It’s the dis­en­gaged mo­ments in por­trai­ture that de­liver the most in­trigu­ing ex­pres­sions

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The hu­man face is a land­scape crossed with shift­ing moods and feel­ings – or, at least, the ap­pear­ance of them.

One end­less de­bate among pho­tog­ra­phers, and rep­re­sen­ta­tional pain­ters also, is how much the sur­face of the face cap­tured in a pic­ture can ac­tu­ally re­veal the com­plex­ity of the per­son­al­ity be­hind it. This is the ‘eyes are the win­dows of the soul’ ar­gu­ment, and there are fiercely op­posed views, even from great por­traitists. Yousuf Karsh wrote “I try to pho­to­graph peo­ple’s spir­its and thoughts”, while Arnold New­man be­lieved “We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man re­veals. The in­ner man is sel­dom re­vealed to any­one, some­times not even the man him­self.” Richard Ave­don, prob­a­bly the great­est por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher of all time, had an even stronger view, say­ing “There is no truth in pho­tog­ra­phy. There is no truth about any­one’s per­son. My por­traits are much more about me than they are about the peo­ple I pho­to­graph.”

Even if Ave­don is right, we all recog­nise the down­ward gaze to­wards noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, and we take it to mean that the sub­ject’s mood is pen­sive and in­ward-look­ing. You can catch it ei­ther in planned por­trai­ture or in the street. It’s very much a mat­ter of tim­ing, and be­cause this is a look that is very per­sonal, it comes in the ab­sence of con­ver­sa­tion and en­gag­ing with oth­ers, so typ­i­cally it takes a while to hap­pen – if it is ever go­ing to hap­pen at all. In the stu­dio, or any kind of por­trait ses­sion that you have set up be­fore­hand with the sit­ter’s co­op­er­a­tion, it means in­tro­duc­ing a de­lib­er­ate pause to al­low your sub­ject to re­vert to his or her own thoughts tem­po­rar­ily. In street pho­tog­ra­phy, it typ­i­cally calls for some dis­tance be­tween you and the per­son you’re pho­tograph­ing, which favours a longer lens, and a sit­u­a­tion in which the per­son has ei­ther not no­ticed you or has for­got­ten you’re there.

An el­derly man in a small Chi­nese town gazes down­ward, which the

viewer reads as be­ing re­flec­tive

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