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Thoughts on Portraiture

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 25, 2009 by stevemccurry

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.


Srinagar, Kashmir, 1999



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.


Timbuktu, Mali, 1986


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


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.


Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2006


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



Kabul, Afghanistan, 2006



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


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