The deceptive simplicity of a basic portrait

Years ago, when Leonardo di Caprio was just about to come out on his own as a very talented Hollywood actor, a magazine splashed a spectacular full-page photograph of him that made me react with awe. I was already a photographer then so I was already much attuned to photo qualities. Anyway, this picture of Leonardo is one of the few portraits that made my heart skip a bit. Not because Leonardo was a good-looking guy (well, I must admit it helped), but because of how magnificent the portrait was photographed.

This picture that I love of Leonardo di Caprio is almost just a snapshot. It would appear to have been taken in the morning. In this picture, he is wearing a shirt, and he is in a room with a bed in the background, and then the light was coming through a sliding glass door from the outside. His expression was divinely serene. There was nothing there. It was exquisite the way he almost nonchalantly, and blankly stares into the camera. And yet, in that one simple portrait, more than any other pictures I’ve seen taken of him before and after, his soul was bared naked.

This one photograph of Leonardo di Caprio is so stunning in its simplicity that I cannot help but, to this day, compare each and every picture I see of him, with that one singular image that is forever burned into my memory.

A very simple, no-nonsense image, and yet, to me, it is the most wonderful thing. It has an edifying characteristic; and it has a redeeming value. All I can say is that it just works. But nowadays, I noticed, photographers and subjects tend to shun the idea of simple portraiture. Judging by what I see from the modern (or is it already post-modern?) collective that is out there, it would seem that no one wants to take simple, clean and straight-forward portraits anymore. Everyone appears to be favoring the overly complicated, and gimmicky, if not edgy, style of portraiture that is full of all sorts of complicated details.

I really cannot understand why this new and modern style is favored and adopted by many, even by a lot of old-time photographers who seems to have abandoned their old style in favor of the new style. Is my own personal and preferred style of portraiture already passe? Am I getting behind the times?

I don’t think so. I think I’m still sensible enough to distinguish what trends are out, and what are those that are still in.

Now, I may not totally understand why the new style is now getting more and more favor, but of course, I have a theory. My theory is that think photographers, and their subjects, favor the imaging style that look “busy” to the point of distraction because of exactly that: to distract.

Photographers, lacking confidence in their own picture-making skills and talent, and not trusting the beauty that is inherent in their subjects, resort to incredibly numerous distracting elements to make sure that the attention of the viewers wander enough into the distracting elements and “hide” the mediocre looks of their subjects. Since these photographers do not possess the real skills or have no talent whatsoever to make their subjects look stunning, they end up using survival but cheap tactics, irrelevant devices and dirty tricks to make them appear like they are a “real pro.” Making an image “busy” happens to be one their deceptive strategies.

The subjects, on the other hand, also not trusting the skill or talent of the photographer, and to avoid the embarrassment of looking plain and ordinary, naturally has no recourse but to agree to the overly busy, overly complicated, and overly distracting styles of portraiture.

Before I get misunderstood, I have nothing against different techniques of portraiture–from environmental portraits to elaborate studio setups. I think these kinds of portraiture increases the richness and value of any portrait. However, what I am against is that a lot of photographers tend to use and abuse these styles as a means of camouflaging their obvious weakness: to cover up their lack, or even absence, of photographic skills and talent.

These photographers are nothing but charlatans. Will they be able to get away with it? Maybe they will, but they’d only go so far. It won’t be long before they are uncovered. Unless they learn to be really good and unless they develop their photographic skills and techniques, therefore developing their natural talent for creative image-making, and unless they find their own vision, they will not go far. They will not succeed.

It is actually almost hilarious how a lot of people are recently turning to “photography.” They think that it’s an easy thing to do. They think that it’s just “point-and-shoot” and then make money. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Photography is nowhere near easy. Just because they can now afford to buy “entry-level” cameras with brands like Nikon and Canon, among others, does not mean they can make a career out of it. And just because they can learn on their own or attend school to learn the technical aspects of digital photography using seemingly professional-looking DSLR cameras, it doesn’t mean that they have a bright future as a photographer.

Also another misconception, if I may just digress a bit, are those who go into photography because it seems like a good business but they lack the heart and passion for photography. All successful photographers I know are engaged in the art and craft of photography because of their respect and love for it.

Anyway, nobody seems to want to say it, but in reality, photography is a combination of both technical skills and creative talents, as well as a business acumen. If you only have one or the other, and you have no interest or have no desire in developing the “other aspects” of photography, you might as well sell your camera and give up any ambition of switching careers. You will prevent disappointment and hence, avoid financial fiasco.

If you cannot manage to take a simple but compelling portrait with nothing but a plain featureless background and simple and flat lighting (whether in studio with setup lights or on location with natural lights), and still make it look like the most interesting thing in the world, then you don’t deserve to call yourself a photographer. You are doing the industry a huge disservice. You are nothing but a charlatan.

Great portraiture is when viewers seem to be inexplicably drawn into a photographic image, no matter how simple and how utterly bare it is, but offers a deep understanding, and appreciation, not just for the inherent physical beauty or qualities but also for the personal character and characteristics of the subject being photographed. By looking at a portrait, the viewer gains not only appreciation, but more importantly, a deep and abiding appreciation, of the person in the picture.


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