There is power in the well-made portrait – power to convey a connection from subject to viewer on an emotional level. It’s more than a likeness. It’s the story of a person told in two dimensions that can instantaneously create a more visceral connection with the viewer than a well-written biography. Yes, there is power in the portrait, and as photographers, it’s our job to find that story and tell it to the audience.
We are visual. Our memories are tied to pictures in our minds, and photographers have the responsibility of creating those images – building and cementing those memories for generations to come.
Will we allow great grandchildren to remember great grandma in front of a blue mottled background with her Olan Mills smile, or will we push ourselves to tell her story? Will we find out who she is and what she does? Will we convey great grandma through a portrait that lasts for generations? Will her grandchildren realize that she was once a young, beautiful woman with her whole life ahead of her? Will they wonder who she was or will they know instantly from a single, extraordinary portrait?
That’s up to us, you know?
We can go the easy route. We can set up the lights and leave them in that perfect spot. We can drag out the backgrounds, and engage in superficial chit-chat. We can ignore the living, breathing human being that grants us the power to capture their spirit and vitality and snap a photo or two.
Have a seat. Smile for the camera. Turn your head to the left just a bit. That’s right. That’s perfect. We’re all done. They’ll be ready in an hour.
And we can hand over a likeness – a photograph of what someone looked like on that day in that year. A “factory-made” piece of crap. Another scrap of paper that means nothing in a world full of meaningless scraps of paper.
Not me. No way.
Forget that. I’m going the hard route. I’m finding the story. No idle chit-chat. No talk about the weather. I’m going to find out what makes you tick. No blue mottled background or fake split-railed fence. No. I’m dragging my lights and my equipment that extra mile. I’m not afraid of a little backache tomorrow. No, I’m going to work at finding the story and telling it. I’m going to tell it in an environment that tells everyone who you are and what you’re about. It’s my job. It’s my passion, and I’m going to make it happen whatever it takes.
And when your great grandchildren find that old image tucked in some book in the attic – when they pull it out, they will know who you are. They will see what you were. They will know you in a way that no blue-mottled, half-assed, cheesy smile, 5-minute likeness could ever convey.
Yes, there is power in the portrait – a power that is stronger than words and stories could ever hope to be, and it is my privilege to be allowed to create it.
Andy Armstrong is a ten-time international award-winning photographer who makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has received Accolades of Photographic Mastery and Outstanding Photographic Achievement from the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International Association (WPPI). In 2011, Andy Armstrong’s image was awarded International Commercial Image of the Year by WPPI. Armstrong has also been a professional graphic designer for nearly 20 years and has worked on product packaging, product design, and branding campaigns for brands like Colt, Remington, Winchester, Case, and Buck.