The New Portrait: A Study in Three Parts

These ten contemporary photographers approach the subject of the human form in vastly different ways.



It's always been much easier for me to understand why photographers want to take pictures of people than why people want to have their pictures taken. For most of us, even the famous, it can be profoundly discomfiting to forfeit our power of self-deception, to put ourselves into the hands of a portraitist who has his or her own agenda. Richard Avedon once recalled that Henry Kissinger, a man used to authority as Richard Nixon's secretary of state, pleaded with him to "be kind to me" when he sat for a portrait. A master of realpolitik, Kissinger recognized an imbalance of power when he saw it.

The portrait in art comes with social, cultural, and psychological underpinnings that are complex and endlessly fascinating to contemplate. As a species, we have learned to understand others by reading their faces; it is one of the ways we bind ourselves together and protect ourselves from danger. In that regard, our interest in faces can be seen simply as an evolutionary fact.

The invention of photography changed that fact in astounding ways. It allowed us to see our own faces over the course of time. In an interview several years ago, the late Susan Sontag noted that "never before in human history did people have any idea of what they looked like as children. The rich commissioned [paintings] of their children, but the conventions of portraiture from the Renaissance through the 19th century were thoroughly determined by ideas about class and didn't give people a very reliable idea of what they had looked like."

The photographers featured in our portraiture study See Portraiture: A Master Class for more
Annie Leibovitz The Iconographic Portrait Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
James Hill The Portrait as Historical Document Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Albert Watson The Charismatic Portrait Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Michal Chelbin The High-Contrast Portrait Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Todd Eberle The Environmental Portrait Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Matthew Rolston The Art of Collaboration Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Mark Laita The Portrait in Double Vision Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Hendrik Kerstens The Portrait as Masterpiece Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Nigel Parry The Unexpected View Gallery - Technique and Philosophy
Lori Grinker The Photojournalistic Portrait Gallery - Technique and Philosophy

The portrait, formal and otherwise, has been a staple of photography since the daguerreotype made it cheap and relatively easy to capture someone's likeness. The 19th-century French writer Charles Baudelaire lamented that the burgeoning photographic industry had become "the refuge of failed painters with too little talent." Photo historian Naomi Rosenblum explains that the daguerreotype portrait struck a particular chord in America. "In the conjunction of uncanny detail, artless yet intense expression, and naïve pose, Americans recognized a mirror of the national ethos that esteemed unvarnished truth and distrusted elegance and ostentation," she writes.

At later times during the history of photography, the portrait has had to share center stage with other genres, particularly throughout the last decades of the 20th century. But there is ample evidence that the interest in portraiture among photographers is stronger now than ever before. Several new books have focused on the portrait, none with as much clarity as Face: The New Photographic Portrait (Thames & Hudson, $50). Its author, William A. Ewing, the director of the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, notes that at the end of the 20th century it was not the face but the body that seemed to hold photography in thrall. "Bodies were beginning to be seriously reconfigured and reconstituted by scientists and engineers," he writes. "Imagemakers felt the need to keep pace." Body photography tended to avoid faces, which, as Ewing notes, "were distracting, too personal -- too sight-specific, as it were. Body photographers sought to make statements about the universal human condition, and showing faces inevitably subverted this goal." Today, in an era of what Ewing calls growing global uniformity, we may again be looking for the very specifics the face supplies. In a time of terrorism and war, we may be searching with keener interest for the human connections and clues to character that we have learned to discern from the face.

The portfolio on the following pages features new work from both established masters of the form and from a new generation of photographers, all of whom are using the portrait to ask questions about the modern world and to describe the faces of our time.

