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…