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Portrait Photography Essay Questions

I have a simple question for you. Why do you enjoy photography? When I first asked myself this question, I thought, “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s what I do for a living! I never get tired of picking up my camera and “going to work.” But this doesn’t really answer the question, does it? It just states that I enjoy photography.

So I decided to go a little deeper, back to the beginning. I really got serious about photography when I bought my first digital point and shoot (a Canon SD200). Before that camera I casually photographed friends and flowers with my Canon AE-1, but the world of digital really opened my eyes to what was possible with photography. I had this little camera that fit in my pocket that I could take with me anywhere. Compared to film, I could take a seemingly unlimited number of photos of anything that I wanted. This meant lots of photos of friends and flowers.

I remember being fascinated by my photographs of nature. I could look at a macro image of a flower and see grains of pollen and delicate details that typically went unnoticed. I could look at a photo of a rock outcropping and zoom in to see the smaller inclusions that made it sparkle. Everything was photo-worthy, new and interesting. At this point in time I enjoyed photography because it gave me the ability to capture scenes from my life to remember and study.

Here’s a flower photo that, at the time, I thought was the best photo I’d ever taken.

Eventually I bought my first DSLR (a Nikon D40) and that’s when I got GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). So many lenses and accessories! I must have them all! Suddenly my D40 wasn’t good enough and I just had to upgrade to the D90. New lenses, flashes, bags, filters and software all became “must have” items. With all of this new gear, I branched out from flowers and mountains and started photographing people.

I remember how much fun I had working with people, capturing moments and emotions, seeing the look on their faces when they saw their own portrait and actually liked what they saw. These positive experiences were so much more satisfying to me than photographing nature, I knew that my future in photography would mostly involve people. To a large extent, this is still one of the things that I most love about photography… working with people and capturing moments and emotions so that they will not be forgotten.

I photographed this high school senior while developing my portraiture technique. Sadly, she passed away just a few years after this was taken. Her mother told me how meaningful it was to have these images of her.

After a while, I started dabbling in film again. It felt good to get away from computers and lots of gear and just get back to an analog world where imperfection was embraced. I could indulge my love for antiques and use older cameras. I bought that Polaroid camera I’d always wanted as a kid and marveled at the magic of instant film. Suddenly, I found myself photographing flowers and trees and landscapes again… and loving it!

I remember realizing that something does not immediately become interesting just because it was photographed on film. It’s the light that really makes it come to life. With the right light, a crumpled up piece of paper or a grimy alley can be just as interesting as a field of flowers or a snow covered mountain. Film helped me learn to love light.

For example, the light on this succulent and the way it brings out the pattern of the plant really caught my attention.

Thus began my current obsession with light. I find myself continually hunting light and capturing light with whatever camera I may have with me. More often than not, that camera is my phone. I have fallen in love with phone photography. Maybe it’s because it reminds me so much of my first years of digital photography… just a point and shoot camera that easily fits in my pocket and is always with me. But I think it’s more than just that. It’s a way for me to explore new editing styles, to explore the world around me and ultimately to explore light.

While at a kickboxing tournament, I saw the late-afternoon light pouring through some windows onto these worn stadium seats. Fortunately, I had my phone with me to capture the scene.

What started out as a hobby eventually became a career. That small camera that fit in my pocket expanded into a storage room full of backdrops, lighting equipment and rarely used gear. I now own my own photography business and live and breathe photography every day of the year. And you know what? I still enjoy it. Here is why I enjoy photography:

I enjoy photography because it has given me the opportunity to share in people’s most special moments on a regular basis.

I enjoy photography because it has introduced me to many people who I now call friends.

I enjoy photography because it is something that I can do any time, any place and all I need is my phone.

I enjoy photography because it has allowed me to capture moments in my own life that I don’t want to forget.

I enjoy photography because it has caused me to fall in love with light and see the world around me with fresh eyes every single day. And sometimes, when the mood is right, I just sit back and enjoy the moment without taking a photo.

So, why do you enjoy photography?

Paradoxes lie at the heart of great photographic portraits. We know a photograph can’t actually “capture” anything essential about people in the photographs. More often what we are seeing is powerfully influenced by context, our own biases and preferences and those of the photographer. Intellectually, we are aware that we can’t know a person from simply looking at them, much less from a mute photograph. However, emotionally and spiritually, the temptation to try and do just that is too powerful to ignore. Technically, we know better, but we still look for “truth” in portraits.

Another paradox in portraiture is connected to our basic humanity—the fact that how we look is not how we feel.

Another paradox in portraiture is connected to our basic humanity—the fact that how we look is not how we feel. These spheres, of internal feeling and being, can’t be reconciled with how we look on the outside, and how we appear to other people. This is a fundamental puzzle of being—and this spectacle, the collision of internal and external worlds and intentions is often what makes portraits compelling.

