What Is Portrait Photography, an introduction to the genre

A portrait!

What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound. Charles Baudelaire – 1859

Portrait Photography (also known as Portraiture) is the name given to the type of photography that aims to capture a person or sometimes a group of people where the facial features and facial expression are the focal point of the photograph.

What looks seemingly straight forward can in fact often be quite the opposite. With portrait photography the success of the image, although largely based on the photographer’s talent with regards to lighting and composing, is also greatly based on other elements that are unique to portrait photography. The most notable of these elements being the relationship and interaction between the human subject(s) and the photographer.

Richard Avedon is famous for aiming to break celebrities' public façade and capture their inner personality. Remembering a portrait session with Marilyn Monroe that took place in his studio in 1957, he said: “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.” Avedon was waiting for the real Marilyn to emerge and he was able to capture a glimpse of who she really was.

Richard Avedon is famous for aiming to break celebrities’ public façade and capture their inner personality. Remembering a portrait session with Marilyn Monroe that took place in his studio in 1957, he said: “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.” Avedon was waiting for the real Marilyn to emerge and he was able to capture a glimpse of who she really was.

Human beings are inherently unpredictable, emotional creatures. Therefore, unlike non-human photography, capturing the right expression and look for a portrait heavily leans on how the subject feels at the time. And this is largely determined by how well the photographer can aid the subject in feeling how he/she needs them to in that moment, in order to evoke the right expression and emotion from them for the shot, to create the image that’s needed.

As mentioned above, the photographers talent with regards to lighting and composing play a role, but unlike much other photography where the emphasis on unpredictable human expression and emotion are no way near as great, portrait photography plays on more than just the photographers raw photography skills.

In 2011 Suzanne Opton asked soldiers that were returning from war to pose for her camera with their head lying. A small performance unleashed their vulnerability. “We are inured to pictures of war,” she says. “This may have more power than a documentary picture. It makes you think. It’s a conceptual photo based on a documentary situation and that’s what I’m interested in. I’d see these young guys with all this gear representing the United States, and you really have no idea who they are, I wanted to strip all that away and look at them like I would look at my own son.”