How a Portrait Means

To capture the essence of a person in a photograph is how some understand excellent portrait photography. Some will accept less acuity and hold to capturing an honest, perhaps revealing moment that characterizes some aspect of a subject’s identity.

Wedding photographer Martin Shrembi envokes his glamorous portrayal of brides as the moment in their lives they will never look better. Brides, that is, with their $200 makeup, designer dress, coiffed hair.

When asked, a student of Physics will say they study Physics, not say they study the natural world. The natural world is the object of study, not the subject of study. I think we might in the same way see a person photographed as the object of the photography, not the subject of our viewing. Our viewing is of photography. We study the photography, not the sitter.

Consider the talk when viewers remark on a portrait. They admire the lighting, the pose, the context for the photograph. You wouldn’t hear, at least I haven’t, any talk of how a fine outstanding young man the subject is. For glamorous images, the viewers don’t speak of the character of the model or bride; they see glamour, the sparkle, which in the original definition of the word glamour, diverts the eye.

Ah, here’s where the confusion begins. We speak of the sitter for the photograph as the subject of our study. No, I’m suggesting, photography is the subject. The portrait sitter is the object of that photography. Photography is our subject.

And so the person in the photograph is not what we examine when viewing the photograph. We examine the photography. We see the person only as a photograph. Now the bride might be enamoured of her depiction, might like to see herself to be as glamorous as she’s depicted by the photographer’s tools of expression. A person having had a portrait taken might see her or himself in the image, that is, how they would like to see themselves, as if in a mirror. That’s the basis for the business of corporate headshots or in the USA of high school senior’s photography: appealing to how the sitters would like to see themselves. Perhaps a family member or friend viewing the photograph might compliment the photograph as a true rendering, as a way to compliment the sitter. But for everyone else, especially strangers to the sitter, the photograph is a photograph. The person depicted is a depiction of photographic skill. It is the pleasing rendering of a side light across a worn, weathered face of a cowboy, conveyed in striking black and white. The photography is the subject of the viewer. The cowboy an object of the study of the photography. The cowboy, that person, is not the subject of our viewing.

The challenge for us in this reconsideration of the subject of our attention, is that in our minds we believe we see Winston Churchill when we see his portrait. But of course, as with most everything, we see our projection, either from our own perspective and partialities or given to us by the photographic perspective.

Yousuf Karsh’s portraits, brilliant conveyance, so many of them, are the result of many factors: Karsh’s detailed preparation, his subtle psychological preparation of the sitter, his exceptional skill and creativity with light and posing to shape an image, his own personality, demeanour and even his stature are all significant factors in the conveyance of his photographic portraits. One commentator remarks that Karsh’s photography evokes the inner beauty of the sitter. Well, it seems to me that he evokes beauty but not so much of that person before him but of the photograph. We jump to the conclusion that Churchill is resolved, a bulldog that will never give in, or that Einstein is brilliant, but the truth of those judgements is based on our other knowledge of the sitters, only confirmed by the photograph. We applaud and value the photograph because it is beautiful photography, and because it does so well to confirm our belief about the sitter. If we would know nothing about a sitter, then any judgement we have of the sitter would be based on the photographer’s skill of portrayal. In reality, our judgement of a sitter based solely on a photograph tells us nothing we can say to be true about the sitter. We know only what the photographer, perhaps in collaboration with the sitter or a marketing department, wants us to know about the sitter.

We believe photographs. Ah. Be careful about what you are believing in. That’s the work of media literacy: to help us to understand what we are looking at when looking at a photograph, that we are not seeing what’s depicted but how it is depicted. We might judge a newscaster trustworthy, but media literacy helps us to realize it is the camera angle and how many other controlled factors under the skill of the image-maker that gives us that impression of authority and trustworthiness. We are not necessarily or certainly looking at a trustworthy newscaster; we are looking at the photography of trustworthiness. Which may have nothing to do with the newscaster.

It’s only getting worse for us to know what we might call true about an image. Right now, videos are helping to demonstrate the truthfulness of incidents of police brutality. If all the public had as evidence were simple accounts of the police action, the pressure on the police would not be so effective. There would be all kinds of verbal wrangling and denials that is helpfully eliminated with the truthfulness of the citizen video capture. However, with AI and face recognition software so sophisticated now, a person can be made to say and do whatever the software user wants. Faces can be digitally placed over faces and substituted for other faces in a video and the fake faces made to mouth the words that another person is saying, and we the viewers would not know that. The face of Barak Obama, for example, can be made to look like he is speaking the most vile of language actually spoken by someone else, Obama’s mouth movement and tone of voice matched precisely to the vile language spoken by another person. And we cannot tell the difference. It looks exactly as if Obama is saying those words. In fact you can see this example in the documentary More Human Than Human: AI & Us

We live in a world of digitization -cameras and images- and if we believe truth is the subject of our viewing, we will be coerced by smart manipulative people into living our lives within a construct of false assumptions. It seems to me, media is the subject of our viewing and should be the subject of our study so that our judgements are not displaced, so we don’t think we know a lot about that leather-skinned cowboy or dolled-up bride when in fact we know nothing about those people. Certainly not their essence! Not even a truthful moment in their lives. We are only viewing photography.