Compassion and Portraiture

I was recently asked to write an article for a small newsletter that caters mostly to hobby and small-time professional photographers. The suggested topic was “Why Compassion in Portraiture is Overrated.” The truth is, I can see where they’re coming from. It seems like all we hear about with the famous portrait artists is how much compassion they have for their subjects. It can seem like skill and technique don’t really matter. But like I said, the people I’m being asked to write for are the people who do your kid’s school picture, not the next Annie Leibovitz. So this was the reply I sent them:

I understand the point of your recommended topic. It is true that in the realm of celebrity portraiture, a la Leibovitz, most commentary tends to concentrate on the compassion of the photographer for her subjects. But to say that it should play no role, as your topic implies, is to say that Richard Avedon stacks up favorably against not only Leibovitz, but also Arbus, Greenfield-Sanders, Goldin, Gorman, and other masters of the genre. It makes not only a subjective, but an objective, claim that he is better than all of the others combined. It is to say that his is the only style to be emulated. To bring it to a more basic and dramatic level, it is to say that the Santa photographer at the mall makes better portraits than does the child’s mother. For your audience, I feel that rather than downplaying the merits of compassion versus dispassion, the subject of passion itself should be introduced as playing a rather larger role in their thinking. Thus instead of your recommended topic, I feel a better one would be “The Role of Passion in Portraiture.” Please let me know your thoughts on this idea.

I haven’t heard back yet, and I’m not sure I will. But different variants on this idea have been gong through my head all day, and I’m really thinking this is an article I’d like to write. Maybe I’ll just do it as a personal essay, to post on the blog. Thoughts?


~ by David Cupp on June 24, 2008.

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