We may be thinking of the subject when we look at a portrait, but a portrait is just as much a portrait of the photographer as it is of the subject. The photographer’s personality and artistic expression are communicated through their creative decisions. The subject’s facial expression and body language will be impacted by the person holding the camera.
For a year, I interned for a highly accomplished portrait photographer named Howard Schatz. (Howard also shoots advertising, editorial, fashion and sports.) I learned an astounding amount of information during my time in Howard’s studio, but what I enjoyed the most was watching and absorbing how Howard interacted with his portrait subjects.
He had a wide range of people come into his studio: all ages imaginable; models and non-models; men and women; people comfortable in front of the camera and people who clearly weren’t; people of all levels of attractiveness. Howard had skinny subjects and fat subjects; overdressed and not dressed; successful people and starving artists. Howard captured stunning images of each and every one of them.
A simple but effective technique that Howard used was to have his subjects create an enigmatic expression. This means the subject has no discernable emotion on his or her face. Here’s how Howard would instruct his subjects to create this:
“Imagine you’re sitting in your living room alone and you get a phone call from your best friend. You put the phone on speaker and sit down on your couch. Your best friend tells you they have a story they want to tell you. At this point, you don’t know if the story will be serious, funny, happy or sad. Pretend like you’re listening to the beginning of the story with no idea about where the story is going or how it will end.”
When one of Howard’s subjects would take this on, it worked perfectly. They would have an expressionless, or enigmatic, face.
The reason Howard directed his subjects in this way was to create a particular kind of experience for the viewers of his portraits. Think about when you look at a portrait. Even without realizing it, you look for clues about the emotions on the face of the subject. It is easy and automatic to pick out signs of happiness, sadness, anger, boredom, confusion, and other emotions on the face of a person.
But what happens when a person’s face shows no emotion? You, the viewer, are able to read into the image whatever emotion you want. The Mona Lisa is a perfect example of this. Some people look at this famous painting and see happiness. Some people look at it and see sadness. I would argue that the interpretation has more to do with the viewer’s emotions than the emotions that are actually showing in the painting. How else to explain two completely opposite interpretations of the same painting?