The Art of Portrait Photography | Off Book | PBS Digital Studios

The Art of Portrait Photography | Off Book | PBS Digital Studios


We’re drawn to portraits
because they are human beings, and we’re human beings. I can relate to it somehow. We’re people, so we
like looking at people. We’re very social. And I think that a
face can say so much. We’ve been portraying ourselves
to imitate, represent, flatter, to situate with some
kind of social status. At its core, it’s
our desire to record, to document our existence. [MUSIC PLAYING] We’ve been depicting
people since cave drawings, but that was more of a
ceremony or celebration. In terms of portraiture,
the ancient Egyptians were the first to
really depict the gods and pharaohs as the gods, and
celebrate that and record that. Same thing with the
Greeks and the Romans, and up into even
medieval times, where it was more religious figures. The whole first part
of civilization, in terms of what
we were portraying, was the aspiration for
perfection and beauty, and our interpretation
of it, largely because of the philosophers of the time. It certainly was also
where you stood in society. If you could afford
to get a portrait done in the first place, then you’re
already making a statement that I’m important. When photography came
around, it was no longer a portrayal of a human. It was the reality. It was a human. And so there was no cheating. There was no interpretation. It was still portraiture,
but it was that person. And then around the Civil
War, it was photojournalism. And towards the
end of the 1800s, people started using portraiture
as a means of expression rather than just
recording events. And now we’re back
to the celebrities, which are our modern
versions of gods. They’re the ones who a
lot of people worship. And so my portraiture tries to
tell a little bit of a story. What I look for is
something you can relate to. We’ve almost come full circle. But philosophically,
it’s changed in that it went from deifying
only the richest and most powerful humans
to everyday folk. [MUSIC PLAYING] I love stories. That’s what draws
me to photography. I took a photo at dawn
and I thought, wow, this reminds me a lot
of how I feel when I look at photos of my father. Very disconnected feeling. My father was diagnosed
with Alzheimer’s in 2007. I started the Sleepwalker
project in 2009, and started taking
portraits of him. And then also was
taking self-portraits to participate in it, and have
him not feel like he’s alone. I’m really trying
to recreate someone who’s feeling
increasingly disconnected with things around them,
from people around them. I try to forget where
I am and focus on him and what he’s going through. And I feel like when I’m
actually connected to that, those are the best photos. I really wanted to
track the disease and have it tell a story
about what’s happening to him. Because time is everything
with Alzheimer’s. Like at what point,
if there is a point, is he no longer the same person. Soon, or eventually,
he won’t know who he is, and he won’t know who
I am and who anyone around him is. So that’s why I think, also,
that the Sleepwalker works as a story. Portrait photography is
incredibly relatable to us. I think that a face
can say so much, and portraits are
very accessible to us. I think that he knows
that it’s important to me, and feels also that it
serves maybe potentially, hopefully, a greater good. My interest in
portraiture is really driven by my fascination
to use the genre, to use those photographic
tropes that we’re fluent in, and pervert them
or invert them in some way. We understand group portraiture
and family portraiture so well, and we bring our
own projections, our own assumptions,
to each portrait. In the Constructed
Family Portrait series I would invite strangers
to rented hotel rooms, and I would construct
artificial families. And a lot of times, they
were interracial families. These are ordinary people. They were not actors. They weren’t model. I didn’t pay anyone. And I was interested
in the uncanny, and that’s really why I
worked with strangers. I wanted to find those really
unnatural, awkward moments. The moment that
felt palpably wrong, but they’re kind of
masked behind the smiles. What would happen was,
which was interesting, the family just kind of
organically took form. And it was really dependent and
contingent on their dynamic. So if the woman, for example,
tended to be very domineering, it tended to take on a more
matriarchal composition. They intuitively knew
the certain behaviors, and that fascinated me. And there’s been really
interesting reactions to this series where
people feel deceived. Even once you do know
that it’s a construct, you still intuitively
make those connections and project those
narratives onto the family. It’s opening up a
conversation about, well, what is family now, or
what does family look like, or does it really
look like this. And I find that
really interesting it’s because of how close
we are to the medium, and how we understand the
medium because it’s such a part of our everyday lives. There’s a lot of ways
to photograph a person, and intentions that one could
have in making a portrait. What I’m interested in
is almost exclusively that space between us,
the relational aspects. A lot of the
photographic portrait sittings that I do are
commissions, namely a magazine, for example. Oftentimes, there’s some sort
of biographical piece, feature. In those situations, in the
context of a formal sitting, it doesn’t work for
me to create some idea and then put them on the idea. I understand that
my subject is coming to the sitting with an idea
of how they might project their own representation. So for example,
somewhat recently was a commission
for GQ magazine. Sam Brown was a lieutenant
serving in Afghanistan. 2008, roadside bomb, and
he’s critically injured, burned across half of
his body, his face. So I wanted to
give him, in a way, the power over his own image. I took my cable
release for my camera and turned it
inside to the frame. Essentially, I invited him into
the decision-making process. It is a choice so
let things happen, to not apply a
situation on a person. This kind of self-reflection
on the medium and on the idea
of representation that’s not always with
intention or foreknowledge. It’s full of improvisation
and intuition and surprise. I think a compelling
portrait makes someone think. It makes someone think about
the person, about what they’re thinking about. As long as they just
don’t flip right by it, I think it’s compelling. We are part of creating
what we perceive. And in the case of a
portrait, to make us see this person anew. I want to show
someone my world. And if they can relate
to that in a way, then that’s me relating to them. How we’re communicating
photographically is changing. And I feel like the
role of the portrait and the appearance of the
portrait has changed, as well. [MUSIC PLAYING]

