What makes a great portrait?

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.


Eddy Lerpiniere

Frieda from the series Captives by Eddy Lerpiniere

I had been asking myself this question when the above arrived in my inbox like a lightning bolt out of the blue.

Portraits are used for so many different things in life; for identification in passports, to make us look nicer than we really are, to present a professional persona.  In an artistic context the purpose might be to identify with someone, to project our own ideals onto someone else, to raise awareness, to voyeur, to understand ourselves better.  There are many reasons to take portraits but that doesn’t make them great.

Jörg Colberg, on his blog Conscientious, wondered what made a good portrait and as he couldn’t get a clear definition he asked a whole spectrum of artists, gallerists and critics to pick a portrait and answer the question ‘what makes a great portrait?’.  Here are their answers.

I think the picture above is a great portrait.  For me, the paradox of vulnerability and strength clashing in the same image is one route to greatness.  That and the ability to raise more questions than it answers. Photography is often always about contradictions and varying aspects of ‘truth’.  Bringing these contradictions to the fore make for a complex and strangely satisfying reading.  The less I can piece it together, the more it makes me probe, question and confuse myself, the more I enjoy the image.  This image does all those things for me.  It makes me want to know more.  I wonder about what her life has been like.  Is she angry? Lonely?  She looks so vulnerable but the way she holds the cameras gaze makes me certainly not want to mess with her.

Another reason I love this portrait has to do with the journey of the photographer.  Eddy has been on a self declared 180 degree mind shift since starting with OCA.  I knew this journey would one day make it’s way into his images but it was difficult and has taken some time to come.  Although all this is behind the scenes, the results of this soul searching have finally begun to make themselves visable.  It’s a testimony to perseverance and to pushing yourself outside your comfort zones and it is a real pleasure to observe.

So would you like to take up the Jörg Colberg challenge?  In the comments put a link to a portrait you think is great followed by a couple of sentences why.

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27 comments for “What makes a great portrait?

  1. 17 May 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I like this portrait for the composition, colour and the captured expression. What and where is the Jorl Coburg challenge?

    • Paul
      17 May 2013 at 1:51 pm

      The challenge is to answer the question ‘what makes a great portrait?’ It is not a challenge in the sense of a competition but there are some ‘entries’ in the link is Sharon’s post which is repeated here.

    • 18 May 2013 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks for your comment Paddy

  2. 17 May 2013 at 12:31 pm

    It’s a great portrait – she looks as if she’s going to speak to us. I really admire the way in which Eddy is putting together his continuing series of images of people he knows. I think he’s capturing something of their strong spirit of survival (against odds) and creating images that allow their spirit and determination to show through.

    • 18 May 2013 at 1:56 pm

      As always Catherine, your comments and support mean a lot and are really appreciated.

  3. 17 May 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Bill Jay took this portrait of Emil Otto Hoppe just before he died. His final days were passed in virtual obscurity, but in his lifetime Hoppe was the finest portrait photographer on the planet. Like August Sander after him, he photographed a broad strata of society. His studio was in John Everett Millais’s old house in Kensington. [Subsequently taken over by Francis Bacon] and Cecil Beaton referred to him as ‘The Master’ !!!

    This portrait has a very emotional effect upon me …. here is a man who dedicated his life to photographing people, from Kings to beggars … yet he slipped away virtually unknown in the early 1970’s.

    Read about this story further in Bill Jay’s publication called ‘Occams Razor’.

    • 18 May 2013 at 3:49 pm

      Yeah, what a shot! I’m learning more and more that photography doesn’t always love you back – this seems to illustrate that pretty profoundly.

  4. Stephanie Hollis
    17 May 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Lovely picture Eddy, engaging and touching.

    • 18 May 2013 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks Stephanie, it was nice to see you out and about again at the Blossfeldt day.

  5. 17 May 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Very strong image, Eddy. I am pleased to hear you are developing this body of work which I heard much about from you but very few photographs! I hope to see more at some stage. All the best.

  6. Brian Lavery
    17 May 2013 at 1:26 pm

    His other portraits on Flickr are even more powerful, amazing stuff.

