Portraiture and the 'Human Intangible Element'

What's a portrait?

"A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer." - think that might have come from Wikipedia.

Disagree 1: "The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person"? Sometimes, but that rarely works. The rest of this article is about that. 

Disagree 2: "For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position." But hang on, the good old humble snapshot, the uncomposed, random, spontaneous and impromptu shot of another human can often be the best way of capturing something elemental and somewhat true about that person.


"A snapshot is the truest form of photography" - Mike Dowson. 

Elena Pippi snapshot by Mike Stacey.

What that means is that there is virtually nothing of the photographer in the photograph. The subject has been translated through the lens onto the film (or sensor) and the photographer hasn't exercised any artistic intent; the end result being a fairly accurate representation (on the surface at least) of the subject. 

"I capture the essence of the subject"

So many times I read about such a such a photographer or painter saying that they capture the real person, the essence of their subject, with their work. This is even used as a marketing statement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even in the most sterile of conditions, with minimal interaction between photographer and subject, the image will always be a result of what was happening between the photographer and the subject at the time the shutter was triggered. Even with a snapshot.

If a photographer is portraying reality with a portrait, or the "likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person" in terms of trying to capture "the real person", then they're not putting their own creativity and artistic vision between the subject and the film (or sensor) - they are merely translating what is in front of the camera to the film (or sensor). Maybe that's their creative vision though? Yep, maybe it is - but not usually. Don't get me wrong, this is actually what some of the great portrait photographers do and their work transcends what many others do. Take a look at the work of Judith Joy Ross for some fine examples of what I'm talking about. Still, we don't know  her workflow, so commenting on what she did and the part she played wouldn't be right.

Truth and reality

Truth and reality are still heavily debated concepts anyway. Philosophers will continue to debate this forever I think. Reality, as we know it ('as we know it' is important), is our perception of what's going on around us, as seen through all of our own social and educational filters. Anyone who's taken hallucinogens will realise this - somehow drugs like LSD allow those filters to be broken down and tossed away - and what is before the eyes is maybe how it really is - it's scary. Additionally, how we view things changes over time so that some given event if repeated 100 years from now, won't be viewed the same way and yet the event itself is as 'real' as it is today. 

As Leslie Mullen says in his Masters Thesis "Truth in Photography: Perception, Myth and Reality in the Postmodern World" - "This seems valid, for a glance through any outdated history textbook will show what appear to be glaringly biased or distorted representations of historical events that, at the time, seemed true (remember when the Earth was flat - Ed). The changing nature of truth caused the philosopher Kierkegaard to note, "The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you." 

"Those who believe they have a final truth are usually accused of being caught up in the clutches of dogmatism. Even science is not exempt -- scientific truths appear to change over the course of time, through both changes in a culture’s philosophy and in the processes of experimentation."

That was a good tangent. Back to portraiture...

So how does all this technobabble relate to portrait photography? It means we see what we see - and whether that is truth or not, is debatable. So one step further away - it is debatable whether what we photograph is truth. When we meet another person in real life, we interpret them through all our filters too - leading to an impression of who we think they are. Are they really like that? Who knows. But it is probably arrogant for anyone to say that they can "capture the essence" of their subject with their photographic skills.

I think photographic portraits exhibit a range - a range from being kind of closely representative of the subject, or of some aspect of the subject, to being not even remotely like them. What is more valid? None. They're all valid. 

What is in a great portrait? What's it made of?

Romi Muse by Mike Stacey

A great portrait is a combination of many elements, and the weight given to each element varies depending on the individual creative bias of the photographer. Common elements (that I see and use) are structure and form (graphic qualities), light, beauty and emotion, with an emphasis on the last one. Truth is not an element in my own repertoire. And I don't equate truth with a raw unprocessed snapshot - as some people might. I don't equate truth with a straight up stare down the lens either. By truth, I mean the reality of the situation, or of the subject, at the time of capture - and it's probably obvious by now, I don't think that's possible.


As Timothy Archibald stated, "Trying to really pinpoint what makes a great portrait is almost like trying to figure out why it feels good when someone smiles at you or why it is disturbing when someone yells at you. There are these rules, this structure, and then there is this human intangible element that is the wild card. Everyone seems to know how to play by the rules and follow the structure, but as far as the intangible goes, this third element, that’s where it all falls apart or comes together, it allows the portrait to sink or swim or really transcend."

Madonna by Herb Ritts. Herb Ritts' photographs rely heavily on structure and form and other graphic qualities but he was also a master of interpreting and portraying the 'human intangible element'.

The 'human intangible element'. This is where portrait photography skills start to veer off wildly from what is commonly thought of what is required from a photographer to take good portraits. Honestly, in my own opinion, technical skills mean zilch. Of course you need to basic stuff - exposure, DOF, blah blah. And it's necessary to be able to visualise various lighting conditions and how the camera might see them. It's also necessary to be very aware (maybe more than other genres) of compositional aspects. But all this is technical babble. The 'human intangible element' - that's the key and to see some dimension of that in a portrait requires much from the photographer. Much indeed. You won't find much of what this takes or how to do it in many portrait photography courses or online articles.  

There is a school of thought going around that I do agree with and that is that for an image to be truly great, it needs to say more about the maker of the image than the subject.

Richard Avedon, Bill Curry, drifter, Interstate 40, Yukon, Oklahoma, 6/16/80, 1980, from In the American West, 1979–84.


Avedon said "all portraits were accurate and none of them were the truth. They are all in a sense a postulation or an argument. Every-time a photographer points the camera a another person he is making a judgement. The grander the judgement the greater the lie."

'The Stewart Sisters, 7th Grade' - Judith Joy Ross

Great photographers and artists create pictures and paintings because they have something to say. Great and powerful images can often be the result of the artist having some strong opinions, or passions, or points of view; and thenexpressing that using a camera - and a subject. With this in mind, comes the 'human intangible element'.

"The Stewart Sisters, 7th Grade [see above] demonstrates this intangible. The girls are being photographed, communicating with the viewer, being self aware and being all of these things and more, nothing is very dramatic, nothing heavy handed, but the end result feels utterly profound. The result seems to be a picture of these girls, but then seems to be communicating something universal as well." - Joerg Colberg

The cornerstone of my work is portraiture and rarely am I happy with the portraits I take. It's often hit and miss. I put everything in place to make it a success and I think I've got something great - then I see the scans and whatever it was I wanted, or what it was that I saw, just isn't there. But the few times that the 'human intangible element' is there, makes all the misses and near misses worthwhile.


I've run a couple of custom one-on-one workshops over the last few months and am refining this process as we speak. I wrote some thoughts on workshops a while ago, you can read them here. If you're interested in photographic portraiture, from nude portraiture to headshots, and you're interested in how to elicit the fleeting and mysterious 'intangible human element' - drop me a line info@mikestacey.com