Let’s talk about Authentic Portraiture.
Updated: May 1, 2023. Authentic portraiture, as opposed to a standard portrait, is what happens when an authentic subject and an authentic photographer make photos together. It’s that simple! But getting there in a culture that is built on having the most appealing facade is a bigger challenge than it seems. Authenticity is not a marketing scheme. Despite what social media tells you, it’s not a hashtag. The moment you try to make “authentic” images that fit your personal brand, or for the purpose of being well-received (getting “Likes”), or anything else…you’re in danger of losing authenticity. Maybe you can do it, but I’m black and white in my thinking. I have no idea how to make something that’s hashtag “authentic”, so I can’t tell you how.
Think about it: If you’re taking photos of a person and it ends up being a good portrait, you have two main possible reactions from the subject. 1) “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe that’s me! It’s amazing!” OR 2) “Oh my goodness, that’s totally me! It’s perfect!” Both are good, both will please the client, but there is a huge difference in the intention of the photos. The approach you take determines the look, feel, and overall outcome. The first reaction is amazing, and what I consider a large portion of good-looking portrait photography to be. It’s absolutely incredible, but much of it is hyper-real; it’s so awesome that it exceeds real life. It’s the second reaction that I’d consider authentic. It’s probably imperfect. It’s not better than anything because it doesn’t need to be; real life and real people are incredible on their own.
The goal in my own process has been to find “it,” “it” being that one thing that changes everything, that essence that makes portraits timeless. What I’m looking for can’t be put into words, but you know it and feel it when you see it. Beyond that, any definition of what “it” is, diminishes the ability to truly understand. Perfect definitions tend to keep you from seeing beyond them. Authenticity, to some extent, is subjective. I don’t know whether or not anything is authentic; I can only tell whether it makes me think and feel deeply or not, or whether it feels like a pretty picture that has little beneath the surface.
What I can say is that photographing from a place of authenticity tends to be more about intent than execution. I could explain exactly what I do, what I look for, all of it. You can do the exact same thing, but if you do it with a different motivation, it’ll look completely different. “What” you do is always going to be less important than the “why” and the “how”. Any “what-to-do” explanation is going to intrinsically create imitation. I could teach you how to manufacture a good-looking portrait, but that’s not authenticity.
So how do you know if you’ve achieved something truly authentic? There is no test other than seeing it with the heart, the gut. If a photo is authentic, it goes beyond the intellect and makes you feel something you may not have words for — it changes something inside of you. How can you tell when a picture is failing? Ask: Does it make you feel anything? As a photographer? As a viewer? If it fails to do that, why? Most often, the answer will be that you let your attention wander off to something else; your body was there and pressing the shutter, but your mind and heart were somewhere else. Same questions apply to why a photo works: Why does it work? Was there a connection? What did you feel in your body while you were shooting? Where and how was your focus? Ask these things; although there is no formula for authenticity, there are truths that tend to be repeatedly true.
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Start by Deeply Observing and Paying Attention
In a portrait that’s authentic, the hope is that beauty and meaning would both be there; that they’d be inseparable. If we want beauty and meaning, when you show up to a shoot, FIRST THING you should be trying to do is find the essence of that person or people (because you’ve hopefully already done the work to cultivate authenticity within yourself). It’s as simple as allowing that essence to exist without trying to control it and photographing it where you see it, but you have to really see. Where we put our eyes tends to be where we put our attention, so as we learn to be observant with our eyes and our minds, we’ve got a piece of the process.
As you’re looking for their essence, remember: how you feel about something inherently influences how you see it. How you view a person or an object or a situation is going to change the way you photograph it. To take authentic portraits, you’ve got to show up with love and empathy inside as well as being free of any expectations that color your vision. You have to see people as innately valuable, unique. That’s the focus, not a shot list or a mood board. If you don’t, you’ll put people in the cookie cutter. The portraits won’t speak to their true self; it’ll just be the same picture with a different face. So it is important to go beyond seeing a person with your eyes, beyond just looking at them, and learn to deeply recognize their essence.
But seeing and recognizing aren’t always the same thing. We all SEE beauty and aesthetically pleasing things, but learning to recognize those things in places where they aren’t obvious is a key to going deeper in your portraiture. Sometimes I photograph couples at their weddings. Everyone there can SEE their love. But to recognize what it is about their affection, their joy, that makes the photos more than just pretty pictures.
