PENSIVE & INTRO SPECTIVE
It’s the disengaged moments in portraiture that deliver the most intriguing expressions
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