April 16, 2023
By Arthur H. Gunther III
As a newspaper photographer, my images ranged from publicity to fires to politics to sports and other subjects. Now as a painter, I work in abstract, realism, abstract realism and primitive. In photographs and canvas I have tried to depict the essence of people, places, things. But one deep creative moment has eluded me. It is the sitting portrait by photograph.
It must be a love affair, the true portrait. The intensity of your approach must be felt by your subject. She – I’ll chose that gender for this piece though the truth applies to all sexes – must see your intensity, your eyes, know your heart. You may not yet be in love with her, but when you find her soul – and that is what you are photographing – you will be. She may not, but she will leave having been touched. She won’t forget you.
In the matter-of-fact of the actual photography – the camera angle, the light setup, the background – there is stimulation. There is the competence, the strength of a lens person who knows the craft. There is the generated confidence that the sitting will be professional. There is excitement for what lies ahead.
The subject? She should want her portrait taken, and that is what it is, no mug shot, no selfie. It is not undesirable if she has to be coaxed. It takes two to be in the moment, but they don’t have to exist in the same spot in the beginning.
Lighting is very important, and it must be tailored to the subject, as must the background. Ordinary, “available” light can work, so maybe no lamps, but whatever the light, it must be used to get the best of the facial features, and that can mean not lighting the entire face. Some faces are meant to be photographed head-on; others in left or right profile. Smiles for some, slight frowns for others (the famous Yousuf Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill, for example, after he took away the prime minister’s cigar).
I have photographed people who are natural subjects. They are at ease with the camera; they simply take to it well, with features and looks that make the photog’s job so very easy.
But the sitting portrait, even with a natural, is more than all that. Doors must open.
The photographer and subject will be on a journey, and a rapport must be reached if the image caught on film or digitally is to be honest. Neither will know if there has been a connection until it happens; and it will forever change them both. You don’t normally see someone’s soul.
No, I have never had the pleasure – perhaps the pain as well – of doing a sitting portrait. We’ve all seen the work of those who have. Amazing.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. firstname.lastname@example.org