Thoughts on Portraiture

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Tibet, 2002 

“A true portrait should today and a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.” – Philippe Halsman

As human beings we are all fascinated with each other and how we look. Diane Arbus talked about the gap between intention and effect  as revealed in portraiture. People put on make-up and adorn themselves because they want to create an effect and give a certain impression, but often other people look at them and say it’s tragic or comical or curious or funny or odd. Arbus photographed a woman on Park Avenue trying to make a statement with her appearance, but in fact we see through it, we see the folly. Portraiture can be that kind of sharp critique.

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Srinagar, Kashmir, 1999

 

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 1999

We go to another culture to observe how other people live. Sometimes you look at somebody on the street and they just seem to have a strong presence, a look, a certain kind of attribute that comes out in the face.

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Timbuktu, Mali, 1986

 

Most of my portraits are not formal situations; they are found situations.

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Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2006

 

In Tibet, for instance, where people have a great sense of style, an innate fashion sense, they come out of the mountains wearing these outlandish hats, make-up, jewelry in their hair.

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Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2006

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Gujarat, India, 2003

The Jains in India have exalted and highly revered monks who are naked because they consider the sky to be their garment. They are detached from material things and being naked is a symbol of their renunciation. The nuns and monks wear masks to ensure that no germs or insects creep in. How did they arrive at that, as opposed to Islam where they go to the other end of the spectrum to be covered in flowing robes?

A good portrait is one that says something about the person.  We usually see parts of ourselves in others, so the good portrait should also say something about the human condition.

FRANCE-10028, France, 1989

Marseille, France, 1987

 

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Kabul, Afghanistan, 2006

 

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Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2006

 

I’ve learned that humor is universal. You do a little bit of mime and people laugh. It’s very easy to use humor to connect to people in any culture.

Part of what I’ve done is to wander and observe the world. What else is more interesting than that? Sometimes I think it’s good to observe our planet as though we were dropped down here to make a field report on Planet Earth.

Excerpt adapted from October 2009 FOCUS Magazine

72 Responses to “Thoughts on Portraiture”

  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m
    not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say superb blog!

  2. This is really wonderful article. I’ve learn a lot form you. These portrait made me think about how many portraits I’ve ever shot and how many of them are really good. The answer is around 3-5 only. Thank you so much Steve for wonderful work you brought to this world.

  3. Those portraits are very intense, especially the expression in the peoples eyes.

  4. Kaushal Kumar Singh Says:

    Portraits of generations. Watching again and again it feels there is virtually no camera in between you and them but a mirror they are watching in the reflections of their life in natural habitat.
    Thanks for sharing

  5. ugradni ormar…

    [...]Thoughts on Portraiture « Steve McCurry's Blog[...]…

  6. guida mutui…

    [...]Thoughts on Portraiture « Steve McCurry's Blog[...]…

  7. Ohhh…..how I agree with your comments :)

  8. Wonderful photos and truly inspiring – i think deep down you must be part anthropologist or ethnographer.

    Something that’s been puzzling me for a while, why is it that Pakistan has been so overlooked in terms of photography? Aside from the recent flood coverage, people seem to go west to Afghanistan, or more often East to India. Is there something so very detering about Pakistan, its politics or its people, that make it more inacessible to the outsider looking in? Certainly there is no shortage of interesting stories and a huge diversity of interesting faces, and life is no easier than in India and people no less tribal or courageous than in Afghanistan. Yet, it seems to me that there is a lack of photographers of any merit who are interested in Pakistan.
    Thanks, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  9. Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2006: particularly these photos of yours are simply wonderful, and very pensive too…

    Pino Blasone
    Rome – Italy

  10. nadeera@malaysia Says:

    hello steve.
    i think its beautiful and very sincere of you to have photos taken of people who usually are in the background of most things; people whom are usually left out from the thoughts of politicians and masters who ‘rule the world.’ you are currently in malaysia now and it seems that your workshop has
    unequivocally been filled up. even so, im still very excited to admire your works at the islamic museum.

    regards,
    nadeera

  11. Dear Steve,
    I am astonished looking at your pictures, at your portraits, at the people’s eyes…such a beauty, such a pain, such a colour, such a soul in everything you describe with your sensibility…
    Always walk happy, always walk healthy

    Marina

    Italy

  12. Samantha Says:

    Hi Steve

    I would just like to tell you that i think your photographs are so, so beautiful. I cant breathe when i look at some of them because they are so awesome..I a studying photography and portraiture and social documentary is my passion. I remember many years ago visiting the Sebastio Salgado exhibition in London entitled “Children” and i stood mesmerised with tears rolling down my face as they were so powerful.