44 thoughts on “The Art of Portrait Photography | Off Book | PBS Digital Studios

  1. As a student in Photography and an aspiring portrait photographer; I loved this and wished it went more in depth with greater explanations not just the thoughts of these great artists.

  2. My least favourite type of portraiture is the type Matt Hoyle creates. The usual glossy, slick, sickly, over produced texture to them. This is about as dishonest as photography gets, next to fashion mags. I don't think he captures the essence of anybody, all of it is lost in the Photoshop/Lightroom phase. Blech.

  3. I feel like the 'selfie' should have been included in the history? Maybe that would have distracted from the mystique of the piece as a whole.

  4. Photography today is all about gimmicks. Everything is based on some drunken conversation "wouldn't it be neat if we did X?", then adding some kind of self-serving explanation after the fact to make it seem meaningful. And, of course, that's where it should stay – as an idea floating in the bottom of a beer can.

  5. Very good video but just one thing, the music that starts around 5:20 is definitely not "Arrival of the Birds" by Lara Bartlett. I mean sure Lara posted this on her soundcloud but she does not mention that it's in fact "Saturn Strobe" by Pantha du Prince. Not cool.

  6. Any one know what that shark tooth patterned object between the camera and the subject seen at 1:20 is??
    Could it be something for portraits to make some type of vignette?

  7. Finally a video showing real artistry from amazing creators. Those images stay with you as you watch them

  8. I loved this video. Personally im working on a portrait series giving realism or a face to mental illness.  My plan is to cover every mental illness.  I started with depression and suicide. This shot was really successful and deep. My second is schizophrenia. Then I will continue from there on. Thank you for sharing this video very inspiring.Frank

  9. Can't describe how much I hate hate hate that dumb-fuck background music. Ruins this excellent video, but, sorry I just can't watch it.

  10. Thank you so much for doing this. This is exactly what I want to share with the people around me.

  11. Wow, as the saying goes "nothing new under the sun". I find so many similarities to an article I wrote recently on portrait photography https://mirchevphotography.com/photography-blog/the-essence-of-portrait-photography/

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