I love shooting portraits. In the studio or on location. Friends or strangers. In exotic lands or in the backyard. I like the fact that each portrait is unique, and if you can get eye contact, you’re staring into a person’s soul, capturing for eternity a brief moment of connection.
When it comes to photography books, once again the eyes have it. I thought I’d show some recent additions to my bookshelf that are focused on portraits. It’s probably not a coincidence that the cover of each book has the subject staring directly into the camera.
In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits and Portraits are filled with immersive images taken all over the world. The National Geographic book spans more than a century with shots by a wide range of staff photographers. Portraits is solely by Steve McCurry (whose work also features in the Nat Geo book). The blurb about McCurry’s book sums up things nicely:
Compelling, unforgettable and moving, McCurry’s images are unique street portraits: unstylized and unposed snapshots of people that reveal the universality of human emotion.
Although some of the earlier pictures in National Geographic were staged, the majority of images in both books are shots of unposed strangers captured with natural light. The photographs allow us to step into the lives of others. Into the living room of an Irish family, into the Siberian hospital, or onto the flooded streets of Java.
In contrast, there are the books of Portraits by Testino and Rankin. Both are filled with A-listers that spend their lives in front of the camera. In Mario Testino: Portraits he pays particular attention to his muses Diana, Madonna, Paltrow and Moss.
Portraits by Rankin is likewise filled with actors, models, musicians and royalty. If you cringe at our celebrity obsessed culture, these aren’t the books for you. Photographers, however, can still enjoy, or at the very least study, the way they control light and try to show the personality of the subject through the image.
What I hadn’t checked when selecting these books on Amazon is their size. The National Geographic book actually comes in two versions small
(6 inches wide) and medium (10 inches wide). I purchased the smaller one and found the visual impact of both it and the McCurry book to be hamstrung by their limited dimensions. Images in both books were smaller than a full page in a National Geographic magazine. They are both great value for money, but McCurry’s images looked so much better when printed large in another of his books South Southeast. Rankin’s book at 10 x 13 inches and Testino’s book at 11 x 15 inches are able to impress the reader with the sheer scale of the images. Of course content is king, but sometimes bigger really is better.