    I feel the same about some of your images.

    Yes, there are many wonderful, talented photographers but your work is timeless and exquisite.

    I would love to see more of your photographs of my home town, Cape Town, South Africa. Where could I see them?

    Warm regards
    Sam

  13. Susie Tsang Says:

    Hello Steve

    I am a photography student and i have really only come into photography in the last few years. We are currently studying portraiture and we have to research portrait photographers (You are my favourite out of the ones i have picked). I have come across your work recently, well not true i came across your photo of the afghan girl a few years back but i never took note of the photographer. i just wanted to say how great your work is, i took one of your books out from the library and i found it captivating .
    I’ve never really photographed people but your work is very inspiring and i’m very jealous you have met/photographed so many interesting people from all walks of life. I also find fascinating your journey to get there.

    Thank you for sharing your work with us.

    Susie

  14. Dear Mr McCurry,

    I have been a fan of your photographs before I even knew they were yours. When I was a little girl I used to tear them from the National Geographic (much to my mother’s despair…) and stick them on my walls in my bedroom.

    I have been taking pictures since I was a teenager and I mostly do portraits- I find people and capturing them on film infinitely fascinating. I find that by doing portraits, one can somehow make sense of the human condition and life in general.

    Thank you for being such a wonderful roll model!

    Sincerely.

  15. Thank you so much for your work. I, as a photographer and a human, have learned so much from your amazing work.
    Matt

  16. Stefanie Says:

    Steve,

    I have been fascinated with your work since the first time I was introduce to it by a college professor. I am now in the middle of preparing a presentation of your work for my peers. Thank you for inspiring me!

    Stefanie

  17. [...] I guess what Halsman said is true and if you are interested in portraiture, you can read one of Steve McCurry’s Thoughts on Portraiture on his blog. [...]

  18. When I saw the photo of the Uttar Pradish, India train that The Economist Magazine used in the September 26th – October 2nd issue I knew that it was a great photo. I did not know who the artist was but when Dow Chemical and the Economist used the photo of four ‘Monks with Parasols,’ I was sure that both photos had been the work of the same photographer. But I still did not know that they were yours. All that I was sure of was that the photographer was more than only a ‘pro’ I thought that they were an Artist of the highest rank.

    After spending hours looking at your web site I can see that your finger print on all of your work these two included.

    The more that I learn about photography the more questions that I seem to have. I have a question that you may be able to answer. The one of the train in India was taken in 1983, is unique and exceptional. My question: when a photograph is sold, does the author-ship stay with the photographer who took the photograph? Can the person who buys that work ever claim the photo and their ‘own’creation or only that they own it, because the paid for it? In your case there is no doubt who shot the picture, your prints are all over the place.

    After seeing your work I am overcome with wonder and humbled.
    In peace,
    Ann

  19. andrewgould Says:

    Steve… The book “Portraits” was the first one of yours that I ever got. Such a wonderful collection of images. The portrait that I can’t get out of my mind at the moment though, is the one of Aung San Suu Kyi, as presented in “The Unguarded Moment”. For me, it’s simply spellbinding.

  20. [...] Thoughts on Portraiture : le photographe Steve McCurry partage quelques réflexions au sujet de portraits [...]

  21. Your photographs are simply amazing; and for so long I have called you “my favorite photographer”. But were those beautiful words at the opening of this entry what gave me a totally different point of view to photos that followed.
    I really hope that our paths could cross somewhere , sometime.

    Warm regards from Monterrey, Mexico.

    Hector.

  22. claudiawillmitzer Says:

    every pair of eyes which looking in our camera and in our heart is a mosaic of this world

    warm regards from kathmandu, claudia

  23. Steve,

    I really enjoy looking at your work and I’m saving up for one of your workshops. Your portraits are amazing. The textures and colors in your images are simple the best. I’m curious what lighting equipment (if any) you carry on these shoots? Kind regards, John

  24. I love portraits and these are very powerful images!!! Excellent work and thanks for sharing! Keep them coming!

  25. Thank you for sharing about the Jains in India. This was beautiful to learn about being covered by the sky, and the comparison of Islam was a great irony of life. Steve, your work is breath taking and exhibits countless words and emotions, seen not just by the eyes but the heart. Thank you for sharing your vision and talent.

  26. It’s beautiful to see all those pictures, but time is an important aspect to get the best worldpictures. Many times I’m looking at your book ‘Portraits’ and enjoy the photo’s.
    Regards,

    Christine

  27. portraiture is something I really want to just jump into but being such a shy person it is difficult for me. I really appreciate what you have to say about it… It makes me braver to read this.

