The Portrait is the capture of the likeness of a person in which the face and expression is predominant. The objective is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the subject. A portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. Since the invention of the camera, the portrait has been a part of the profession of photography. The relatively low cost and the significant time difference form a painters portrait sitting led the popularity of the photographic portrait. With the technological advances of the camera, photographers left the controlled studio for the great outdoors where William Shew’s Daguerreotype Saloon, and Roger Fenton’s Photographic Van set the standards for both photography and portraits outside of the studio.
In the early days the equipment required an exposure time of nearly TEN minutes. In 1840, Alexander Wolcott opened America’s first portrait studio. Backgrounds, pedestals, and armchairs were utilized to offer a feeling of wealth. After years of equipment upgrades the sitting time dropped and subjects had to ONLY remain motionless for up to a minute or two with their heads held still by a neck clamps to avoid movement. In 1854, Andre Disderi cut the cost of portraits and sold thousands of his pictures of Napoleon III in 1859. Meanwhile another Napoleon, Napoleon Sarony, photographed actors and celebrities in his New York studio. In England Cecil Beaton, brought glamour to the portrait and his images appeared in Vogue and Vanity Fair.
The advent of the 35 mm camera and photo journalism changed the game with speed and portability. American Arnold Newman and Canadian Yousuf Karsh made heroic portraits of successful people. By this time the traditional formal clothing had yielded to fashion and style and we entered the modern portrait era of Rolling Stone’s Annie Leibovitz and others such as Herb Ritts, commercial photographers such as Chase Jarvis and Joe McNally.( www.herbritts.com) (www.chasejarvis.com) (www.joemcnally.com) Etc … etc … etc … all very versatile, but magic with portraits.
So … why the portrait lesson? Well, first of all I am a fan of how the portrait has given definition to eras and styles, be it paint, oil, charcoal, celluloid or now digital. Secondly, here was the assignment… Remember that part about sitting still for ten minutes to capture an image? How about getting a professional tennis player during one of, if the not the biggest event on their calendar for ten minutes for a portrait. “Stop by after practice or on the way to press,” we were not on their schedule and a great amount of trust and coordination between the governing bodies and ESPN even allowed this to happen. It may have smelled like a still shoot, but this was for video (HD) and we needed to acquire at least three looks in the limited time so that a sequence could be edited from the material. We had multiple lighting setups pre-rigged to hopefully fit the mood or size of the person walking in. There is no history or relationship with the athlete, they walk on to a set cold and have to be natural under lights and standing all alone. Our team were just voices in the darkness as they look and listen. The goal was not the sports game face or the forced smile, the goal was the definition of a portrait “the capture of the likeness of a person in which the face and expression is predominant.” There was success and failure, but for the most part … somehow we got personality.
If the roles were reversed, I do not think I could have been natural under the same circumstances. It is hard to be comfortable in that situation. Players are photographed for their sponsors and other obligations fairly often, but they are neither models nor actors. This is not their game, no warm up, no crowd, little if any training or practice. No stylist, a raw realness. We thank them for quickly peeling away the shyness and insecurities, they defrosted, and became themselves, with most of them walking off that set as human as if the past ten minutes never transpired with us, allowing us to meet the assignment at ESPN’s coverage of the US Open.