What Are the Qualities of a Great Portrait Photograph?

In the era of the selfie, what makes a portrait photograph significant and collectible? Thanks to social media, we are inundated with numerous images of ourselves and others; photography is no longer the special, exclusive skill it once was. Some collectors might ask: What does a portrait artist offer that our smartphones cannot?

For Roger Szmulewicz, director of the Belgium-based Gallery FIFTY ONE, portrait photographers, like painters, bring a human element to their artwork that cannot be replicated through technical proficiency alone. As with portraiture in painting, no two portrait photographers will photograph a subject the same way. These differences are paramount for Szmulewicz; they relay how photographers, like other artists, deliver a signature style that is often overlooked in the market. His gallery has sought to rectify this since it opened in 1999.

Through October 29th, the gallery is showing two solo exhibitions by contemporary portrait photographers: Harry Gruyaert’s “Between Worlds” and Mark van den Brink’s “The Minox Files.” Both shows reflect the gallery’s mission of presenting stylized photographs that capture tender, awkward, and imperfect moments of being.

“For me, the human skills [outmatch] the technical ones,” Szmulewicz told Artsy by phone. “The approach to the photograph is what stands out. What’s most important when you do a portrait is compassion, empathy, and trust.” Szmulewicz added that good portrait photographers allow their artistic vision to dictate their approach to their subjects. This strategy reflects elements of an individual that an ordinary photograph cannot.

Using the work of contemporary black-and-white photographer Jacques Sonck as an example, Szmulewicz emphasized that a great portrait photograph must capture a subject’s character in a unique way. He recognizes that sometimes, as in the case with Sonck’s portraits, this means that the photograph may reveal its subject’s imperfections. “Sonck’s portraits are like the work of Diane Arbus,” he said. “[They] break the rules of photography, like cropping off another person in the image [to reveal something] personal about the relationship of the main subject and the people around them.” These imperfect portraits resist the filter-obsessed images that flood our social media feeds. They more accurately and poetically reflect mid-20th-century and contemporary Belgium.

Sonck works quickly to achieve his delicate, intimate, and imperfect photographs. The artist does not develop extensive relationships with his subjects, instead venturing out to the street daily, making quick connections with subjects before he shoots them. Szmulewicz noted that Sonck’s work does not fall into the genre of street photography, because the artist does ask for consent and engages in brief interactions with his subjects before making an image of them. “His portraits are very sincere, there is no judgment or mockery,” Szmulewicz said. “He has no notes [from his subjects]everyone is happy with the results.”

In contrast, photographer Stephan Vanfleteren conducts all of his portrait work in a studio. Vanfleteren spends more time with his subjects, developing closer relationships with them so he can elicit hidden aspects of their character as he captures particular facial expressions and focuses on lighting. Vanfleteren’s portraits may draw attention to fine lines and distortions, but they are honest in their portrayal of the subject.

Szmulewicz emphasized that capturing such honesty is a balancing act. “Time can be positive or negative, because if you think too much, sometimes you will [overthink a subject’s] appearance,” he added.

Because photography is everywhere, it’s harder for collectors to access fine art portraits that do more realistically replicate subjects. A photographer himself, Szmulewicz experienced this difficulty firsthand. He started Gallery FIFTY ONE in 1990s Belgium after he realized there was a dearth of fine art galleries (especially ones dedicated to contemporary photography). Gallery FIFTY ONE offers space for and education about photography to a wider art audience, focusing on portraiture especially.

Szmulewicz said, “At the time I was the only , which was a good thing and a bad thing, because when you are the only one you can do whatever you want. But then you are the only one, and with that there are expectations [to meet what is popular]”

Szmulewicz’s advice for collectors is evergreen: Follow what captivates you as a buyer, and look for portrait artists who have developed a signature style. This style may exist at odds with the hypercirculated portraits we’re accustomed to seeing and sharing on social media.

His advice could also mean paying less attention to the tools of the artist’s process, looking for what the photographer is able to reveal about subjects through their gazes. “The tools do not matter so much, for someone with a Hasselblad can make the same image on a cheap camera,” Szmulewicz added. “Just like human relationships…trust [lies] at the foundation of great portrait.”

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