Portraits and Pictorials

It seems there is no definitive set of rules guiding portraits (of people) as opposed to pictorials (of events). Perhaps no such rules are needed — sometimes rules become albatrosses around the neck of an artist, who struggles to achieve acceptable artwork. But let’s consider one rule that might have merit.

My techniques of portraiture I learned from William Mortensen. He was an artist, born with talents passed down through genes lost in the unrecorded mists of his family history — talents recognized by his various art teachers and by his study of masterworks in art books. First a painter, he then became involved with photography, which became his life’s work. What he inherently knew, learned, and practiced he passed on to those too-few students who could understand and apply that knowledge to their own artistic endeavors. My background is similar — inherent ability to draw, time spent in art schools, study of past masters in art and photography, and ability to discern good art from mediocre art. With what Mortensen taught me I came into my own successful portrait business of over 48 years.

Through three decades Mortensen produced countless portraits of customers, but they were his “bread and butter.” His main endeavors were pictorials, what he was mostly known for, along with nine books about his photographic techniques (portraits were seldom involved in the books).

He taught me that a portrait is simply a presentation of a person, whether head, torso, or full-figure. It entails only what is necessary to define the person: no extraneous props that would detract from that person, or hands held meaninglessly against the face, or huge toothy smiles, hats, furs, jewelry, obviously included to show-off something. A true portrait is simply the countenance of the person, without a story or anything that would “date” it.

In comparison, a pictorial does tell a story. Mortensen used anything and everything to tell it. He was a master at hinting at a “costume”: pieces of cloth to suggest a costume, bits of jewelry, and backgrounds drawn on the prints with charcoal pencils to help round out the story. To him, the ends justified the means. (He did not use actual costumes, feeling a fancy costume to be there just for its own sake.)

My business has been with portraits. I never “do teeth” or “do hands.” A display of teeth will in time become a distraction, hinting at story (Miss America), increasingly boring up on the wall day after month after year, whereas straightforward, unadorned portraits will live forever. The inclusion of a hand under the chin, holding up the head as if it would otherwise collapse out of the picture, is a distraction, totally unnecessary, including fads and showy clothing — I ask customers to bring several plain tops to choose from. And I make the final choice of which proof to make into the final portrait. So far, forty-eight years of success tells its own story.

Portraits, pictorials — each has its own place, not to be confused, one with the other.

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5 Comments »

  1. Julia Russell said

    Although it doesn’t seem to matter who the subject of a photograph is unless they have become famous as in the Mortensen photographs of Jean Harlow. I would like the people who study and or admire the Mortensen photographs to know that my mother was the model in “American Girl.” Her name at the time was Rosemary Katherine Hart. She was born in Orange California on January 26, 1921, the fourth child of five, to William O. Hart, an early California Congressman and the founder of the Orange Daily News and to Elsie Clough Hart who graduated from Orange High School in 1909 and was the first telephone operator in Orange. She was a world class beauty her whole life until she died at the age of 81 in a South Coast Hospital. She was just Mamma to my two older sisters and younger brother. She was an American Girl.

    • S. Hart said

      Hey There Julia.
      Rosemary Hart was my great aunt. I’m working on a family tree and would love to get in contact with you.

      • Julia said

        Hi “S”,

        Who is your father? You are one of my cousins children. Either Peter, Paul, Bill or Tim’s. Please write back would love to hear from you.
        Julia

    • S. Hart said

      Good to hear from you! Bill (William) is my dad, his dad was Thomas. Email me @ samuel.w.hart@gmail.com and I’ll send you a link to the tree I’m working on.

  2. WillieEl said

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