When is a portrait not a portrait?

Webster’s definition of a portrait picture is: “a pictorial representation of a person usually showing the face” Do a Google search of portrait and you will see well over a million images which show a head-and-shoulders or headshot image depicting a person’s face. The portrait is an iconic style of photography, people spend their entire professional lives shooting nothing but portraits.

Why not consider portraits from a different perspective? Just because a portrait typically shows a face, does that mean it has to show a face or it is not a portrait? I think not. Before embarking on a many years-long journey creating my collection of work called Landscapes of the Body, I struggled with photographing portraits of people. Because of my poor vision, I experienced great difficulty taking photos of people’s faces. I could not see when a person was smiling, or their eyes were open or squinting, and even more importantly, taking pictures of people’s faces led to some of my most criticized work. When I took the photos, I could not see the double chin, or the odd angle that I was shooting at, so I struck out on an exportation of alternative portraits. I focused on creating a series of hands. I have always been fascinated by hands, and the collection I made featured working hands, praying hands playing hands… you name it. While this series was a good jumping off point for my future work, it did not fee personal for me. The hands did show enough emotion and interest for me to complete the series, but after I had what I deemed as the necessary images to move on I explored further.

Is a picture of a hand a portrait? The official definition from Webster’s says that a portrait usually shows a face, so why not consider a hand, or leg or foot or whatever you photograph as a portrait too? During the creation of my hands project, I errantly shot an elbow with the strobe incorrectly placed. The resulting image was dark, moody and featured a dark background. This was because of the distance to the background and the inverse square law coming into play with the light falling off the background. I immediately fell in love with the shot and from there started to create a series of images that embrace the negative space or dark parts of an image. This became my Landscapes of the Body series. You can read more about the project here.

The rules of photography are meant to be broken. Not every composition needs to be offset from the center point of the image, symmetry can be a very strong thing in a photograph. If something needs to be in the middle of the frame, I put it there, but only if it needs to be there in my mind. I instinctively follow the rule of thirds in my work because it is pleasing. Take a chance, make a new series of work on a specific body part and see how you feel about it. For me, the frustration of taking portraits led to something I completely love.