By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HUGE SURGE OF POPULARITY served notice on the painting world that there would, going forward, be more than one way to capture the human essence in a portrait. Initially dismissed as a mere recording device by panicky daubers the world over, the camera soon earned a place at the table by revealing just as much of the inner souls of its subjects as even the most trained brush, albeit by different roads. One of these, of course, was the eye, characterized as “the window to the soul.” To some, it seemed that painters merely drew your gaze to the eye, whereas the camera drilled straight through it.
Whether you share that view or shrink in horror from it, the fact is that generations of technical treatises have centered on the vital importance of engaging the eye in portraits: getting the right “catch light” spark reflected in it, making it the primary focus of the face, even zeroing out sharpness in the entire frame except in the orb’s immediate vicinity. It’s accepted wisdom that the eye sells the face and the face sells the picture. But what of faces that have another kind of story?
In the above image, we are, as viewers, denied access to the birdwatcher’s eyes, unless you interpret her binoculars as a kind of abstract substitute. But does that make the picture not a portrait? Using every other feature and prop available to the shooter, is there insufficient evidence to properly tell her story? Are we at all uncertain of her intent, enthusiasm, state of mind? Is her zeal any less obvious without those windows to the soul in sight? Or to think of it another way, would the picture have any greater narrative power if her eyes were visible?
Portraits are certainly anchored by their most provocative features, riveting our gaze to precise points of drama as urged by talented photographers. However, that list of elements is not absolute, any more than a blue sky is an absolute for a painter. Faces can spell out a message in upper-case neon letters or whisper it in muted shadows. But other than that, everything else is on the table. Portraits are a process, not a recipe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PORTRAITURE IS RATHER NARROWLY DEFINED BY MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS as an interpretation of a person’s face, the place wherein we believe that most of his/her humanity resides. The wry smile. The upturned eyebrow. The sparkling eye. It’s all there in the features, or so we seem to profess by valuing the face over nearly all other physical features.We stipulate that there are notable exceptions where the body carries most of the message, as in crowd scenes, sports action, or combat shots. But for the most part, we let the face hold the floor (and believe me, after a few misspent nights, my face has held the floor plenty of times).
It’s interesting, however, in an age where privacy has become a premiere issue, and in which the camera’s eye never blinks, that we don’t explore the narrative power of bodies as much as we do faces. The body, after all, carries out the intentions of the mind no less than does the face. It executes the physical action that the mind intends, and so creates a space that reveals that intention. Just like a face. And yet, we have a decidedly pro-face bias in our portraiture, to the point that a portrait that does not include a face is thought by some not to be a portrait at all.
But let’s keep the discussion, and our minds, open, shall we? I love to work with random crowds, and I like nothing better than to immortalizing emotions in a nice face-freeze. However, I strongly maintain that, absent those obvious visual “cues”, a body can carry a storyline all by itself, even enhance the charm or mystery involved in trying to penetrate the personality of our subjects.
Consider for a moment how many amazing nude studies you’ve seen where the subject’s face is completely, even deliberately obscured. Does the resulting image lack in power, or does the power traditionally residing in the face just transfer to the rest of the composition?
Portraits (I insist on calling them that) that are more “private” for being faceless are no more “impersonal” than if the subject was flashing the traditional “cheese!” and beaming their personality directly into the lens.
Photography is not about always getting the vantage point that we want, but maximizing the one we have at hand. And sometimes, taking away a face also strips away a mask. But beyond that, why not actually court mystery, allow ourselves to trust our audiences to supply mentally what we reserve visually?
Ask yourself: what does a photograph of understatement look like?