Any discussion about the modern portrait must begin with Annie Leibovitz, the best-known portraitist of our time. In her new book, A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 (Random House, $75), she focuses not only on modern celebrity -- the very media royalty she helped create throughout her career -- but also on her own life and loved ones. Another famed portraitist, Albert Watson, has recently completed a project on Las Vegas, constructing a series of landscapes, portraits, and still lifes that take as their subjects an array of visually enticing characters that could only come from this particular American city. New York Times photojournalist James Hill contemplates the use of portraiture as historical evidence, as does documentary photographer Lori Grinker. Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens turns his daughter Paula into a work of art by re-creating the indelible lighting of master painters. Photographer Mark Laita shows work from his recent book, Created Equal, a clever collection of black-and-white portraits pairing subjects that are, at least on first thought, incongruous. Throughout this portfolio, in fact, the nature of celebrity is redefined. Photographer Todd Eberle, who shoots for magazines like Vanity Fair, offers his take on artist Robert Rauschenberg. Michal Chelbin, a relatively new name in fine-art circles, creates masterly color portraits of little-known circus performers in Ukraine. Portraitist Nigel Parry turns movie stars and other celebrities into icons by seeing past the glitter of fame. Meanwhile, for famed Hollywood photographer Matthew Rolston, the artifice of the portrait is redeemed by its celebration of beauty.

Behind all this work lies a simple question that has yet to be answered: What is it that a portrait can actually reveal? In another new book on portraiture, Face of Fashion (Aperture, $60), author and curator Susan Bright notes that portraitists are necessarily concerned "with surfaces and effects. [They] ask vexing questions about commercial image-making, iconic status, [and] identity."

Renaissance painters and generations of artists held that the finest portraits show not just an outward likeness but the subject's character as well. That is a tall artistic order, never more so than in our modern world, filled as it is with imagery (and people) that we no longer completely believe in, where beautiful faces stare out from every magazine cover in every corner of the globe and invite instant idolatry. Avedon knew it when he famously concluded, as William Ewing points out, that a portrait wasn't "a fact" but "only an opinion," and that for a portraitist, "The surface is all you've got."

And yet the portrait beguiles us, tempts us to draw conclusions about the "inner character" of the subject. In yet another new book, Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas (Hill and Wang, $27), historian Alan Trachtenberg says our modern culture's distrust of "depths, interiors, [and] hidden truths" renders the photographed face "as opaque and possibly devious, a collaborative construction between artist, sitter, and viewer." He wonders whether "something important has been lost in the recent abandonment in the belief of face as text."

By way of conclusion, Trachtenberg quotes the 19th-century Boston daguerreotypist Albert Sands Southworth, who said that the gift of the portraitist is like "another sense." Southworth believed it was indeed possible to portray a face as not just a likeness but a revelation.

What the portraitist needs, said Southworth, is a "genius" for close observation, as well as a "discipline of mind and vision." Now more than ever.

Annie Leibovitz

Long recognized as the gold standard for celebrity portraiture, Annie Leibovitz is equally well known for refusing to sacrifice her private life on the altar of public celebrity.

But in Leibovitz's most recent retrospective, A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, we are finally allowed to glimpse the sanctum sanctorum.

At age 57, Leibovitz is working to reinvent herself by sharing her reportage work and intimate snapshots of her family and her partner, the writer Susan Sontag, who died in 2004.

In her introduction to the book, Leibovitz explains that she initially compiled many of the more personal photographs while putting together a book for Sontag's memorial service. Sontag's death, following complications from leukemia, was followed six weeks later by the death of Leibovitz's father. Thus it is no wonder that what Leibovitz refers to as "themes of death and grief" permeate the book.

"I don't have two lives," Leibovitz writes. "This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it." A Photographer's Life mirrors this sentiment with its organization, which is more or less chronological, mixing private moments with Leibovitz's signature high-profile portraits.

A similar effect is achieved by the accompanying exhibition, which was first shown at the Brooklyn Museum and will be on view at the San Diego Museum of Art through April 22.

Ultimately, the images of Sontag herself are the greatest proof of the iconographic power of Leibovitz's portraiture. "I edited this book with her in mind," Leibovitz writes. "As if she were standing behind me, saying what she would like to see in it." -Miki Johnson

Click Here for more on Annie Leibovitz' portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with her images.

The Portrait as Historical Document

James Hill

As a photojournalist, James Hill's credentials are as solid as they come. His coverage of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq helped the New York Times win a Pulitzer Prize, and he continues to roam the globe for both the newspaper and Time magazine. "I certainly don't consider myself a great portraitist," he says. "In fact, when I went into photojournalism, I really felt that I was turning away from portraiture, which was odd, because my photographic heroes were Irving Penn and August Sander."