  28. I agree with those above me – you’ve captured the characters, and not just the faces. But…

    I wonder why we’re so drawn to people in unfortunate/challenging situations? Most of the people in your shots look like their missing something – essential food, warmth, shelter, rights, freedom from oppression… Some look content despite the world around them, others look sad.

    I’m not criticising, merely raising the fact that we tend to be attracted to lives so different to our own when analysing portraits.

  29. Hi, I don’t know what to say, except that you’ve changed my life. Whenever I feel like this pond is too big for a small fish like me, I look at your work and it inspires in me patience. Patience to see the world one moment at a time, one story at a time, one person at a time. You haven’t any idea what your work means to hungry hearts like mine, hungry to document the life all around, obsessed with documenting the life all around. So thank you, thank you!

  30. Your portraits go over the image, go inside the people you shoot.
    I can imagine through your lens the moment you live with that people.
    I love the construction of your images not only for the principal subject you shoot but also for the surrounding, people, animals, object.
    Sometimes this things tell more about the life that a normal portrait.

    Thank You
    PQ

  31. Wow. Thank goodness for your blog. You were always this famous photographer . . . not someone with whom I ever expected to interact, but this blog and your insight into photography is such a fantastic opportunity for those of us who are into photography and who follow your work. Thank you.

  32. Human faces always attract the most attention in any photo and your eye is automatically drawn to these faces. Portraits like the ones you exhibit here Steve allow us to be drawn directly into the soul of these subjects and hopefully allow a little better understanding of their situation. Beautifully executed as aways with your recognisable and stunning blend of light and colour.

  33. Steve,

    You are spot on when saying “humor is universal”. I was always hesitant or just didn’t know how to approach subjects when taking a portraiture. However, one of the many things I learned from your Abu Dhabi workshop was that a smile, a joke (or a bit of mime if you don’t understand each other), and a bit of laughter eases the situation for both the photographer and his/her subject. And the photographic results are often amazing!

    Regards,
    Arman

  34. I love how you put it. That a picture should should be a mirror of the human condition.
    I have been trying to get a portrait and while the subject is interesting and perfect, i cannot get them to loosen up and be as natural as they are in your pictures! Do you take a lot of pictures of the same person and choose the one that has them with their guard down?

  35. Very intriguing portraits. They are looking so authentic. I love the soft light. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  36. What a beautiful and powerful post! You have made me rethink portraiture…

  37. Best portrait lesson ever…

  38. Wow, your work is so completely authentic. Just stunning.

  39. Thanks for this.

    Of course part of the interest in these pictures is common to any portrayal of ‘the exotic’

    But plenty of photographers try and fail to imitate what you manage to do with portraits.

  40. prima.putri Says:

    I love all the pictures…..you captured the soul…

  41. neuromeme Says:

    People interact, express, and inform through their faces. It’s how we evolve, imagine, we were staring at each others for thousands of years. Hollywood knows this; it’s why the eyes are the most prominent feature of the actors. Brilliant photographs by the way, faces are always fascinating.

  42. wow thanks for the inspiring words and graphics. what you said really stands out I mean everyone cares what they look like here in the US but in third word nations they don’t have enough to care….the pictures of the kids tell so much its true what they say “a picture says a million things”
    thanks for sharing

    SEO for LESS

  43. Thank you for sharing so much beauty!

  44. Your work is inspiring. I admire the way you intertwin images and words to provoke a reaction to the human condition. I’ll be reading. More people should be seeing this.

  45. Steve:
    Great article. I have a fascination with portraits in general because of the fact that it allows the viewer the time to really see the soul underneath the outer shell. I particularly like children photography because I am able to capture a little of their raw and real essence before they start to concern themselves with society’s bias on appearances.

  46. hi steve:

    surprized to find your post! we worked together on the men’s vogue photoshoot of david gregory. sorry to see it didn’t come to fruition. would love to see how the photos turned out.

    what is amazing for others to know about you is your patience to let a photograph reveal itself. your commitment to waiting and waiting and waiting until the subject has let down all barriers is commendable. as i observed your style, i questioned how it could work in time strapped washington dc. you proved that even with the sun going down and the light fading, the shot could be done.

    in a way, you were an outsider looking in on a day in the life of a journalist in dc. most photographers try to engage their subjects with conversation and questions. you have a uncanny nack to let the subject come to your lense without engaging them directly. only then does their true self become exposed beyond the typical stature of power and position in washington.

    thank you for a refreshing experience in portraiture, where time was taken to get the best shot irregardless of busy schedules.

    best, susan
    makeup artist

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Dear Susan,

      Good to hear from you and thanks for your help on the shoot. I know that Men’s Vogue was discontinued. Were the David Gregory pictures ever published? You’re so sweet to comment about that shoot. I can remember standing on that step ladder in front of the Capitol building. My fingers were so numb from the cold I could barely operate the camera. It was past the point of getting dark and I just had one small lousy flash to make the picture.