  7. 17 May 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Great post Sharon, and I’ve spoken to Eddy about his portraits and how good they are. Well done on that!
    As for a favourite portrait this one by Malick Sidibe has always been one. The joy that emanates from this image works at every level for me. Two young people dancing in perfect harmony. From their ankles, that inflect synchronously, their standing legs bringing their bodies arching towards each other, their supplicant arms fending nothing but the temptation of the mind. Their heads meeting to complete the mirror image. The rhythm flows from the photograph to the viewer, her dress, his suit, the unselfconscious joy in their smiles. If you’ve danced with someone you love and desire – this is how it feels. They appear to see only each other, we see only these two young lovers seeing only themselves. Post colonial and pre-totalitarianism
    And then this by Chris Kilip summing up a period in our history where hope was fading if not faded, where opportunity was represented solely in financial terms and in a small part of London, when the individual become more important that society. I was married in ’76, this looks a century or so older to me.

    • 18 May 2013 at 2:01 pm

      Thanks for the public support John, it’s good to have people like yourself behind me.

  8. Gareth
    17 May 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I’d like to echo the praise for Eddy’s image.

    This image by Larry Sultan is one of my favourites because it speaks to me about the relationship with his mother, but also his mother’s relationship with his father and his relationship with his father. That’s a lot of relationships in one image; it rewards my curiosity.

    I also like this image by Helen Rosemier of her partner. I didn’t spot Clive’s cultural references but I got the attitude.

    • 18 May 2013 at 2:02 pm

      Thanks for that Gareth, it seems to have been a long road since our interchange on my TAoP blog about page three images.

    • 18 May 2013 at 3:47 pm

      I loved hearing Clive talk about that great photograph by Helen. It reminds me that it takes as much effort to read a (novel) picture as it does to (write) make one.

  9. 17 May 2013 at 3:02 pm

    This post is such a pleasant surprise to me because I was reflecting on the same topic on my blog. Catherine Banks just pointed it out to me.


    One of my favorites is Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl for many of the same reasons as in the post. It’s an image which brings together conflicting emotions – of trepidation of the future along with hope. I agree – a great portrait is one which has that intangible quality of drawing the viewer and make them want to know more or at least make think about that image. An iconic one is where that image stays with you.

  10. 17 May 2013 at 3:29 pm

    http://www.fionayaronfield.co.uk/portfolio/becoming/ I don’t have one consistent favourite image but this is my favourite one of today “Becoming Annalie” by Fiona Yaron-Field who has done a large body of work on young people with Downs Syndrome. To me this image shows the beauty there can be in difference. It’s poignant because of thoughts of what might have been but is also compelling because of the strength of her gaze.

  11. 17 May 2013 at 6:31 pm

    Seeing this portrait, I reminded of work by Laura Pannack …

    What stands out for me is the ability to go beyond the defences of the subject … to show that “original face”

  12. 19 May 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Go Eddy, credit given where due….

    Sharon, you mention a few things which I’ll repeat, because they are the things which come to mind when I read portraits… I’m not a portrait photographer, but I find myself enjoying engaging portrait photography…

    You mention that a portrait can be used to project (the photographer’s) our own ideals, and as being voyeur, as well as an attempt to self understanding. One Chinese born photographer whose work I particularly find engaging, is Shen Wei.

    His ongoing project titled ‘I miss you already’ (link: http://www.shenphoto.com/i-miss-you-already/) is a body of work I am following, for the reason that I find his work raising an incredibly complex set of self critical and exploratory questions around myself as photographer, but also as person, and on top of that, my presence in my current location.
    His project artist statement puts it really well as ‘… process of self reflection and self discovery …. a (provocative) way to explore my sense of security through understanding the tension between boundaries and freedom … as well as a step towards learning acceptance… (and) a universal search for our place in society…’

    To me his ongoing work is interesting because there is a definite element of self exploration, and it carries through a personal voice which I can only guess carries a touch of search from someone who is also in a culture and society other than where he is originally from.

    One of his earlier self portraits I find particularly strong in creating questions, is this one (link: http://www.shenphoto.com/files/gimgs/26_syracuse2010.jpg), where a play of vulnerability against trust and human need for physical contact comes together, to create a myriad of questions on which I need to do self reflection as to my own relationships with these things.

