anatomy of a portrait

The Anatomy of a Portrait

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Quality over quantity. It only takes one good image to tell the story for generations. Here, I break down the anatomy of a portrait.

What always inspired me about old paintings and sculptures is the subtle stories being told. To fully appreciate the art, one would have to know what to look for, the expressions, the lighting, and most importantly, the symbolism in the finest of details, like the message being portrayed by a hand. Take Michelangelo’s La Pieta, for example. Michelangelo’s sculpture is unique in that it doesn’t focus so much on the wounds and act of crucifixion as so many works of art in that time did. Instead, he tells the story of the compassion of Mary, portrayed youthfully and serenely, understanding her role in the life of Jesus. Despite being His mother, she doesn’t not psycholly touch him while holding him. A thin piece of cloth separates her right hand from Jesus, as He is not part of this world anymore. Her left hand, slightly hidden behind His knee, offers Jesus as a sacrifice to heaven with an open palm.

During my latest shoot, I wanted to also to create an image that told a story, highlighting the strength of the family as a unit and the role that each plays. The tender touch of support from Alicia on Todd’s shoulder, as she looks off camera and into their future. The caring and protective touch with her left hand, donning her wedding ring, to their future child, connecting their collective past as husband and wife to their future as father and mother. Todd’s seated position, a nod to becoming a patriarch, demonstrates strength symbolically through custom and history. His direct eye contact commands respect and attention from the viewer. His wedding ring, closest to the camera is proudly on display. The slightest reflection of light on the curve of the ring highlights its presence. Todd’s face angles towards Alicia, showing his allegiance.

anatomy of a portrait

The viewer’s eye is scans the image from left to right in a clockwise motion, starting with Todd’s face before viewing Alicia’s, then travelling down to her bump, before viewing Todd’s ring and repeating the process. Initially, the portrait reads as if Todd is the prominent and powerful subject. He is, after all, seated closer to the camera while Alicia remains behind him. However, through a closer examination of light, Todd is not the intended subject of the portrait, Alicia, in full light, is. The light is shaped in such a way that the viewer’s eye keeps getting pulled to the right, moving from darkness to light. The subtle shadow on Todd’s face adds a touch of masculinity and strength, but ultimately deemphasizes him as the true, intended subject. The real story being told is that of Alicia’s. Both physically and symbolically behind Todd, she is the most valued subject. As Todd’s presence is made by looking at the camera, Alicia’s focus is on tomorrow and the future that they will build together.

To many, it is a picture. To a family, it is an heirloom. It is their story. This is the anatomy of a portrait.