Home Edizioneed. 5 The portrait trinity

The portrait trinity

by AdminAg

Written by Simone Angarano

Portrait photography is by definition a genre that shows the physical and moral qualities of people in the photographs.

The conditions required to perform this genre can be seen as a trinity, that is, three fundamental elements coexisting in a single purpose.

These conditions are as follows:

  • Photographic Theory or better indicated as technique
  • The sense of Light
  • The moral intelligence of the subject

In order to explain these three elements better I would like to mention Nadar, alias

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820 – 1910), French photographer, journalist, writer and caricaturist.

“Photographic theory can be learnt in an hour; the first practical notions in a day… what can be learnt less is the moral intelligence of your subject, that intuition that puts you in communication with the model, makes you judge him, guides you towards his habits, his ideas, his character, and allows you to obtain, not just any old plastic reproduction, within the reach of the last laboratory technician, but the most familiar and favorable resemblance, the most intimate resemblance”

—  Nadar by J. Prinet  and A. Dilasser, Nadar, Armand Colin, Paris, 1966, pp. 115-116

“What you don’t learn is the sense of light … it is the artistic appreciation of the effects produced by different and combined lights”

In addition to that Nadar claimed that “The portrait I do best is the one of the person I know best’

If we wanted to apply what Nadar claims to our portraits, the first condition would be to know the basic rules of how a photograph is created. After all, there is no secret technique, no particular camera or magic dedicated lens. One must be aware of the ‘fundamentals’. , Triangle of exposure, depth of field and any angles of field of the lenses you want to use etc etc.

The second condition is the sense of light; in this case it is not only necessary to know ‘technically’ the most commonly used types or patterns such as: Butterfly, Loop, Rembrandt, Short and Silhouette, but also to understand what they cause in our subject, which physical or character traits we want to emphasise or minimise.

“I recommend trying several types on the same subject until we can ‘see’ the communication we want to convey”.

Another piece of advice I would give you is not to stop at the rules and patterns you already know, but to observe the light around you and how it affects our perception of the person, then try to artificially recreate the same type on the person being portrayed.

The third and certainly the most complex condition is to understand the moral intelligence of the subject.

We could call it an advanced form of empathy. Let me explain why it must be ‘advanced’. Empathy for psychology is the ability to place oneself immediately in the state of mind or situation of another person, with no or little emotional participation, whereas in art criticism we must be able to transform the relationship we establish with the subject into communication with the people who will look at the portrait, including the subject himself.


“Moral intelligence is the ability to emotionally engage the user with a message with which the user is led to identify.

Since the third condition is the most difficult to understand and realise, I would like to give you a piece of advice: don’t overwhelm the subject with questions in order to try to understand which person you have in front of you, and don’t try to explain to him what you want him to communicate to you.

On the contrary you should talk to him about you, who you are and how you see the world; you will see that the subject will do the same and this will open the doors to his intimacy.

“There is no artistic photography. In photography there are, as in all things, people who can see and others who cannot even look. Nadar’

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