      I ended up missing a wonderful annual Christmas dinner / get together in New York with close friends as the flight I was on was delayed 5 hours and I only got back home after midnight. Other than that it was great being on the set of Meet the Press. I regret not getting my picture taken in the seat opposite David. Also, I was surprised that he had to pay for his own wardrobe. I thought somebody of his stature would have their choice from a large closet of expensive Italian suits.

      Let me see if I can locate some of those pictures and send you a few jpegs.

      Best Regards,
      Steve

      • steve,

        never saw the pictures published of david gregory. sorry to hear you missed a wonderful get together and had a miserable delay at the airport. for all those out there interested in photography, just another example of the glamorous life of a photographer! but seriously, it is a physically and mentally demanding job that some may not realize.

        there are many times when i wish, too, that i had been photographed with a favorite subject. there are so many interesting individuals we meet. most compelling for me was a blind woman, sabriye tenberken, who took blind tibetan children up the northside of mt. everest. one lifetime opportunity, that i was glad did not get away (while on a job assignment at the white house), the first lady, michelle obama, was kind enough to pose for a photograph with me.

        i appreciate your effort and time to find some of the pictures of mr. gregory. thank you!

        best,
        susan

  47. In most of your portraiture (from a long time) you catch the same spark in the eyes … How do you do this ? We see in your pictures that you love humanity.

  48. CharleeMary Says:

    This was a wonderful article. I know I have been drawn to portrait of people more than anything else, like landscapes or animals. There is just something curious about different cultures and the world around them that make portraits of people so intriguing.

  49. Steven Harris Says:

    Something compelling, almost voyeuristic in these shots. http://doctorbeatnik.wordpress.com/

  50. “Sometimes I think it’s good to observe our planet as though we were dropped down here to make a field report on Planet Earth.”

    That’s what I love about photography. It helps me do just that.

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Jen,

      Many thanks for your comments and I completely agree with your point about photography.

      Best,
      Steve

  51. Great article! Makes me wonder what a report like that would say -If someone dropped down on Planet Earth and wrote a report. I wonder if it would be more about things we have (cars, homes…) or would it be more about people and lifestyles.

  52. You make connecting with others sound like the most natural thing on earth (as it should be i suppose? Though some of us would beg to differ!). Was there ever a time you were overwhelmed by self consciousness?

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Charlene,

      I’m always overwhelmed by self consciousness. The key is to find a way to work around it and have the discipline to work through it. Thanks for checking out my blog.

      Best Regards,
      Steve

  53. Dear Steve… I often wonder about this aspect of various fields.. the distances to be supposedly maintained.. in counseling, social work, research and now in photography. I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason why you’re so so particularly gifted in capturing people with all their vulnerability and innocence pouring from their eyes… is that maybe for those few moments you completely adore and love your subjects and reach them in ways one cannot if that formal distance is maintained. Blame me for being too much of a romantic.. :) Thank you for writing this lovely post.

  54. Thank you for all your beautiful and meaningful work. It is such an inspiration and gives us aspiring photographers an excellent role model. Absolutely beautiful work! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations in this blog.

  55. Thanks for this — portraiture is my favourite thing to shoot, because it feels so intimate, so connecting. It’s great to hear your perspective, as well.

    K.

  56. World is so amazing…

    Each faces of your portraits has a reflection and you are the one of few best to portray it :)

    I have visited details of your India Expedition workshop, sad to see you won’t be visiting my hometown (Allahabad) this time.

    My best wishes for the team… have a great time…

    -Pawan

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Pawan,

      Thanks for your comments. The Kumbh is always best in Allahabad and I think my best pictures have come from there. Perhaps the next time it’s in Allahabad, I’ll have a chance to meet you.

      Best,
      Steve

  57. one of the things i love about photography and especially portraiture is that it gives us a license to stare and observe beneath the surface – the superficial signs – the way someone expresses their self and soul through physical signs of clothing, jewelry, hairstyle, etc and then the way there face and posture take on their anguish, serenity, emotions……..

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Marcy,

      Good insights on portraiture and I totally agree with you. I look forward to seeing you soon.

      -Steve

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