If I pick up a pencil to draw in a serious way, I always want to draw faces. Everything else seems mute and powerless. Drawing well still seems just beyond reach, but photographic portraiture is within my scope. A successful portrait for me is one that conveys the same feeling as a good painting or drawing. Its not that I want the photo to look like a painting - that is backwards and can lead to gimmickry. What I want is the presence - the feeling or emotion that flows from a good portrait.
So far the best description I have found of this process comes from British artist Tom Phillips:
"Once I get to work on a canvas I find it a nerve racking endeavour. I fear to waste the sitter's time as I dither, frittering away the hours it seems in indecisive manoeuvres. It is immensely frustrating to work for session after session without seeming to make any progress, but somehow (and in the final analysis I do not know why or how) some presence seems to emerge, a statement real enough to argue with. Getting a likeness is not the problem: any professional should be able to achieve that in a couple of sittings. The problem seems to be in reconciling a set of possible likenesses into a unity that has the feel of the subject's actually being there. The great test, as HWK Callom says, is to turn the picture to the wall and see if it seems that someone has suddenly left the room. Once, so to speak, this lack of absence is caught, many problems fall away, new elements suggest themselves to occupy the space that reality has created: painting a person has turned into painting a picture."
Tom Phillips* - The Portrait Works
It is surprising how similar the process is with photography. There is a precarious attempt to do two things at once - engage the subject and capture that engagement.
Phillips says "getting a likeness is not the problem" and indeed, with photography the problem of getting a likeness is almost entirely absent. You never find that you have made the nose too large or the ears not quite right. But the ease with which technically accurate images emerge only sharpens the question of what makes a portrait. You know when you have one with a certainty that is as strong as your inability to express what it is. Perhaps this is closer to the truth, the portrait speaks for itself and you cannot speak for it. It has a voice of its own that has uttered "a statement real enough to argue with".
True it may take weeks after the shooting for the eidetic dust to settle. And our conviction may grow stronger or change with time, but that is the essence of the process. So far, this feeling of an image working as a portrait has been the strongest with Merlin Eayrs. It brought me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when it was finished.
Here is an index of portraits.
* I found out about Tom Phillips through a book published by his daughter, Ruth Phillips. "Cherries from Chauvet's Orchard: a Memoir of Provence" tells about her life and marriage to another British painter, Julian Merrow-Smith. Julian's blog Postcard from Provence, which auctions a painting online every few days, is highly recommended, a brilliant idea, and often held up by me as "the clever use of technology to live the life you want." Oddly, I was led to Mr. Merrow-Smith by Vancouver-book-designer-who-fled-the-rain-for-the-South-of-France, Dean Allen, who's fitful web presence has faded but who's "About the Author" (the only reliable web page left) can still make me smile.