A Great Portrait?

What makes a great portrait?

There are many, many, good photographers producing vast numbers of excellent images.  The question that springs to mind then is how do we distinguish between a great portrait, and one that is technically good, but in the scheme of things will be forgotten, next year, next month, or even tomorrow.

The advent of social media such as facebook has meant that it is very easy to work ‘out there’. Get together a bunch of ‘friends’ who’ll admire your work and it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that in some way your work is more worthy than that of others.

Photography as a hobby has never been cheaper or accessible. In 1983 a Nikon fm, body only, was around £200.  The average price of a house at the same time was around £24 000. Only a crude comparison, but that would make a Nikon fm body around £1200 now. Running costs are minimal on modern cameras, and the degree of technical skill required to get a photo with correct focus and correct exposure is almost non-existent.

As a result the number of hobbyists and ‘semi-professionals’ has exploded. Clearly there are still great differences between skill levels, but it could be argued that the number of great photos, as opposed to technically competent photos has not increased.

The reason for this assertion, I’d suggest, is that there is a basic misunderstanding of what makes a great portrait. In literary terms this is the difference between a novelist and a biographer.

The novelist is creating a story with the photograph. He creates work grounded in his mind, rather than reality. From the initial idea he creates the image with the model, and perhaps a Make Up Artist, then carefully crafts this together on the shoot, then edits it on the computer in the way that he has previsualised in his initial thoughts.

The biographer, on the other hand starts from reality and goes about presenting that reality in a way that tells a compelling story about the sitter (not model). It’s when the biographer captures the true nature, the true character, of the subject that the opportunity for greatness emerges.

When Duane Michal uses the term ‘fartster’, he alludes to this fundamental difference. The fartster, in this sense is the novelist, constantly confusing the concepts of fashion and art. Taking fashion photos is not art, and without art, a photo cannot be great.

Get a ‘real’ person, with an interesting story, execute it brilliantly and then you may create a photo that will withstand the march of time. Knowing the story isn’t always essential, but the photograph must convey the biographical intent to be considered great.

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