Active faces — learning from the portrait masters

In the fourth in my series on learning from Old Masters, I want to look at active faces and postures. I see some very creative portraits from time to time, but the vast majority of photographic portraits are static, serene, inactive. There is certainly a place for this kind of portraiture, and there are a lot of old master examples of it. But, as a photographer, if I find that all my portraits are of this kind, then I have evidently missed a lesson from the old masters. Wandering round an art gallery shows that life, activity and vigour were in the painter's palette of techniques.

Here is a fourth image from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

It's simply called 'Portrait of a Collector', and it's from the early 17th century. What I take to mean by that is that the original title and artist information have been lost — and, indeed, there is nothing in the title that we couldn't have deduced from the painting itself.

So, we have an undated painting by an unknown artist of an unknown person in an unknown country. And yet, this still gets to be hung in an art gallery. If you're desperate enough, you can pick up old oil paintings at junk shops and antique shops. You're unlikely to find anything especially cheap these days, because anything as old as this becomes valuable simply because of its age — but — there are still a lot of paintings out there which will never make it into art galleries, simply because there is so much for curators to choose from. A painting by a famous artist will always be treasured, and a painting of a famous subject, for example, Oliver Cromwell or Henry VIII, but, generally speaking, an unattributed portrait gets into the gallery on its own merits, or not at all.

So, what is it about this portrait that attracted the curator's attention?

We can look at the various aspects we already discussed in the earlier blogs — use of differential focus, use of light, use of environmental elements to express personality. But the curator could have found these in thousands of paintings. They are of interest to us, because they are things that photographers can learn from, but they were all part of the stock of techniques that portraitists shared.

What makes this image instantly memorable is the actively quizzical expression on the sitter's face, supported by the askance body posture. Face-forward portraits generally try to engage the viewer by creating eye contact with the sitter, but this sitter seems unable to look at the viewer, and is instead intent on something at waist level, and a little to our right. Are we standing next to some object he would like to collect? Is there something on his sheet of paper which he has just glanced at, and is now checking again? Or is there some buckle or item of our clothing which fascinates him?

The activity of the man's face is supported by the gazes of the two statues at the left and right of the canvas, and to a lesser extent by the more dimly illuminated statues which are both behind his left shoulder (our right). Normally speaking, one would avoid having any gaze looking out of the frame, as it leads the viewer away, but, combined with the powerful effect of the sitter's slanted gaze, they create a strong impression of three people who refuse to make eye contact with the viewer, and instead are caught up in the interest of the other objects around them.

The effect of this painting is rather like the 'stereo-wide' you get on some films, where the sound seems to be coming from beyond the left and right speakers. We are left with an impression of being in a space where there are many other things to look at. One almost has the unnerving desire to turn around and see what it is they see.

Interestingly, I blew up the image and tone-mapped it, to see if there was anything discernible on the sheet of paper. There isn't — although there is the glow from light reflected from the hand, which makes it clear that the painter had not forgotten to complete the sheet, nor has it become degraded in some way. For whatever reason, we are not meant to read or see what he reads or sees.

In its early days, photography struggled to be taken seriously alongside oil painting, although, interestingly, the Impressionist painters abandoned naturalistic painting on the grounds that photography could do it better. This, coupled with the very long exposures needed, tended to push photographers towards very formal, stylised portraits. Although, since the 1930s, great photographers have moved away from this style, there seems still a tendency among portraitists to retain the same few static poses. The art of posing a subject is certainly worth learning, and an image taken with no understanding of posing and no attention to it does not become more 'natural' or 'spontaneous'. Rather, it tends towards messy, stilted, disorganised and uncomfortable. But there is also an important place for going beyond posing, into capturing the habitual stances of a person, getting them (with all the skill of the experienced pose photographer) 'as they are', and making use of their refusal to engage with the camera, or whatever else it is that makes them a hard subject to shoot.