Who is doing the looking is important too. Is the photographer empathetic or opportunistic? Is it possible to be both? Is the photographer testing our expectations and visual consumption, or adding to the heap of stereotypes and reinforcing social norms?

My professor, photographer Dawoud Bey was the first to really impress upon me how formal portrait photography could be both artfully disruptive and socially important. His work at the time upended expectations by depicting young African-American men and other racially diverse men in poses that echoed postures of historical portrait paintings. The dignity, pride and intimacy of the large-scale color portraits contrasted with popular media images of young African-Americans and underscored the absence of these men in traditional art history.

Bey’s book of portraits—published by Aperture—Class Pictures, is one I’ve gone back to again and again. Class Pictures is a collection of portraits of an economically and racially diverse group of high school students. The portraits are plain, shot simply with basic lighting, with no attempt at flattery. There is no technical sizzle or dramatic pop. They are simply deeply empathetic portraits of young people. Autobiographical statements from the students were published alongside their portraits. In this way, the students and the photographer guided the narrative. The pairings of the photographs and the statements let viewers confront unexamined, and perhaps even subconscious, ideas about people who do or don’t look like us.

Meanwhile, “The Birmingham Project” (2012) commemorates the four young girls and two boys whose lives were lost on September 15, 1963, in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the violent aftermath. Dawoud Bey photographed current residents of Birmingham: girls, women, boys, and men. The subjects paired are the ages of the young victims at the time of their deaths, and the ages they would be were they alive today.

The photographs were made in two Birmingham locations, Bethel Baptist Church (which was a very active church in the Civil Rights Movement) and the Birmingham Museum of Art (which during the 1960s was a segregated institution). Each participant was photographed separately and then paired into diptychs afterwards, using gesture, psychology, temperament and physical resemblance to create a connection between the two subjects.

A self-described visual activist, Zanele Muholi is another photographer who has chosen the tradition of portraiture to challenge sociopolitical structures, to build and archive community. Muholi’s oeuvre includes films and still portraits of the LGBTI community in South Africa as well as self portraits. Her portraits of the LGBTI community bring this group into the spotlight, documenting their triumphs and struggles in a country that has legalized same-sex marriage, but where homophobia and hate crimes are all too common.

Muholi’s recent multiple exhibitions in New York City are particularly timely in the United States, where race and sexual identity have both entered the national dialogue in a new way. Her transcendent self portraits are not only political; they cut across categories, confronting the viewer with a dazzling array of contradictions and complexities. The life and energy coming from the portraits made me feel as though I was actually being seen by the artist as well as seeing her.

Muholi has collapsed the role of the subject and the photographer into one, directing and simultaneously offering herself up intimately. The portraits ask what it means to be female, to be black, to be sexual, to be desired, to be hated, and to be loved. In Bona, Charlottesville, 2015 (the final picture in the slideshow above), the artist is naked on a bed, top of her head to the camera, but her direct eye contact is redirected back to the viewer in a round mirror. She flips the gaze that would attempt to view her body as a object. The picture asks what it means to look, and to be looked at. In her self-portraits, confrontation and vulnerability, authority and playfulness, deep existential questions and humour square off, forcing viewers to face preconceptions of race and identity.

What makes a truly great portrait? Fortunately, there is no formula.

What makes a truly great portrait? Fortunately, there is no formula. Many talented photographers will never be able to make successful portraits, or will spend years slowly learning. Empathy is important, but empathy alone does not make a strong portrait. Successful portraits are the result of a mysterious alchemy between the photographer and subject, or the artist and the audience.

For a formal portrait to work, the subject must collaborate, and give something to the photographer. When this happens, viewers are given a kind of unearned intimacy with the subject. What is it we see in these portraits? Do they allow viewers an opportunity to construe their own interpretations, or do they truly show something of the subject? It may be that great portraits reflect big questions back at us, tugging at something interior that acknowledges and recognizes others as both separate from and part of ourselves.

—Rebecca Horne

Rebecca Horne is a photographer, and she writes on photography, science and art in national publications and the multimedia mobile platform Storehouse. Recent writing includes Wild Pigeon for Daylight and What do these uploaded videos say about society? for CNN. Recent writing in print includes a book essay for California based-artist Johnna Arnold’s In/Finite Potential.

Dawoud Bey is an American photographer and educator renowned for his large-scale color portraits of adolescents and other, often marginalized subjects. He recently was named a More of his excellent and wide-ranging work can be found on his gallery’s website.

Zanele Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist. Muholi is a visual activist who tries to bring light to the importance of black lesbian women in South Africa. She is represented by Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town, where you can find out more about her work.