Someone asked me the other day, “What’s the difference between a picture and a portrait“?
Hey, that’s easy – I thought!
But when I tried to get it down to a simple answer, it wasn’t as easy as I thought.
So I did what everyone does these days: I Googled it!
I found a video from the National Galleries of Scotland that tackles this very question. Turns out, it’s not that easy to answer.
I think a true portrait needs to be several things:
1. It’s a collaboration between the subject(s) and the artist. Both halves of the portrait team need to bring something to the session. The subject(s) need to be prepared to reveal a bit about themselves in the session. The photographer/artist needs to be able to draw that out of the subject.
2. The best portraits don’t just show what the subjects looks like, but shows who they are. That’s why I love to create portraits on location – a place that is special to the subject. The mood created by the location becomes an integral part of the portrait.
To create the portrait of Tom Foulkes (left), Tom and I agreed that The Station Theatre would be the most fitting location. The Station Theatre is dear to the hearts of Tom and his late wife Patricia. A jacket and tie fit Tom’s image within the community. I wanted to use his cane (he didn’t) as it gave me a way to include his hands in the composition. The two pools of light at the top are there to draw attention up to his face.
3. Portraits in the studio make it both easier and more difficult to create that magic moment and expression. The lighting is completely controlled by the photographer as is the pose and the props. But the expression needs to be drawn out by the photographer.
This recent portrait of Dr. Alan Drummond was created for an ad campaign for the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians. Dr. Drummond is well known and respected in the field of Emergency Medicine and is fiercely outspoken on issues relating to hospital bed funding as it relates to emergency room over-crowding. They asked for gritty. I wanted to capture his no-nonsense yet deeply caring personality. Comments I heard about this image almost all went something like “Wow, I’ve seen that look”!
The classic studio portraits created by Yosef Karsh are prime examples of combining technical skill with the ability to find that perfect moment within the subject.
His Winston Churchill portrait captured forever the “bulldog” expression of Churchill. Karsh shot all of his portraits using a large “view camera”. Each exposure was on a fresh piece of film that needed to be loaded – one at a time. No motor drives or bursts of multiple exposures.
How did he get that expression? Here’s how Mr. Karsh described it.
“Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”
By the way, Karsh’s favourite image from the session is not the famous “bulldog”one. It’s this one, with a slight smile and a twinkle in the eye.
At the studio we strive to create portraits that not only show what people look like but also who they are and how they connect. Every portrait session includes a planning session before we ever un-cap the lens.
I’d love to hear your reaction to the video and your thoughts on Picture vs Portrait.