If a successful portrait relies upon a connection between the photographer and the person being photographed, the responsibility for that connection lies with the photographer.
This does not mean that only gregarious, outgoing, self-confident people can make photographic portraits but there is an invisible line that exists between the self and the other. I usually say that line sits roughly one step closer to somebody than you would usually take. Not as close as to invade their personal space but almost.
It is that step that many people find hard to take. They either feel intimidated or nervous of interaction at that proximity, but without making a connection, the process of creating a portrait falls into the trap of making work of how they look and not who they are. The resultant image then becomes a record of surface, lacking in depth and integrity.
Approaching and crossing that line can be too much for some and I believe the primary reason why many reject the idea of portrait photography, preferring other areas of the medium that do not offer the same challenge. The reason why many hobbyists choose landscape, wildlife and still-life photography, over the confrontation of the portrait.
Of course stepping forward in itself is not the singular answer to successful portraiture, getting close does not guarantee connection. That requires empathy, interest, a willingness to speak and most importantly to listen.
When working as an art director with a photographer in Los Angeles photographing a major Hollywood celebrity I realized that the photographer had no connection or ability to connect with the actress. I was standing next to him and his camera speaking with her as he repeatedly pressed the shutter cable release. I had the connection but I was not the photographer. This was a moment of revelation and I soon started to step behind the camera and take on commissions myself.
I had recognised the importance of stepping over the line and communicating. Of making the person feel engaged in the process of the portrait. To ensure that they did not feel like an object in front of my lens, to be directed and controlled.
The nature of that connection will always inform the reality of the portrait and that is where the personality of the photographer is so clearly seen in their work. As Richard Avedon stated, “A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” I think I will take what Avedon says, and add a little well known Robert Capa, “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” That to me remains the truth behind a great portrait; close, but not too close, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Image: Grant Scott, Gijs Bakker, Amsterdam, 2005.
Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022