Great portraits are about more than a smiling face. Let’s look at the work of four classic portrait photographers, then visit the web sites of five outstanding contemporary portraitists and see what they have in common.
“Say cheese” is bunk.
While researching this article, I was struck by how few people are smiling in successful portraits—with weddings, family portraits and senior portraits being the notable and understandable exceptions.
Follow the links to the classic and contemporary portrait photographers’ work below and you’ll see very few smiles, but you’ll see plenty of personality revealed. As the Bill Withers’ 70’s hit lyrics say, smiling faces tell lies, and in the case of meaningful portraiture, there is a range of telling expressions that a smile simply covers up. Get rid of that smile, and a lot more character emerges.
The faces below prove it.
Four classic portraitists
You’ve seen Karsh’s portrait of Winston Churchill (above), shot in 1941, one of over 15,000 portrait sittings that Karsh shot over his long career. Back story: Frustrated during the photo shoot, Karsh walked up and plucked an uncooperative Churchill’s ever-present cigar right out of his mouth. “By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me.” Snap. The resulting photo memorably captured the essence of the British leader's power and stubborn determination. From Ernest Hemmingway to Mother Teresa, Karsh had a talent for capturing the subject’s essence—sometimes by using tough love.
Lange’s work for the Farm Security Administration during the depression was a form of reportage that captured an era and showed us the proud, determined people who were struggling to survive. The strongest, and best known, of these images, is her portrait of Florance Owens Thompson and her children, the migrant mother, above. Shot on location with a 4x5 Graflex camera, it represents a vast body of work that includes many devastating portraits housed in the Library of Congress photography collection.
Shocking, controversial, different. Annie Liebovitz’s images stretch the boundaries of portraiture (and sometimes, taste). Think of the shot of Meryl Streep in clown makeup, pinching her face, which showed her versatility and plasticity as an actor. Her more recent group portraits of the casts of the Sopranos and Lost show a mastery of storytelling and an ever-evolving sense of production values in her people pictures.
With all of Penn’s high-fashion, high design imagery, why does this simple image, shot under natural, diffused light with a simple props and a backdrop hung up on location, speak to me? This photograph, titled Cuzco Children, Peru, December 1948, shows adult-like personalities and confidence of his anonymous, humble young subjects in a way that defy their age. Through this image, Penn discovered that he didn’t need props, and embarked on a simpler approach to his more famous subjects that let their personalities come out.
Five modern portrait shooters
So, those were pretty standard choices. What about current portrait shooters? Thanks to my friends on Twitter, I’ve discovered some remarkable portraits by photographers who are working now. Here’s a taste of what’s out there right now.
Joel Grimes knows how to coax great expressions from his subjects, from actors and singers to athletes, but what really makes his pictures jump off the monitor is the lighting, which is nothing short of amazing. He has clearly mastered the strobe in a way that makes me want to go to the next available Joe McNally workshop so I can learn to shoot like that. Check out his Sports section, which shows some of the most dramatic environmental athletic portraiture I’ve ever seen.
If you want to get a sustained flash of Eric Ogden’s vision, go to the “Portraits + Stories” section of his web site, and flip through is Prodigies series. These are child prodigies, doing their respective prodigal things, looking like kids and grown-ups at the same time. He captures a perfect balance of play and serious talent and even without captions, the viewer has a pretty good sense of what each of these kids is really good at. If you want some inspiringly good storytelling portraits (and some deceptively understated lighting) spend some quality time on his web site.
Dan Winters’ photographs of celebrities, politicians, athletes and eccentrics are straightforward, iconic, and shot on 4x5-inch film. From his serene portraits of the Dalai Lama and new-age mystic Rick Rubin to downright disturbing portrait of spooky movie director Tim Burton and a dramatic profile of musician Bono (shown), he has a way of getting to the essence of his subject with minimal or no props.
Paul Mobley approaches his diverse subjects with a sense of playfulness and humor. I highly recommend going into the Portfolios section of his web site and looking at People of Character—the chef balancing four tomatoes on his head, the balled, tattooed man with a long-pointy beard and the awesome elderly couple in front of a lawn inexplicably filled with pink flamingoes are all strong characters. While their depictions come close to comic, they never cross that line and instead balance humor with a sense of respect for the subject. This is wonderfully thoughtful eye candy.
I wanted to include one photographer to represent the traditional family-wedding commercial photographers out there, and chose Tamara Lackey, a North Carolina-based photographer whose how-to DVD is a must have for aspiring wedding and portrait shooters. If your goal is to excel at family portraiture, she’s an outstanding practitioner of this craft. I especially like her work when she breaks out of the typical studio and formulaic family-gathered-on-a-tree stump outside portrait and goes for black-and-whites with unexpected backdrops, such as in the sample shown here. (Note: This is the only image where the subject's smiling. What does that say about portrait photography?)