The Portrait

Art Form, Not Format

Tom Zimberoff


Self-portrait 1990

Not as many photographers load cameras these days as we used to, but we all aim them and shoot pictures. I’ve always gotten a bang out of describing my pursuit of photographs as hunting for big game: portraits in particular. I get close for a good clean shot — for rapport, not just proximity, and bag my quarry with a four-by-five instead of a thirty-aught-six. But I still hang their heads on a wall to admire like trophies.


The memorialization of a deliberate encounter with a human being, in one shot, so to speak, epitomizes the hunt. It is a challenge. When it goes well, it’s because the subject has allowed the photographer to reveal something personal within a two-dimensional frame, a graphically compelling composition embellished with shadow and light. Despite one’s best attempts to prepare in advance, any photoshoot can go sideways and like a MacGyver episode it becomes necessary to solve a cascade of unexpected challenges involving lenses, lights, cameras, props, wardrobe, location, deadlines, weather, temperament. . . Sometimes the big one gets away.

More than illustrations of interesting people or handsome faces, portraiture is about making allusions to character, a human persona. An adept portrait photographer tries to show as much about what someone does, often professionally, as much as who they are personally.

Ultimately, the photographer’s relationship with a sitter is the photograph. Nothing more. Certainly, nothing less. But rarely does a lasting relationship ensue. Always, however, a record remains of what they saw, looking at each other or at what, or in what direction it was agreed should hold the subject’s gaze. It is that moment, frozen in time, when the camera becomes a surrogate for the viewer.

Looking at a photographic portrait is a kind of hack of human psychology because you can stare at one — right into someone’s eyes — with no compulsion to flinch and look away. It is also crucial to recognize how inescapable it is to form an idea in your mind about what the subject is thinking or feeling, even though the subject is observed neither in real-time nor moving about in the real world. Yet you will always experience empathy for the subject of a portrait. But don’t miss the irony of losing…