HOW PORTRAITS LIE — What to be aware of in your portrait photography

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HOWPORTRAITS LIE — What to be aware of in your portrait photography

What is the purpose of a portrait?

Aristotle put forth the notion that we judge how ‘good’ something is based on how well it fulfils its intended purpose. So what does a good portrait do that a bad one fails to? What should a photographer aspire to achieve when they make a portrait of someone?

One of the most common pieces of praise I hear about portraits is when people say things like “You’ve really captured that person’s soul.” or “That photo really embodies who that person is”. I think this is often the general perception of what a great portrait does. This is nonsense. One single image can't communicate the complexities, nuances, contradictions, thoughts and feelings of a human being. I think at best this is a misunderstanding of what photography can do, and at worst, a deliberate manipulation of how an audience perceives a person or people.

To explain the latter a little more, we need to look at Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of the Migrant Mother.

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