Those that have taken the workshop in composition will aptly remember this photograph of Rene Magritte taken by Duane Michals. The photograph, as he says - is a double exposure and as a result, we see Magritte twice - once in the mirror and then again on the chair. Michals loves this photograph and he says to the viewers that good portraits are not ones that show what the person looks like but rather what the person is about. He brings about a completely different perspective on the idea of portraiture that has essentially come to contradict what we traditionally hold in our views as good portraiture. In this particular article, my hope is not so much to tell you that one particular style is better than another but rather to show you what is possible and what some of my favourite portraitists in photography strived for. The reason we start with the Magritte photograph below is simply to start off by thinking of portraiture from a different perspective. In the images that follow, we will try to look to some exceptional photographers and take their view on what good portraiture really is. 


There are many good people to turn to for good portraiture and ultimately, I hope that you will find inspiration in the works of someone that shares something in common with you. In this section, we will try to understand what did or didn't happen in a given photograph for it to be iconic. 


Karsh Mandela

One remarkable photographer that is not talked about as much during class time is Yusuf Karsh (Howsep Karshian), who owned a small portrait studio in Ottawa. He is known for photographing so many famous people, including Queen Elizabeth, Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Albert Einsten and several other notable personalities. His photographs are not particularly complex in their composition. One way to study them is to study their details (as was again done in the composition workshop) but also aptly draw comparisons to some other notable photographers. I will do so with that of Irving Penn whose works will also be looked at in greater detail in this article. Karsh almost exclusively works with soft light and his approach is more standard than the daring Penn, whose portraits almost never have consistent soft light, instead opting for the one light set up with hard light and a play with shadows and highlights. What both of them manage to capture is an authenticity of expression. Karsh is keen on reflecting the individuals personality whereas Penn is about stunning the viewer with bold compositions and expressions. To understand Karsh, one needs only to read this account of his interaction with Mandela, posted on his site: 

"(Canadian Prime Minister) Brian Mulroney greeted Mandela at the airport and accompanied him to the Chateau Laurier. We were waiting in the lobby and the introductions were made. When the session started an hour later, Mandela was warm and friendly but obviously very tired. Yousuf then told him a story about Pope John XXIII. He had asked the Pontiff, "How many people work in the Vatican?" The Pope smiled and replied, "About half." Mandela looked a little blank. Suddenly he got the joke, slapped the table, and roared with laugher. And everything about the sitting changed."

Jerry Fielder, Curator and Director, Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

The composition is one of simplicity as we have rightly spoken about time and time again. Both Karsh and Penn have a minimalist outlook on their lighting setup which contrasts heavily with the likes of Annie Leibovitz. In almost all cases, Karsh has a consistent backdrop that his subjects stand by. Conventional as they are, I think that they achieve the Duane Michals definition mentioned at the start of this article - that the portraits essentially show what the person is about. 


Many of my students reading this will probably wonder why I didn't start talking about McCurry from the very get go. They will also wonder why I didn't just convert this website into a McCurry worship page. The truth is that I talk about McCurry because he is a budget photographer's best friend and his photographs are so inspiring that almost anyone that encounters them cannot but fall in love with them. With the exception of his most recent works for Pirelli Calendar and other commercial assignments (of which I know little about), the vast majority of his works are purely minimalist in terms of equipment. As a photojournalist, he needed to travel and that meant being light. He needed to be quick in moving from place to place, catching several trains or whatever is essentially required and so, he has only the most basic equipment - 2 camera bodies with 2 lenses. You will see the same with the likes of James Nachtwey and many other photojournalists. 

Something that I will say about all iconic photographers is that they've dearly embodied the concept of simplicity and even where it doesn't seem obvious, there is an order within chaos situation and no matter what the style of the photographer, it is this simplicity that eventually determines it to be of superior composition. A photographer tells a story with the way he chooses and frames his subjects. Michals, as you have seen above has essentially done it by way of the double exposure. McCurry finds simplicity through very traditional portraiture techniques but also by using exceptionally shallow depth of field (wide apertures) and fairly soft light. There's something rather Karshian about his images, except that they are in colour. 


Of course, another reason why McCurry should be one to follow for the absolute beginner is the fact they he is incredible with his reportage work as well, not just his portraits. Here are some examples of these. We want talk too much about his reportage work here but needless to say, you should probably get his books, available here (about $30 in amazon):

Steve McCurry: The Iconic Images

Steve McCurry: The Untold story

Looking closely at the portraits above, notice how they are almost all void of harsh highlights. The conditions in which those photographs were taken allowed for much softer and consistent light, bringing forth soft shadows and the remarkable shallow depth of field adds yet another layer of softness and finally, the expressions are simply exceptional and make for this incredible interaction between McCurry and the people that he is photographing.


Irving Penn

Irving Penn is an iconic photographer 


Vivian Maier




Some additional styles and comments 

Some Important links to keep you inspired:

Days with my father:


Some more photographers to go crazy about:

Me (feel free to call me your favourite photographer! ;) ):