Monochrome Diary: Portraits

The reaction to a human face is inherently stronger than to any inanimate object or arrangement. The expression, body language, placement and lighting often overcome the processing and/or printing technique, or at the least dictate much of the approach.

If the face is familiar to the viewer, be it a family member or celebrity, the image itself will break out of its surface and reach into the heart. Unfamiliar faces, be they grotesque or bland, or covered with bees, look out from within a paper surface that may often be psychologically opaque. We ascribe characteristics and thoughts more than read the face before us. Yet, most portraits are made with complete indifference to the stranger, and are made to appeal to the knower, although a “strong” portrait of even a complete stranger taps into something universal that all can appreciate.

Illustrative portraits of celebrities can become icons and become an important part of their projected personality, as much if not more than the signature or technique/approach of the photographer. Yet the image can serve quite different purposes. Consider Avedon’s portrait of Eisenhower, then the early career photographs of Jim Morrison by Joel Brodsky. Both are straightforward images, yet each serves quite different purposes and elicits reactions that are at polar opposites. The Brodsky images deify; the Avedon images mortify.

Some portraits lodge themselves in our mind. Place a dog on a piano bench seated behind a grand piano, open the piano and crop so that it forms a half note in the frame and visually literate viewers will think “Newman/Stravinsky", even though a dog stares out at them from the print. Show the same shot to an unfamiliar viewer and they may think, "Why is that dog sitting on the piano bench and why would anyone make that picture?" Indeed, but derivations of classic portraits often form the basis for work that hopefully extends beyond the visual pun and caricature.

The role processing and printing plays in portraiture is usually a reflection of the photographer's take on the subject. Expanded or compressed tonal scales are used as explication of the subject's moods or persona, or at least of the photographer's subjective view of them. In some cases, the rendition of the portrait is often as much about the photographer as the subject. Hopefully it is ground in something the photographer sees in the subject and is not just a reflection entirely based on the photographer’s approach at that time.

Compared to portrait painters, the photographic printmaker too often gives in to a straightjacket of modernism, thus works within a very narrow spectrum of technique. A study of 19th century photographic portraiture, which was much closer to painting in approach and technique, reveals the wider possibilities available to portrait photographers today, one that should be considered as a valid and fruitful area for study.

In many ways the early years of photographic portraiture were much more risk-taking, at least in comparison to much work today, and included a certain level of mystery that gave the viewer an opportunity to muse about the subject's personality. This may have to do with the light sources used—daylight rather than electronic—and how shadow and highlight are recorded on the materials of the day.

There is an aura that pictorialists achieved that is quite seductive. Yet, in some photographers there is an instilled fear of being characterized as "pictorialist", and this often manifests itself in flatness, with little volume in forms and, for the most part, preset moods that pour the subject into a mold defined more by technique than visualization. On the other hand, perhaps it's the patron who enforces this point of view.

it always feels as if the monochrome version gets deeper into the heart and soul of the subject. It strips away the veneer of color and allows us to delve deeper into the face that looks out from the surface of the print.