He has since reexamined his ideas about the relationship between photojournalism and portraiture. "They are not necessarily exclusive pedigrees," he says. Last June, Hill, who is based in Moscow, decided to record the yearly celebration of what is known in Russia as Victory Day -- the day set aside to mark the end of World War II. But instead of heading out with his digital SLR, he packed his Hasselblad with a single 80mm f/2.8 lens and a white sheet to use as a backdrop and and went to Gorky Park, where many veterans of the war gather to have lunch with old Red Army comrades. Among these veterans are many women who served as nurses and administrators, but also combat soldiers, and even snipers. "I wanted to record their faces," says Hill, "because this generation is disappearing, year by year."

In that sense, his portraits can be seen as historical documents. The faces in these spare images tell a thousand stories. -Jeffrey Elbies

Click Here for more on James Hill's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with his images.

The Charismatic Portrait

Albert Watson

Known as one of contemporary photography's great portraitists, Albert Watson nonetheless struggles when he attempts to describe what, exactly, a portrait is. "My definition is a broad one," he says in his rolling Scottish accent. "But for me it has to go beyond reportage. A portrait implies a studied approach, a real setup. It comes from the way painters once approached their subjects."

The images here are vibrant examples of just such an approach. Watson took them one night in a casino in Las Vegas, where he was working on a self-assigned project. "As a European, Las Vegas simply dazzles me," he says. "I actually have a very positive view of the place, because it delivers exactly what it says it will. It's an entire city built on the idea of service." Watson spent six months shooting everything from desert landscapes to neon signs to car wrecking lots, but above all the people who are drawn to Vegas. "I was searching for charisma -- people with some intensity, with some characteristic that made them eccentric," he says.

He found this young woman while riding in a hotel elevator, noticing first her ruby red Chinese shoes. "By the time we got to the top floor, I'd asked her if she wanted to pose. She was with her boyfriend, so that helped -- she wasn't scared of me." Watson had set up a makeshift studio in one of the casino's unused kitchens, with four different backdrops. He shot her in front of a red seamless with a Horseman 4x5 camera and 300mm lens. -Jeffrey Elbies

Click Here for more on Albert Watson's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with his images.

Michal Chelbin

Like a talented painter, Michal Chelbin creates portraits that eloquently speak a language of contrasts -- between shadow and highlight, as well as the dark and light sides of life.

For her recent Strangely Familiar series, which chronicles Eastern European circus performers, Chelbin says she "tried to focus on the real person and not the mask." This tension between what we expect from her subjects and how they actually appear -- usually with a disarming, dissatisfied stare -- has prompted frequent comparisons to the work of Diane Arbus.

Chelbin, who was born and raised in Israel but now lives in New York City, began photographing Russian immigrants in Israel's big circus shows six years ago. As the project progressed, she traveled to Russia and Ukraine, photographing smaller shows in rural towns. A few years into the project, Chelbin also moved into the realm of color, sometimes re-creating pictures she'd taken previously in black and white.

"I am always fascinated to see the contrast between vivid costumes with gray surroundings," she explains. In one image, a young girl, dressed in a hot-pink leotard and tutu, stands demurely in front of four coal miners desaturated by soot.

In fact, many of Chelbin's muses are preteen girls and boys, often costumed prematurely in the raiment of adulthood. "I like to focus on this age between innocent and experienced," she says.

This liminality draws the viewer into Chelbin's portraits. And it helps explain the attention her work has garnered, including three honors from the National Portrait Gallery's Schweppes Photographic Portrait Prize and an Aperture book on Strangely Familiar planned for 2008. -Miki Johnson

Click Here for more on Michal Chelbin's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with her images.

The Environmental Portrait

Todd Eberle

Having started his career doing fine-art and architectural photography, Todd Eberle brings an atmospheric sensibility to his portraits for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and other magazines. "I approach everything similarly," says the New York-based Eberle, "but it's different with a portrait because you're putting a person in it, and you want to respect their space and not distract from them. So I try to flesh out the environment with just as much information as necessary."

