i love/hate portraits

In a time of fast shrinking staffs and even faster shrinking budgets, the portrait is threatening to become the photographic staple of the newspaper business.

Documentary photography is expensive.

To do a story right, a photographer needs to spend a huge chunk of time with their photo subject. To get telling moments, one can’t show up at 4pm and be out the door at 4:15pm.

For great photojournalism, a commitment must be made by the photographer, the subject and more importantly the newspaper.

I am at my happiest as a staff photographer when I am able to sink my teeth into a long-term project.

But why then do I love shooting portraits, so much?

My recent portrait session with Jim Lasko, Chicago’s first artist-in-residence, is a good example. In order to allow Jim to get to his son’s baseball game, we did a quick shoot in Millennium Park. In just 8 minutes, I was able to get five images that I thought were quite successful and I was totally thrilled with the shoot.

If I had to do documentary-style story in 8 minutes, I would be stunned if I could get anything that wouldn’t make me throw up.

I have gone through stretches lately where I have wanted to stop everyone I see and make their portrait. But no smiling, of course. We all know that smiling ruins a portrait. Right?

If you go back to some of my vacation portraits, I had my kids trained not to smile when I took their photo. It was fabulous. But, I digress.

Maybe it’s because a well-executed portrait can accomplish the same thing that 100 hours of documentary work can, reveal a person’s true character.

I hate that.

©2009 Chicago Tribune/ Scott Strazzante

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16 Responses to “i love/hate portraits”

  1. Think of it as spot news! If you have to. It’s like a drive-by shooting. -Steph

    (but, i know exactly what you’re talking about….things are just crazy and sad)

  2. P.S. The eyes are nice! The eyes tell all!

  3. I envy the fact that you can spend long periods of time with subjects. Those are my favorite types of assignments, but spending more than an hour with a subject is so rare right now. You’re totally on the mark with this whole shrinking-staff / more portraits commentary — and it’s a shame that it’s true.

  4. Portraits are the crack cocaine of photojournalism. You’re classier with your heroin/documentary work.

  5. So, do portraits answer who we are reading about, and documentary photographs answer/ask what we are reading about, with emotion? Aren’t both affirmation of claimed story because photographs are real and true? In many cases, I hate portraits because it is the last option too far down the planning line leaving me feeling like the janitor.

  6. A good portrait is ALL about the eyes and what they say. It’s the eyes that define the person— tell the loves and the disdains, the joys and the sorrows, the emotions and the barriers. It’s the eyes that draw us or push us away. Sometimes that means not even showing the eyes, but that, too, tells a tremendous story about the person. The eyes are, truly, the window to the soul. Which is why just one well-made portrait “can accomplish the same thing that 100 hours of documentary work, reveal a person’s true character.”

    Portraits are my work. I spend my days storytelling with my camera in a similar way that photojournalists spend their days storytelling with their cameras. The difference is that I tell about the person’s soul, and the photojournalists role is to tell the story of the context that the soul lives in. They both have a vital role in the world of stories. But they are very different.

  7. excellent points scott, I love reading your write-ups.

  8. Agreed. Completely. The quickie portrait is fast becoming the norm, and they are not good most of the time. But when the opportunity arises to do one that rocks, to go beneath the surface, is has to be grabbed with full force the same way one does a documentary project. I used to hate them as well, but then forced myself to get better. I love them much of the time — unless the situation should have been thought out more thoroughly and a documentary type situation used instead. Sometimes all that needs to be done is changing the time and asking a few more questions before going…

  9. really? the picture above tells me next to nothing about the man in it. i like it, but it doesn’t say much–certainly not as much as 100 hours of documentary work. and yes, it sucks that this is all newspapers and magazines can afford to pay for these days. love the blog by the way and especially your mediastorm story. when can we expect a book?

    • You are correct. I didn’t say that this portrait was equal to 100 hours of documentary work but some are.
      As for a Common Ground book, hopefully in 2010. I think I am ready now to start shopping it around t see if I can find a publisher.
      Thanks for liking the blog, too.

  10. I understand what you are saying about shrinking staffs but I see many new (half-dozen, for sure) photo bylines recently in the paper. This, after you did a goodbye in your blog to about the same number of people who were let go. Are they interns, or cheaper hires? Didn’t one guy come from the S-T?

    • Terry, you are right.
      Shortly after a good chunk of the photo department was let go, the Chicago Tribune hired 5 new photographers- one full-time from the Sun-Times and four 2-year residences.
      Recently, another one of the staffers left the paper to follow his wife to India where she got a new job.
      Unfortunately, I am not privy to the inner workings of the photo department and no one ever asks my opinion when staffing decisions are being considered.

  11. Hi Scott,

    Great blog! This is my first time seeing it. Regarding no smiling in portraits: What’s your thinking behind this? My first reaction is to disagree, but I’d like to know more about your thought process.
    And lovely pix of the WWII vets at the airport. You’re such a badass.

    • Sally, I guess that smiling portraits don’t seem very photojournalistic to me unless of course the subject has fewer than three teeth or their teeth are covered in mud or something that makes a smile different.
      I think what I was referring to is that you rarely see a smiling portrait in a serious photographer’s book.
      Maybe it is time for me to try to debunk my own rule.
      Hope you are doing well!!!

  12. I love the eyes and love the portrait!!!
    Thanks,
    August
    www AugustTMichelPhotography com

  13. […] portraits “threatening to become the photographic stable of the newspaper business?” In some places, they already are. ‹ Previous Post FDR in Photos › Next […]

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