Faces and the Portrait

All images in this article are my own, as I lack the rights to publish work from the artists discussed.

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” 
― Susan Sontag (1977)

Wrinkles tell stories!

I hope the above is wrong! I have photographed a lot of faces, mainly of strangers. A portrait is a special moment, and a collaboration between the subject and photographer (Lowe, P., 2016). The purpose of a portrait is to portray the character, or essence of a subject. As viewers, we like to read into a face, delving into every crease and wrinkle, layering each image with our own notions of the stories the subject may have to tell and the lives they may have led.

The peaceful expression contrasts starkly with the tattoos

Street Portraits are a niche of Street Photography (Gibson, G., 2011), and moments captured should be fleeting, natural and with minimal direction from the photographer. For an image to stand as a portrait a connection between subject and photographer must be made. A candid headshot may be Street, but it is not Portraiture and for this reason, portraits are often viewed as a marginal genre of Street Photography.

There are two bodies of art that come to mind when I think of candid people photography. Bruce Gilden is probably the most prolific photographer of the candid head-shot. Gilden’s style is quick and in your face, often there is no permission sought or given. However, it is perhaps the work of Philip_Lorca diCorcia’s project ‘heads’ (2000 – 2001) that most vividly captures the concept of candidness. For the ‘Heads’ project, diCorcia set up a hidden camera with a telephoto zoom and a flash rig. Often subjects were unaware their image was ever taken. The faces captured are isolated against an unexposed backgrounds, highlighting each persons features and expression. The viewer is left with a distinct feeling of voyeurism.

Cobbler, Hongzhen Old Street

There are many decisions to be made when capturing a portrait. One primary decision is the aperture. A wide aperture of 2..2 and below will blur out the background and isolate the subject. The image is free of distractions and can the viewer can focus purely on the subject. A smaller aperture will leave more of the frame in focus. Leaving background (and often the foreground) in focus gives the viewer a sense of placement. Taking an image of a subject in their own familiar setting is termed an environmental portrait. On a personal note I find this one of the more challenging aspects of portrait photography as both the person and the surroundings need to balance, a cluttered environment will distract the viewer from the power of the subject.

At the start of this article, Sontag describes a portrait as a violation of the subject. I find this perspective a hard pill to swallow, particularly when taking into account Sontag’s long term relationship with Annie Leibovitz, who from my perspective is one of the greatest photographers alive and whose photos display incredible intimacy. I will end on a more positive note with a nod to Steve McCurry (2010), who states, ‘Most of my images are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face’. I believe this is what we should aim to capture.

Thats all folks, keep clicking. Chris


Gibson G., (2016) ‘The Street Photographers Manual’, Thames and Hudson

Lowe P. (2016) ‘Photography Masterclass, Creative Techniques of 100 Great Photogaphers’, Thames and Hudson

McCurry S. (2010) Amateur Photographer, 13 Marh 2010, p.44

Sontag, S. (1977) ‘On Photography’, Penguin

3 Comments on “Faces and the Portrait

  1. I enjoyed reading the different perspectives of Street portraiture and viewing your images. The eyes within the first two images seem soft and not guarded which suggest to me you have a gentle way of engaging people. Have you ever noticed the word “trait” within portraiture? Your images seem to invite stories from the traits you evoke.


    • I have never noticed the ‘trait’ in ‘portrait’. What a beautiful observation! Thanks for the kind words.


  2. Breath taking— you have a talent for capturing feelings and personalities in your photography.


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