Text by Caroline Long
Photos by Mia Schaumburg
There’s always been something delicate about the human portrait, a vulnerability and intensity that comes with eye contact even through a camera lens. This, in addition to the absence of our metaphorical security blankets (friends, props, and charades), can make some feel like a bird in a cage: exposed and on display.
From yesterday’s painted portraits of royalty to today’s “narcissistic” and “egotistical” photos taken by our phones daily, the human portrait never seems to go out of style. The consistent demand for portrait photography stems from the natural human desire to be special. We want to know that we matter to others and we want to be seen in a certain light. We strive to achieve some kind of ideal status in the eyes of others, because how we are viewed by others matters to us.
A hairstyle, an eye color, a skin tone, or an outfit choice suddenly decides whether we will be singled out for special treatment, given special privileges, receive special favors… whether we feel special or not. For the same reason we spend hours in front of the mirror preparing to step out into our days, we have a natural desire to capture our likeness, and we have a natural desire to see what others see.
What kind of impression do I make?
What makes people look at me?
What defines me?
Humans have been creating portraits of one another since the beginning of time, when rocks served as canvas and paints were made from charcoal and animal fat. Throughout history, portraits have been used to document appearances, but as photography becomes a universal art form and medium for expression, it is accessible for those who want to understand what makes them significant. We once painted portraits of the gods, but now tend to idealize the photographs of celebrities and their attempt to gain the ever-changing and unattainable image of perfection. We take advantage of portraiture to create a tangible and physical statement of our own flawed perfection.
While self-acceptance and self-worth can be personally fulfilling, many not only feel uncomfortable with this desire, but will go to great lengths to deny their desire for specialness as if it were a sign of weakness or other flaw in their personality. It has become a tightrope-walk to be confident but not prideful, humble but not ignorant, and unique but still fitting into a category of acceptance.
It is the reason why more young children are learning to deny a compliment than to accept it. The portrait platform breaks the tightrope and creates a bridge, allowing the subject and the observers to view more than subjective attractiveness, intricate backgrounds, or extravagant details.
The human portrait is an eternal reminder of your individual existence, and is an art form within photography that will stand the test of time. From your pupils to the edges of your lips, a portrait tells a thousand stories yet to be understood.