    Like you mention above, when a portrait creates more questions than it answers, not only for me about myself, but also the world and place I am in, to me it could be described as a good portrait.

  13. Eileen
    19 May 2013 at 4:52 pm

    It’s great to see your work here Eddy, and very well-deserved. I do think this is a great picture in its own right and part of an excellent series and am looking forward to more. If you make the project into a book at some time I hope to be your first customer.

    It’s an interesting question about great portraits Sharon, and one I struggle with in a photographic context. I am looking for a connection in what I think of as a great portrait, and some sense of communication about the subject, however tenuous and illusory that might be. I don’t want something that is essentially a symbol or palimpsest that I can project my own ideas onto, That may be interesting in other contexts or, like Imogen Cunningham’s ‘The Dream’ on Colberg’s blog, even in itself but for me it isn’t a portrait. I sometimes think that if I never see another polished image of an adolescent staring vacantly into the middle distance it will be too soon.

    To be honest, although I look at many photographs of people and like some of those I see, I can’t easily think of many photographic portraits that really speak to me and stand out as great works. I worry at this point from time to time and think it may well represent some imaginative failing on my part, but when I search my brain for great portraits I can’t help thinking of particular works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Van Eyck. August Sander and Ray’s a Laugh (the whole set, rather than one image) come up in my mind as my nearest photographic equivalents in terms of exceptionalness and helping me see the world a little differently. I do keep looking and as well as Eddie’s work above and Keith’s Ironman series Laura Pannack’s work and Liz Hingley are among my current likes.

  14. 19 May 2013 at 8:12 pm

    This is one of my all time, long term favourite portraits.

    I think I love it because it occupies a space that is not shown in the photograph. It is alluding to an interior world that the subjects separately share. ‘This’ is really about ‘that’.

    What you are saying Eileen, about the Great Masters makes me think of the amount of time they have had to establish themselves in the world. For me, although in a comparatively short time, this image has established itself in me. Rather than me picking it out as a great photograph for eloquent reasons that you would all convert to, it has chosen me for some unknown reason that I am taking a long time to figure out.

    Which brings me to your point about understanding yourself and the world, Dewald. I first saw this photograph when I was about the age of the subject (or at least I could convince myself so) and I was reasonably new to photography. The artist is from my home town so it’s proximity to my own life and my aspirations were / are close. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a deep personal connection that is beyond understanding for now.

  15. 20 May 2013 at 9:03 am

    First of all I would like to echo others opinions on Eddie’s portrait. it is truly excellent. Well done Eddie. For me this portrait works on so many levels. What I particularly like is the way the lady addresses the viewer. Her gaze is direct yet difficult to interpret leaving the portrait open for interpretation. I also like the way Eddie provides text along with his portraits adding to our understanding of the people he has portrayed. I would recommend that people visit Eddie’s Flickr site to see the full set of portraits.

    As to my own selection of a portrait and why. I have selected ‘Tessa Davis, 23, S.Africa’ which is from Broomberg & Chanarin’s ‘Mr. Mkhize’s Portrait’ book. It show a young South African woman in boxing clothing. She is pictured at 2/3 length placed centrally in the frame with the background throw out of focus. This composition is inherently confrontational. Her gaze is direct and she has a determined look about her, adding to the confrontational feel. Broomberg and Chanarin present background information and direct quotations from the subject in their work. They do this so that the subject has the right to express themselves within their work. This additional context assists in the reading of this portrait. The young woman is from a very poor background. She was raped when she was young and is using boxing to fight her way out (literally of her current situation). I sense this ‘fight’ in the subject. The portrait can be viewed here.

  16. Peter Swan-Durham
    23 May 2013 at 8:00 pm

    For me this a good portrait in context but I feel that with the lady looking straight into the lens of the camera it feels as though the author as removed her from her world and put her into his. I would love to see an image of her a couple of seconds before she realised that she was being photographed. I find that the red sign over her head and the red basket a little distracting, I wonder if the author had considered turning the image to black and white?

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