“What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound than a portrait.” That’s Charles Baudelaire, a French poet and an art critic, on the mysteries of portraiture. And I think he’s right.
There are a million ways to botch a portrait, even in the best conditions. In my experience, admittedly limited, a good portrait is a minor miracle. You’re not really responsible for it, neither you nor the subject. It just sort of happens, unplanned, unbidden. At best, you hope it happens. And you practice and prepare to help the moment along when it does.
Take this young lady, for instance. She was sitting near a fire in a room surrounded by windows, overlooking Donner Lake. The light in the room was perfect. And the light on her face and shoulders was even better.
Can I photograph you, I asked.
Yeah, sure, she said, a little surprised.
So I went to work with an 85mm shooting wide open, gathering as much light as possible for a high-key portrait with a studio feel, even though we were in a public space.
Most of the time, she looked off lens, this way and that, musing on snow, wind and mountains.
Then it happened.
She bore down on the lens in a way to make a cyclops freeze. She held her gaze fast, serene and confident.
A little brain in my finger said, Shoot. And my finger obliged, thankfully, because Something ageless was born in that moment.