter would be more accurate – lasts less than thirty seconds.  As a result, there can be no pretence of veracity on the part of these images. I do not know the subject as a person or have any real knowledge of the circumstances of their lives.  I can only judge their character from the way they interact with me (briefly) and surmise tentative fragments about their lives from their appearance and the places where I encounter them.

However, notwithstanding their weaknesses as statements about an individual’s identity, these images do possess a power as photographs of everyman (or women).

Arnold Newman once noted “the successful portrait also bears the personality of the photographer; otherwise it is not an interpretation but just a record.” 

I am comfortable with the idea that my own interpretation of the subject results in them appearing to be noble, powerful, confident, strong, funny, happy, wise, etc. They may really possess these qualities – I don’t direct them to appear so – but I really don’t know.

All I do know is that I aim to portray the people who agree to be photographed in a positive way, irrespective of the material circumstances of their lives. 








34 thoughts on “Beware the photographic portrait

  1. Food for though. I’d imagine because portrait’s are historically important. In times past, only the wealthy had the funds or the status to have a painter sit them down and record their face into the annals of human nature.
    So we’re kind of cultural disposed to thinking they’re important but in the age of photography? You’re 100% right. Anyone can have their portrait taken.

  2. Pingback: Beware the photographic portrait – ETRURIA ARTS

  3. i was out taking photos with my friends & she was trying to get portraits shooting from the hip & we raised a few of the points you express here. in Korea it isn’t easy to get people to agree & if they did they would project a persona they want to be seen in the photograph, for this reason my friend preferred to shoot from the hip for something more authentic. the risk factor meant though…

  4. Absolutely stunning shots. I’m aware native Americans and Aborigines believe photographs steal the soul of their subject and often refuse to have their pictures taken. I love your concept about their being 4 people in each shot, I always see a portrait and want to know more about them.

  5. Pingback: Beware the photographic portrait — ADJUNCTIVE | Writing on photography by John Meehan — Madoka

  6. I feel rather that something inherent is captured through the interaction between the person photographed and the photographer. How they end up presenting themselves relates to how they perceive you. So there are many variables, but something of a person’s personality *is* captured. But no personality is monolithic.

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  8. The common string I see in ALL of your portraits here, is that while different individuals, they are, non arguably, without a doubt, VERY human.
    Looking at them, is not like looking at a face, trying to guess if it was ever truly alive, feeling something.
    It is clear, that all of these individuals “feel”, to a high degree!

    • Thank you for the comments. You have hot on the main thing for me. The people in the portraits are not ‘subjects’, they are individuals with complex identities and lives every bit as important as mine. Regards, John

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