Eberle adds that portrait sessions often entail unplanned factors, such as a celebrity's limited time -- or patience. "I can be very studied," he says, "but at a certain point I have to just go.

It may be a challenging situation, but you have to think on your feet and make it work."

A case in point: Eberle's portrait of famed artist Robert Rauschenberg (left), shot for a Vanity Fair story announcing a show at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eberle showed up at the artist's home in Captiva, Florida, within hours of Hurricane Charley in August 2004; Rauschenberg was, Eberle says, "kind of fragile," having suffered a stroke a few months earlier. "The picture came in the pressure of the moment," Eberle says. "I put him next to one of his works, and I thought of the mirror as kind of a metaphor." Pressed for time, Eberle placed a softbox under the tripod on which his Linhof 4x5 view camera was mounted. "The lighting came out a little bit ghostly," he says. But Rauschenberg's spirit of survival is what comes through. -Jack Crager

Click Here for more on Todd Eberle's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with his images.

The Art of Collaboration

Matthew Rolston

One of the foremost names in contemporary photography, Matthew Rolston considers portraiture a creative act in which he is both performer and audience. "A portrait is a picture of someone who is allowing his or her picture to be taken," he notes. The act of portraiture is, then, completely collaborative in nature. That's especially true when working with image-conscious stars like Salma Hayek and Jack Nicholson, whom Rolston shot for a recent article in Rolling Stone. The article coincided with the opening of Nicholson's 2006 movie, The Departed, in which he plays a fairly bloodthirsty character. "I had some ideas for the picture, but when we spoke with Jack about his ideas, he kept talking about how this character just enjoys killing people," says Rolston. "So we came up with an idea together. He even knew what color and type of stage blood he wanted to use in the photograph."

The act of creating a picture also requires Rolston to become an audience to whatever talent is in front of his camera.

"I hold that moment precious," he says. "Here is this famous person, and it's as if they're giving me a private performance. And that moment is ephemeral. It's there and it's gone." -Jeffrey Elbies

Click Here for more on Matthew Rolston's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with his images.

Mark Laita

When Mark Laita embarked on a photographic journey to explore the social diversity of America, he did not envision a collection of diptychs. But that's exactly what he ended up with in Created Equal, his portrait series recently featured in a show at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and in its accompanying catalog of the same name (Fahey/Klein Gallery, $20).

"I started out taking individual portraits," Laita says, "but at some point I realized, 'These two are really great combined.' And later I shot several pictures that were composed to go together." The resulting series contains striking juxtapositions -- a ballerina and a boxer, Amish teenagers and punk teenagers, bikers and altar boys -- underpinned by a common humanity. A Los Angeles-based commercial photographer, Laita shot all his subjects in black and white, against seamless, with an 8x10 Gowlandflex twin-lens reflex camera, lending uniformity to varied characters. "With this setup, there are no scenic distractions," he says. "It makes it about the person. My intent is to remind us we are all equal. I'm not judging anyone; I'm just showing them the way they are." -Jack Crager

Click Here for more on Mark Laita's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with his images.

The Portrait as Masterpiece

Hendrik Kerstens

It was unusual for Hendrik Kerstens to want to document the life of his daughter, Paula. As he notes on his Website (, he simply wanted "to be there" to capture "the fleeting moments that fade from memory all too quickly." What is unusual is the way this Amsterdam-based fine-art photographer goes about that task: by evoking the paintings of Dutch master painters, especially Johannes Vermeer. "It's a way for me to shake up the concept of time," he says. "I'm taking someone today with modern tastes and portraying her in the style of 17th-century artists." In doing so, Kerstens literally immortalizes his daughter, "as if to stop time and oblivion."

The project came about one day after Paula had returned from horseback riding. "When she took off her hat, I saw that her hair was held together by a hair net, and it reminded me of the portraits of the Dutch masters," Kerstens says. What fascinated him about those paintings, he says, "is the way [they can be] seen as a surface which can be read as a description of everyday life, as opposed to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, which usually tell a story. Northern European painting relies much more on craftsmanship and the perfect rendition of the subject. The use of light is instrumental in this." Kerstens himself crafts his portraits with a Toyo 8x10 view camera.

