A note on portraiture


General Photography

In Karsh: The Art of the Portrait I found this following bit about Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Churchill (which I personally find vastly overrated, especially in light of Karsh’s other output): “There is no doubt that Karsh was presented with an extraordinary piece of luck when Churchill continued to puff on a cigar after taking his designated place for the portrait. But there was more than luck in Karsh’s reaction to the moment. Recognizing, in the first instance, that the big cigar was an inappropriate accessory for this world leader, and then, after his instinctive snatching away of the cigar, perceiving that the resulting expression of belligerence on Churchill’s face offered the right moment to make the exposure - that was an act of genius.” So far, so good - this is right in line with Richard Avedon making the faces of the former king of England and his wife drop by telling them his car ran over a dog, when they were too chipper for his photo shoot. But the interesting bit is still to follow: “A second exposure made after Churchill had recovered his composure shows a slightly smiling, almost cherubic man - the portrait his family preferred, but not the one that became the famous symbol of lion-hearted determination in the face of evil aggression.” (my emphasis) Leaving aside the almost painful cliché (“lion-hearted determination in the face of evil aggression”), the existence of these two portraits - the famous one, and the other one that I have been unable to find anywhere - tells us a lot about how portraiture works. I might be mistaken, but it’s not just the interaction between the photographer and his/her subject that makes a great portrait, it’s also what the viewer wants to see in the result of that process.

Update: A reader emailed me to tell me that “you can see the ‘smiling portrait’ and the story of the session, amongst other things, on BBC’s Decisive Moments, ep. 4.”