Zoe Strauss recently asked, “What makes a great portrait?” In response, Zoe posted an essay by Richard Avedon (Henry Kissinger’s Portrait) that includes this definition:
A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. The way someone who’s being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer’s response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about.
I agree with this definition, but it is a little misleading. It suggests that a portrait session is always charged with the dueling ambitions of subject and sitter. While this is undoubtedly true with Kissinger and Avedon, it isn’t true of every good portrait. In fact, many of the great portraits are made when the subject loses ambition.
Anonymous mug shot, from Bruce Jackson’s Mirrors
In the preface to his collection of found portraits of Arkansas prisoners, Mirrors (1914-1937), Bruce Jackson writes,
Second only to a coroner’s photographs of the newly dead, police and prison identification photographs are perhaps the least merciful and most democratic and anonymous photographs of all. The lighting is the same for everyone. The people being photographed have no interest in the photographs being made; the people making the photographs have no interest in the photographs they have made.
Avedon was undoubtedly familiar with this kind of apathy between photographer and subject. He began his career shooting ID portraits for the Merchant Marines.
In 1960 Avedon produced real mug-shots while shooting Dick Hickock and Perry Smith from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood:
Most of the In The American West pictures share the same, mug-shot feeling. Look at this portrait by Avedon next to an anonymous picture from the book Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots:
As much as I admire Avedon’s supercharged portraits, most of his great images occur when the subject has let down her guard. This isn’t limited to non-celebrities. One of the greatest Avedon pictures is his 1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Vince Aletti discusses this picture in a 2002 Village Voice article:
After several hours of being flirtatiously, professionally “on,” the actress finally sat down in a corner and switched off. Though she was not unaware of being photographed, she allowed Avedon a glimpse of something sad, anxious, and terribly fragile: a star momentarily dimmed. Only a few of Avedon’s subjects have Monroe’s iconic zap, even in repose, but many of them are caught, like her, looking not at the camera but inward. Pinned before that stark white seamless, their self-consciousness hasn’t vanished, but the performance has wound down and they’ve lowered their guard enough to appear wistful or reflective or simply, frankly preoccupied.
While Avedon is correct that the subject is sometimes ‘implicated in what’s happening,’ more often than not the photographer holds all of the cards. To his credit, Avedon was honest about this power. In a 1984 interview, he said:
I used to think that it was a collaboration, that it was something that happened as a result of what the subject wanted to project and what the photographer wanted to photograph. I no longer think it is that at all. The photographer has complete control, the issue is a moral one and it is complicated.