“It may be true that portrait photography cannot really describe a subject’s personality in any significant way. Snapshots work only because the viewer is a friend or family member and is thus being reminded, not informed. What portraits can do however is evoke humanity, they can allow a contact, a recognition of human experience.” Greg Neville
I remember examining the question “what is portraiture” at college back in the early 1990s and I came to the conclusion that this was entirely up to the person creating the artwork. And I think my early photographs were just as much self-portraits, as they were portraits of my friends and families. Whatever the result, the experience of creating these portraits holds a lot of meaning and joy for me.
Recently, I sent some of these old photographs to the various people who had modeled for me; children and young adults, who have since grown up and experienced much more of life than they had back then. I received one beautiful response: “Oh Karen! How I remember feeling so special when you took this! Thanks for sending it through!”
I used to joke that my nephews and nieces and their friends were the most photographed children in the world – and deep down I hoped that it made them feel special. Truth be told though, I think I gained the most out of the experience. I got to watch these beautiful children grow in confidence and self esteem through the lens of my camera. And I got to spend precious time with them that I’ll never forget.
The images shown in this blog are photographs taken on my phone of my original photographs (so there are reflections on some and the colour/tone probably isn’t perfect). But I wanted to record it here – on my blog – as the beginnings of my photographic journey.
“A portrait must get beyond the almost universal self-consciousness that people have before a camera. If some moment of reality in the personality of the sitter did not happen, you had to provide it in order to produce a portrait that had an identity with the person. The essential thing was to awaken a genuine response.” Edward Steichen
The photograph above was one of the first that my lecturers found really interesting, and so I realised that deliberate camera shake or out-of-focus moments could be used to great effect, especially when trying to convey the fleeting years of childhood.
My early photography was heavily influenced by Julia Margaret Cameron, who remarkably only began taking photographs when she was 48 years old (which is proof that you’re never too old to try something new). The soft focus in her portraits created a wistful air, but the direct eye contact of many of her sitters showed their inner strength.
ON A PORTRAIT
Oh, mystery of Beauty! who can tell
Thy mighty influence? who can best descry
How secret, swift, and subtle is the spell
Wherein the music of the voice doth lie?
Here we have eyes so full of fervent love,
That but for lids behind which sorrow’s touch
Doth press and linger, one could almost prove
That Earth had loved her favourite over much.
A mouth where silence seems to gather strength
From lips so gently closed, that almost say,
Ask not my story, lest you hear at length
Of sorrows where sweet hope has lost its way.
And yet the head is borne so proudly high,
The soft round cheek, so splendid in its bloom,
True courage rises thro’ the brilliant eye,
And great resolve comes flashing thro’ the gloom.
Oh, noble painters! more than genius goes
To search the key-note of those melodies,
To find the depths of all those tragic woes,
Tune thy song right and paint rare harmonies.
Genius and love have each fulfilled their part,
And both unite with force and equal grace,
Whilst all that we love best in classic art
Is stamped for ever on the immortal face.
September 1875, Julia Margaret Cameron
Another photographer I admired was Nicholas Nixon, who “is a photographer whose art challenged our presumptions about the balance of formal picture construction, character (or landscape) study and humanity expressed not as the concern of a removed observer, but as the record of an essentially loving interaction” (quote by David A Ross in the preface of the book Nicholas Nixon – Photography From One Year).
I loved how Nixon captured people in real moments. Although his work was carefully arranged, his subjects were relaxed and natural. And this is what I tried to impart into my work; thinking as much about the light and setting, as I did about expression.
“The intensity of [Nixon’s] vision speaks directly to such basic concerns as the nature of human spirit.” James Alinder, Nicholas Nixon – Photography From One Year
I really loved my first colour portfolio – especially because I took these photographs at dawn or dusk to capture the children and landscapes in gorgeous light. In later years, I went back into my ‘home studio’ and stripped everything back to plain backgrounds with a single light source. I wrote the following Artist Statement:
“Most of my photographs are of children. It is through these portraits that I attempt to portray uncertainty and vulnerability, two emotional aspects that are so fundamentally a part of youth. Although they are serious portrayals of children, I wish to reveal their enduring qualities such as warmth, hope, resilience and strength. I combine the use of colour with light and shade to reflect certain points of the sitters personality. I keep the backgrounds simple. I do not want the backgrounds to be a distraction, to provide a specific identity that would immediately reveal a story about the sitter. I focus on expression and body language in each individual I am portraying. I have been influenced by the 17th century Dutch school of painters, in particular the portraiture of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals; and in the photography of Roy DeCarava and Nicholas Nixon.”
The photograph above was directly influenced by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer – and his artwork of the Girl with a Pearl Earring – as the sitter glances across her shoulder.
I also studied the work of Rembrandt, who was a master in the use of light and dark to create a mood, and Frans Hal, whose portraits were very expressive. I loved the work of photographers Roy DeCarava, Cindy Sherman, Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton and Bill Hensen, to name but a few.
The use of light from a single source became pretty signature for me and I also concentrated on the use of space within the frame.
One of my favourite classes in college was film appreciation, which lead to some of these Hollywood glamour type shots. I was very fortunate that my friend looked like Audrey Hepburn and was a natural when I photographed her 🙂
Since finishing college, I’ve strayed away from portraiture and I mostly do travel photography now. But there have been a few wedding and portrait jobs, as well as some other miscellaneous work. Photography was my first passion and I will always love picking up the camera. It’s how I explore the world.
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange
To see more of my photography work, click here.