In a portrait session, what is it that makes this person stand out? Great … photograph it. But then go deeper. What makes them them? What is it that’s hard to articulate but defines them more deeply than the surface? Is it the way their eyes have a hint of sadness when they smile? Or the way they interlace their fingers when they talk about something that matters to them? Photograph that, highlight it, bring attention to it. Those are the things that are important, and as artists, it’s our job to bring attention to what matters, right? That’s the gift you have to give with the camera. “This is important. This matters. This is beauty.” So pay attention! Be observant! Attention bridges that inherent separation between people; it heals the gap between two individuals.
Attention to your subject is what brings true connection. It’s what takes you beyond style or look and into truth. Where our attention goes, our energy flows. Attention activates our creativity, and the intention we bring transforms something into art.
Here’s the thing: You have to be empty of your own thoughts and truly present to be able to pay attention effectively. If you’re a planner … great! Do it beforehand, know your vision for the shoot deeply, and then let your intuition do the work so you can be present. Whether you’re a planner or not, simplify what you can. If you’re thinking about your ISO or taking 8 shots at 5 different apertures and checking your camera after each, you aren’t able to observe your subject in the same way. Your attention turns to your camera instead of the person.
Being empty of your own thoughts and being present is harder than it sounds though. If you think you can just walk into a shoot and do it … let me know how it works out for you. This is a great thing to practice when you aren’t able to be actually shooting that will help your photography immeasurably. Like right now. Train your attention during this weird time of social distancing. Put your phone down, spend an hour less on Netflix, and learn to be observant. Find beauty in the mundane; see your home and the people around you with fresh eyes.
How we do anything is how we do everything. Authenticity, deeply seeing people, detachment from preconceptions … all of it … it needs to be something we practice daily, hourly. Because, speaking from experience, if we try to pick up a camera and “turn on” authenticity, we’re going to find very little success at it.
Authenticity and Your Clients
In approaching portraiture with the idea of true authenticity at the core, we have to make note that what we’re aiming for is a bit of a paradox. We are looking to give our subject what they really want, which is a glimpse at their identity, who they truly are. But these days what a major portion of the population looks to photography for is for someone to validate us and tell us we’re okay, that we’re liked and valuable, whether it’s taking and sharing a selfie or seeking validation from social media in general (I’m guilty too). These goals seem to line up, but we’ve usually created some version of ourselves in life or online of who we think is the most likable version of us — right? We hide the things we don’t like, we show what we consider the best and most interesting parts of ourselves.
But, as photographers aiming to take authentic portraits, we have the responsibility of showing our subjects at a true, deep level . . . which, paradoxically, means a lot of times not giving them exactly what they expect. Maybe a better way to say it is that we’re not giving them exactly what they think they want. This is because our idea of who we think we are is usually not our authentic self. We all wear masks. But our mask isn’t our soul. Most people only know the mask, they think their facade is who they are. Authentic portraiture is about going deeper.
Richard Avedon said, “Whenever I become absorbed in the beauty of a face, in the excellence of a single feature, I feel I’ve lost what’s really there . . . I’ve been seduced by someone else’s standard of beauty or by the sitter’s own idea of the best in him. That’s not usually the best. So each sitting becomes a contest.”
With that in mind, how do we go beyond that mask and find out who your subject is? A) Ideally, you ask them and they give you a lot of honest information. You can gauge what’s important to them by their responses. Simple. OR B) You can be observant. You should be observant regardless of whether or not they give you info, but especially when it’s a last minute shoot or you have very little time, this is essential. What does the subject’s body language say about how they’re feeling? What can you do to play off that or ease that? What can you discover about what their life has been like from how they look? What can you ask to get you a deeper understanding? When they speak, listen. Deeply. Latch onto the little pieces when you see their passion/excitement come out. Look at their eyes and make connections about what they value when their eyes light up.
Remember, authenticity isn’t about capturing what is obvious and right in front of you. Most of the time what people give you is their best idea of themselves, which isn’t really the true “them” at their core. The truth is most often hidden below that surface level. We have to let go of our ideas a lot of times to find the deeper truth in a moment. Like Avedon said, if we lose ourselves in the excellence of a single feature, we’ve lost what’s really there. How do you take the subject and help them see their true self, what’s really there, beyond the surface they give you? It’s attention. It’s empathy. The approach will be different for all of us, but somewhere inside, if you listen, you probably already have an idea of how to do that.
An authentic portrait comes from insight into the essence of whoever we are photographing, creating an atmosphere for that essence to thrive, and letting go of anything that hinders that essence or what the moment presents us.
The images included in this article are all examples of photos taken with the person’s essence in mind. They came from observation; from waiting and watching, not posing and controlling the situation or the subject.