Portrait or Headshot?

This portrait of my grandfather is one I value but it tells little about his life.

Are you writing a life story? Do you want to include a portrait or two of your subject? Let’s say you are planning to write a lengthy book or a short article. Your purpose could be to present the life of someone you admire or someone whose life has troubled you. You might be contributing to a family history or paying tribute to an individual on a special occasion. Whether your audience is family or readers in the larger world, likely, you plan to include at least one picture of the individual, and you are stuck. Which one is best?

At an earlier date, I wrote about a Karsh exhibit, and most certainly, he was a master at capturing personality in portraiture, but let’s be realistic. You won’t have Karsh quality photos at your fingertips.

 In fact, I seldom use headshots to accompany my writing. Why? Well, usually, they tell us very little about the person. Subjects pose for portraits, so the photos don’t capture the natural expressions of the individual. When possible, I prefer photos that have “story” or even actions in them. I like ones in which people are surrounded with things that are actually part of their lives. Of course, the individual may be away from home or even on a very exotic holiday. As a result, holiday photos may not reflect everyday feelings. When travelling, people are often more or less happy than when we are at home. Still, there is personality and story in such photos.

But headshots! Well, probably most people have cringed at the image of themselves used on passports, driver’s licences and similar identification documents. When I see my own, I can’t help but think, “Is that really me?” However, for legal documents, officials don’t want us to smile and look happy. Rather, they prefer to see the way we will look when police stop us with ticket in hand.

Am I saying that a portrait never works for me? No. Sometimes, photographers have interesting backdrops or subjects are encouraged to dress in costume, and I find those photos fascinating. But the backdrop or costume is not the person.

Also, some portraits convey little of the personality of the individual but reveal a great deal about the era of the photo. For instance, the hairstyle might be a perfect reflection of how the individual responded to the culture of the time. And that is personality. Whether the hair style comes from the late 1800s, 1920s or 1960s, we learn about both the person and the time frame.

However, the best portraits tell us even more about the person. Of course, most are still just head-and-shoulder shots, but if the person is wearing a uniform, we learn a great deal about the individual. If the uniform is a prison, school or military uniform, we have the potential for story. If the clothes are expensive-looking, we have yet another story.

Some headshots do tell us very little. Maybe you have to choose two headshots to create one story. For example, in one portrait the subject is a teenager but in the other, the person is now a senior. The differences are always significant. Some of the changes relate to weight and age, but occasionally we see personality changes, too.  The happy young person became bitter, or the angry teenager has developed smile lines. We know there is story behind the very different images, and generally, we would love to learn more. If there is nothing to discover in the image, if it is simply a headshot, keep searching for one that has a little more meaning or story.

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