Portraiture might be the most challenging photographic endeavor. It is a complex interaction between the photographer’s intent, the subject’s preconceptions and ideas, and the viewer’s background. So how do photographers manage to make great portraits?
I have long been a fan of Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene. Her portraits of adolescents possess an extremely quiet and forceful beauty. I’ve often wondered how she manages to create work that is so beautiful, while always avoiding the trap of producing
JC: I often get asked, “Tell me what makes a good portrait” — as if it was possible to simply tell. Is it possible? What makes a good portrait for you? When you edit your work, how do you pick the work to show?
HVM: When you take photos it always feels like butterflies in your stomach when you have a good photo. When the light is perfect and the model is looking great, you feel it right away, like being struck by lightening; you know “Wow, this is good, this must be a good photo.”
When the films are developed and I have the negatives, I always scan the film to see if the photo is as good as I remember it, and in 90 percent of the cases it is what I expected to be, a very good photograph. So it’s a lot about getting this sparkle inside of you, when you know “Wow, this is good!”
It might happen that you don’t have the sparkle and then later think “Hey, maybe I wasn’t paying so much attention, this is a good image.” That can happen, but usually you already know if it’s a good photo or not when you take it.
And what makes a good photo? I think it’s about a combination of things, this kind of chemistry of the model looking great, the light being perfect, she’s having her hands on the perfect place on the dress – all these details make it happen.
I do remember when I was in art school my drawing teacher said, “A drawing is really good when it also looks good upside down.” I have to admit that I never turn my photos upside down, so I don’t have a trick to tell what makes a good photo. I think it’s more like I have this special twinkle inside me, and I know it’s a good photo. You don’t have it with every photo. If you are really honest and you look very closely at the photos then you know which ones have this special twinkle. I just had one this weekend, and I knew “Oh boy, this is a good one”. Even talking about it has me very excited . . .
How do you know you’re in love with someone, even if s/he is not your type? You also know it. And what is? Is it his eyes, is it this or that… I think it’s the chemistry, and that is with same with photography, you feel there is chemistry.
JC: I think last year I saw a show with your work in New York, and one of the things I noticed was the print size. In a day and age where many photographer prefer huge prints yours were fairly small, which, I thought, only enhanced their power because you had to step a bit closer to interact with them. How do you determine what size to print? Isn’t bigger better?
HVM: My print size – that’s a good question. I always had really small photos. My smallest photos are 29×29 centimeters [11×11 inches], and my larger photos are 39×39 centimeters [15×15 inches]. What I really love of these sizes is that when you look at a photo in an exhibition, you have to stand in front of it, and your head is about as big as the photo you’re looking at. It also means that when you’re looking at the photo only you can look at it at that moment. Another person has to wait until you are done with it.
When you are standing in front of a very large photo, you have a different kind of feeling and relationship with the photo. It is so large that you always share that moment with other people next to you. So there’s a different kind of relationship with the photo.
I think it’s better for some photos to have this kind of intimacy, when you have to look at it getting closer. You can then see more details. It is a bit strange, but I always think that when a photo is really large you can probably see everything much better. When I look at a very large photo I always think I’ve seen everything. But because it’s so large I maybe don’t invest the time the photo needs. With a small photo, I always spend more time with it, because I don’t want to miss anything. The small photo demands more attention, it demands for you to look more closely so you don’t miss a thing.
I have to admit, though, that I’m now working with a new camera, a panoramic camera. My usual negatives are 6×6 centimeters — a square. Now, I sometimes I work with the Rolleiflex, and sometimes with the panoramic camera, whose negative size is 6×12 centimeters, so the negative is twice the size. It’s 6cm longer, so you get a wide-screen effect. When enlarging them they are 40×80 centimeters. It’s still not really big, but for me, it’s rather big, because it’s 80 centimeters now, 40 centimeters longer than my former standard size
It is very fascinating, because now you can see more of the portrayed than before, and you see some of the atmosphere and the surroundings. So that is a new step I’m working on, and I really like that. But I think I will always stick to the sizes 40×40 centimeters and 40×80 centimeters, not bigger. They don’t get better when printed bigger, so why should you do it then?
Joerg Colberg is a regular contributor to American Photo magazine. For more of his interviews with photographers, visit his Conscientious blog.
For more on the art of portraiture see American Photo’s list of top portrait photographers.