What is a portrait? I thought of this question as I wandered through an exhibition of portrait photography at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, called “Portraiture Now: Feature Photography ,” runs through Sept. 27 and contains the work of six cutting-edge photographers: Katy Grannan, Jocelyn Lee, Ryan McGinley, Steve Pyke, Martin Schoeller, and Alec Soth.
Their work regularly appears in editorial venues such as the New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times Magazine. The exhibition was designed, according to one of the wall panels, to juxtapose America’s “snapshot culture” with “pictures that defy an easy death.” In today’s world, where everyone with a mobile phone—not to mention a camera—is an image-maker, what is the value of carefully crafted portraits that will withstand the test of time?
Connecting Photography’s Past and Present
From the moment Louis Daguerre unveiled his technique for creating images with a camera, the world became fascinated with capturing lifelike representations of people. From the early carte-de-visite portraits of important personalities to today’s social-networking sites on the Internet, people photography has been one of the strongest strands in the cable connecting photography’s present with its distant past.
Whether you are looking at one of Julia Margaret Cameron’s haunting, soft-focus images from the Victorian Era or one of Annie Leibovitz’s elegant commentaries on modern celebrity, the people pictured emerge for a moment from their daily lives—and in many cases from behind the veil of death—to confront you face to face, often with an unwavering gaze.
The first thing you notice about many of the portraits in “Portraiture Now” is their size and their subjects’ direct engagement with the camera. For example, Alec Soth is represented in the exhibition by large color prints made with an 8 X 10 camera, most of which show women looking directly into the lens. These are not extreme close-ups, but rather full-length and head-and-shoulder portraits.
In most cases, the woman is centered against a nondescript, neutral background, such as a snowy street or a bare room. An associate member of Magnum Photos based in Minneapolis, Soth has undertaken several large-scale photography projects that blur the distinction between editorial and fine-art work, including Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), NIAGRA (2006), Fashion Magazine (2007), and Dog Days, Bogotá (2007). Because Soth uses a large-format camera, he spends a lot of time with his subject setting up each shot. This time spent together intensifies the relationship between subject and photographer, a relationship Soth calls “the crux of his work.”
Are You Looking at Me?
We cannot help but feel that Soth’s women are looking at us, when in fact they knew (and know) nothing of our existence. By acknowledging the camera so blatantly, are they giving us permission to stare intently at their image in a way they would probably never allow in real life? Or is there an implied challenge: why are you looking so closely at me?
In his artist statement, Soth says that he photographs men and women differently, depicting men playfully but women reverently. “Women are always ‘the other,’” he writes. “Are my pictures romanticized? Sexualized? Why do I see women this way?”
Soth says the first time he saw Gary Winogrand’s book “Women Are Beautiful” in his college library, he was “shocked” the book had not been defaced for objectifying women so blatantly. He has since come to realize that photography is a form of objectification, whether the subject is male or female: “If a photograph documents anything, it is the space between the subject and myself.”
In Martin Schoeller’s color photographs, which are also large but cropped very tight, we gaze into the eyes of people who are already familiar to us—Jack Nicholson, Angelina Jolie, John McCain, and Barack Obama. But we also get to study, in the same intimate way, a group of Pirahã men from the rainforest of northwestern Brazil, photographed for a New Yorker article. The polite social distance we normally observe with strangers (and even most friends) is eliminated in Schoeller’s images, and this eradication of boundaries may be one of photography’s greatest powers.
As Schoeller writes in his artist statement, “A photographic close-up is perhaps the purest form of portraiture, creating a confrontation between the viewer and the subject that daily interaction makes impossible, or at least impolite.” Schoeller, born in Germany and now based in New York, worked with Annie Leibovitz and says he learned from her the importance of all the complex elements that go into making a successful portrait, including subject, lighting, styling, and location. The German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their “minimalist” architectural and industrial images, also influenced Schoeller’s style.
Defying an Easy Death
Black-and-white photographs evoke the past and specifically connect us with a long tradition of editorial portraiture dating back to the 1930s. Steve Pyke, who in 2004 became a New Yorker staff photographer, is represented in “Portraiture Now” by a series of black-and-white images featuring the poet John Ashbery, the actors Michael J. Fox and Sir Ian McKellen, the architect Rem Koolhass, and the writers Chinua Achebe and Norman Mailer. Each of Pyke’s photographs presents its subject at a moment of wary calm, as if the camera had the potential suddenly to become a lethal weapon.
Pike, who was born in Leicester, England, and was a rock musician before he became a photographer, says he is interested in the story each face has to tell, the story that is “etched into the landscape of our faces.” Unlike Soth, who spends a long time with each subject, Pyke may have only what he terms a brief encounter, or “that nondecisive moment.” Gazing into the face of his subject, Pyke says, is like looking at a distant planet waiting to be explored. The encounter may be brief, but the image created during it has a good chance of living long into the future and becoming a picture that defies an easy death.
So, what is a portrait? San Francisco–based photography and filmmaker Jock McDonald  once told me that “portraiture is a great conversation with a camera present.”
Drawing inspiration from the renowned portrait photographer Arnold Newman, McDonald applies the “KISS method”—keep it simple, stupid. Less is more. The subject is the star, the environment is the “best supporting actress,” providing a bit of intrigue in the background but never stealing the show. A truly collaborative act, great portraiture demands a symbiotic relationship between subject and photographer.
Looking at the work of the six photographers represented in “Portraiture Now,” it is apparent that although the snapshot culture is thriving in America, there is room in our editorial and artistic spaces for more than just snapshots.