Tom Griggs of the online magazine fototazo dropped me a line last week asking if I could contribute and essay to his series " What Makes A Great Portrait". A great collection of interviews, including essays by Cori Pepelnjak, Anastasia Cazabon, Margo Ovcharenko, Shen Wei, Lucas Foglia, Susan Worsham, Steve Davis, Elinor Carucci, Mark Powell and Jess T. Dugan.
I was so enthusiastic by the copy of Maske by Phyllis Galembo that this essay really just flowed out of me. Hopefully it wasn't too easy. Here it is:
A great portrait is like a great book or a great song....it has the thing that it is supposed to be about, but then, at closer inspection, it can be about anything, everything, things that are personal to your journey and things that are universal.
It can be this thing you can project into and learn things from all at the same time.
How does a photograph achieve that? That...well that is the hard part...its just too hard to explain how to create it...one never really knows how to do it, but you know it when you see it.
A recent book that was filled with what struck me as great portraits is Maske by Phyllis Galembo. The attached image is titled "Surprise Box, Jacmel, Haiti 2004". There is no question that I would be able to look at this image time and time again and get something from it. The content is candy coated...the color and lighting gives us some visual splendor to suck us into the image. But look closely: a hooded man, shiny body, holding a box with a plastic E.T. in it. It's folk art, and pop art, and anthropology all wrapped up and presented to us...but that is just the candy packaging. Look at it long enough and its like looking at a Rothko painting. Is that guy me? Is that guy the photographer's alter ego? The body language and gesture...the act of giving a gift. Is it generosity...emotional and spiritual generosity....or is it simply American junk? And the pose...is it Madonna and child esque? Baby Jesus in the shape of E.T.? Really...I could go on and on and on. When that feeling overtakes me...the sheer enthusiasm in which I could really just spit out a stream of consciousness list of all the open-ended things in an image and their possible meanings and references...that is when I feel a portrait is great.
Explore all the is fototazo HERE. See my essay HERE.