Compelling Portraits

by in Through the Lens

This last winter, I had the pleasure of participating in a series, Photo Fridays, at the Schoolhouse Gallery. In this post, I share the Compelling Portrait presentation I shared at the gallery in February. That evening I shared: my favorite portrait from someone else, my five favorite portraits, one with best story, one with technique and one self-portrait. 


To begin with, I shared my favorite portrait by another photographer. I selected Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl. While I find it difficult to name any photo my favorite, this image stood out to me for many reasons. The first time I saw the image as a young girl I was sitting in the porch at my grandparent’s home. My grandfather had a stack of National Geographic magazines stashed near his chair. Occasionally, I would flip through a few, gazing at striking, compelling, exotic images. Afghan Girl appeared on National Geographic‘s cover in June of 1985, about 6 months before I was born. The image was actually taken in 1984 in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Even without knowing any information about the image or the girl or Afghanistan (or virtually anything at the time), the image, especially those eyes, stayed with me forever. I would always recognize the photo; the viewer can’t help feeling haunted by those eyes. I love the combination of her look, that it defies perfect category. She seems strong, defiant, but terrified, maybe even angry. It wasn’t until January 2002 that Steve McCurry was able to relocate this, now woman, to find out her name is Sharbat Gula. She didn’t even know her face, and especially her eyes, was internationally famous. I like images that really say something. I like them even more when it isn’t entirely clear what they are saying. It seems more human when a portrait is complex. I think that’s what McCurry captured – a very complex girl in a complex situation.

Next, I attempted to select my five favorite portraits.

  1. The first one I selected is an engagement image taken in Bar Harbor, Maine. Both subjects offer compelling, joy-filled expressions. The black and white conversion helps heighten and highlight the emotion. Her eyes are sharp and clear, drawing the viewer into the image.Favorite Five (1): Sweet Embrace
  2. The second one is a portrait of my oldest son, Bronson. The image was taken in our home using bright, natural light coming in through the two side windows. Unlike the previous image, I find the colors really add to this one. They are bright, vibrant. His cheeks and lips and rosy. The focus is clear, the background nicely blurred, and his eyes contain slight catch lights, helping to highlight them. I love his expression most: he’s serious, but with a slight smirk. It really captures who he is, which is the ultimate goal of any still portrait.Favorite Five (2): Bronson
  3. Next, I selected an image from a beautiful wedding I photographed last fall in Western Maine. I have a thing for tall grass in the foreground (see next image as well), and the mountain in the background provided perfect framing for their heads. Her arm, holding her dress out, seemed to match the lines of the mountain even better, and with them looking at each other, their expressions are natural, relaxed and happy. Favorite Five (3): Mountain Marriage
  4. In a family session with remote shutter (i.e. taking my own family photos), I noticed my husband consoling Bronson after we were all done. All four of us were tired and hungry, so the session ended after about 10 minutes. The golden hour side-light matches the warm mood, and with their faces mostly concealed, the subject essentially becomes their relationship, not either one of them individually. To me, this image captures just how wonderful of a father my husband is.Favorite Five (4): Father's Love
  5. Lastly, I selected an image I took during an event, Soccer Night, at the Root Cellar in Lewiston. This image is all texture and lines. The fence in the background, along with her head scarf make for interested textures and designs. Her arms create a horizontal line, matched by the posts on the fence, which frame her perfectly. Because i liked the texture so much, I left extended empty space. She’s determined and focused. This image speaks story to me. Favorite Five (5): Determined

I selected Shrouded Girl in black and white for my favorite story image. I was photographing a mother-daughter Girl Scout event at a camp. Two sisters caught me eye; they were alone on the dock. One was jumping in and out, trying to convince her sister to play. It was clear something was restraining her sister. She wouldn’t get in. When I zoomed in, her face was even more compelling. She was somber, bothered, appeared to be in thought or refusing to think. I took this photo and one more of her and her sister. I was able to take the image without them knowing or disturbing the natural scene. That’s my favorite way to capture people. I like the authenticity. I like that it says something true, even if it is a little dark, maybe especially because it’s a little dark. It’s those things – emotions – that aren’t often captured in our overly photographed lives. The high contrast, shadowed face made this an immediate black and white image to me. It was one of those really rare moments where as I was pressing the shutter I knew I took an image I would love.Story: Shrouded Girl

For technique, I selected an image of my cousin at her wedding. One of the simplest ways to make images more flattering of people is to shoot at an angle from above. I might stand on a chair or a small ladder to get this effect. In this situation, I was also crammed for space, so this allowed me to fit more of her in the frame than if I took the image at eye level. Having her look up at me forces her eyes to open better.Technique: Shooting from Above

Lastly, I selected an image of Bronson and I for a self-portrait. I took the image indoor in the afternoon using a timer. Most of the images I had of Bronson were of him by himself or with his dad. This is often true for moms. I wanted an image of me as mom. I think the image shows a connection between us and some similarities. It was also taken on an average Tuesday, which was more important to me than having an image of us in a superposed, un-ordinary way. A true self-portrait of motherhood would be a little more frazzled, but when there was only one child and he wasn’t walking, I was often more composed. 🙂Self Portrait

And there you have it! Next month, I’ll share my presentation on documentary photography, discussing photographing my boys’ childhoods.

What makes a portrait compelling to you?

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