So far Kersten's work has been seen mostly in Europe, but it was to be exhibited at the Scope New York art fair from February 23-26. -Jeffrey Elbies

Click Here for more on Hendrik Kerstens' portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with his images.

The Unexpected View

Nigel Parry

British-born portraitist Nigel Parry is a master at getting celebrities to do unusual things for photographic effect. How does he put them at ease? "I have no idea," he answers with a laugh. "But if people see you are serious and genuine about what you are doing, they respect that and cooperate. I try to make the shoot painless. They're letting me use their most precious possession -- their face -- to comment on."

Parry, whose recent celebrity portraits are gathered in the new monograph Blunt (powerHouse, $60), says he usually plans out a picture before his subject arrives, often with an assistant sitting in. "Sometimes the person is secondary -- they become an element, rather than the center of attention," he says. "I like to withdraw and say, 'If this wasn't a famous person -- if it was Joe Blow -- would it be a good photo?' At times I go in with a blank slate. But I'll have a set of things I want to do -- and when I have that group of ideas, it allows me to do absolutely anything."

Shooting Philip Seymour Hoffman who won an Oscar in 2006 for his portrayal of Truman Capote, Parry decided to reinterpret Irving Penn's 1965 portrait of the real Capote. "I was ready with available light, I had marked the placement of the chair, and after he sat down I positioned the hands the way I wanted them. I don't think he knew what I was up to."

Parry's work in Blunt was shot with a Hasselblad 503CX on black-and-white film. "I don't like to show Polaroids to the subjects," he says. He prefers to let them wait until the portrait is selected and printed. "They're not always thrilled," he adds, "but more often than not, they end up buying prints." -Jack Crager

Click Here for more on Nigel Parry's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with his images.

The Photojournalistic Portrait

Lori Grinker

When Lori Grinker began the project that became her book Afterwar, she wasn't thinking about making portraits; she was thinking about telling stories. After documenting the troubled relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the 1980s, Grinker was determined to show the common threads that bind veterans of war. "I got this feeling [veterans] are on a different plane than the rest of us," she explains. Afterwar is the culmination of 15 years of work and includes more than 70 photos of veterans of 23 wars, arranged in reverse chronological order with summaries of the conflicts and poignant interviews with the subjects.

The photographs, which hover somewhere between photojournalism and environmental portraiture, have appeared in more than a dozen shows, including the Moving Walls project, which took them most recently to Amman.

"It's like a portrait of their experience," Grinker muses. "I'm not just photographing them to show a wound, but to express how they live with that wound."

At first, Grinker's idea was to create a self-contained essay on each veteran. She later found, however, that she could more powerfully capture each person's struggle with a single image. Her portraits convey survival stories while also situating each one within a larger history of war. Grinker terms this type of photography "photojournalistic portraiture." Now that she is comfortable cre­ating portraits, she finds herself employing them more often, as in her two upcoming projects about the Grinker family's migration from Europe and professional healers. -Miki Johnson

Click Here for more on Lori Grinker's portrait technique and philosophy, or Click Here for a gallery with her images.



The Portrait as MasterpieceSo far Kersten's work has been seen mostly in Europe, but it was to be exhibited at the Scope New York art fair from February 23-26.Hendrik Kerstens


The Portrait as MasterpieceKerstens crafts his portraits with a Toyo 8x10 view camera.Hendrik Kerstens


The Portrait as Historical DocumentVeterans of the Red Army, in Gorky Park in 2006.James Hill


The Photojournalistic PortraitLori Grinker


The Photojournalistic PortraitVietnam veteran Tim Lee at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.Lori Grinker


The Art of CollaborationThis portrait of actress Kirsten Dunst graced the cover of American Photo's March/April 2007 issue.Matthew Rolston


The Art of CollaborationDiptych of actress Salma Hayek.Matthew Rolston