Something from Nothing: Reading Things into Portrait Photographs

by William McEwen

I have been a photographer for a long time, and for the last six years, I’ve concentrated exclusively on portraiture. It is one of the greatest jobs around. I get to meet and spend time with interesting people and record their faces for the future. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend my time this way.

As a portrait photographer, it is my responsibility to record what someone looks like. And if I do my job well, the person, the background, the light, and the composition will all work well together visually to create an interesting whole. There’s no more to it than that.

But to my bewilderment, the audience sometimes sees more. They see things that aren’t there, and they make all sorts of interpretations. Here is a perfect example. Last year, someone e-mailed me about my photograph of Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. "I understand exactly what you were saying in that picture," he wrote.

Huh? What I was "saying?" I wasn't saying anything. I just used my camera to make a photograph of what the man looked like. I told Mayor Kirk to stand over there, I moved my camera around until everything looked good, and then click, I recorded it on a sheet of film. No statement, no interpretation. Just reality. A man and his surroundings.

Once, while speaking with high school students at a museum exhibition of my portraits, one young man looked at my picture of orchestra conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson and said, "The way her arms are folded in front of her shows she was uncomfortable."

Quite the contrary. Keri-Lynn and I had hit it off, and we spent most of the photo session laughing. For the picture that ended up in the exhibition, I had merely asked her to do something interesting with her arms. She folded them in front of her, and click, I made the picture.

I’m certainly not the only photographer to have fallen victim to people interpreting their work, seeing something when there is nothing.

A good source of people reading all sorts of things into photographs is the PBS American Masters special about the portrait photographer Richard Avedon. Referring to Avedon’s picture of the writer Dorothy Parker, the singer/actress Andrea Marcovicci said:

She [Parker] looks like every bit of wit that she ever had had just left her a second before that photograph was taken. And I know what he [Avedon] must have been doing. He must have been contrasting one of the world’s greatest wits, one of the greatest wisecrackers and a person who really knew how to have a good time, with their darker side. And he preserved forever an image of some inner truth of what she really had to go through in life.
To this observer, looking objectively, it appears that Avedon simply stood Parker against a gray wall and clicked the shutter.

I once photographed a prominent Dallas businessman. When I showed the prints to his wife, she was elated. "You really captured his personality," she told me.

That was a nice compliment, but in my opinion, without merit. Can a photograph capture a personality? I don’t think so. If anything, she merely recognized an expression she had seen countless times during many decades of marriage.

Photographer Duane Michals, in his book Album, gets it right. He writes: "Some photographers can be very presumptuous in their self delusions about ‘capturing’ another person with their cameras. I know of no one who actually believes that he reveals the soul of his sitters with his photographs of them. What you see is what there is."

Agreed. A personality is just too complex to capture in one photograph. When we photographers are told that a specific photograph doesn’t do the subject justice, I think most often it is because the personality cannot transfer into a photograph. With many, charisma or charm plays a key role in his or her attractiveness. When charisma or charm is extracted from their presence by a photograph, we evaluate the subject, perhaps for the first time, on purely visual terms.

That is not to say that a camera is incapable of recording emotion, or at least the appearance of emotion. (For this article, I am referring only to collaborative portrait sittings, not photographs made by news photographers. The pictures that we see in newspapers and news magazines quite clearly show terror in the faces of, say, hostages with guns pointed at them, or the grief of families at funerals.) Richard Avedon’s 1956 portrait of actor Bert Lahr, in character as Estragon from the play Waiting for Godot, shows sadness. Sally Mann’s 1986 photograph of two of her children visiting their grandfather at the hospital, entitled "He is Very Sick," reveals the children’s discomfort. And all of us have certainly seen many pictures of young children experiencing joy during happy occasions.

But that doesn’t mean there is always emotion present. Sometimes, the extra things people see are deliberately put there after the fact by enterprising photographers or writers. The world’s best-known photographic portrait is probably Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 picture of Winston Churchill. It is a very well made portrait, and it is also one of the most read-into portraits.

Caption writers, and Karsh himself, began building the legend almost before the first prints were dry. The story goes like this: Karsh set up his equipment and was ready to take the portrait, but there was just one thing wrong. Churchill was puffing on a fresh cigar. Karsh picked up an ash tray, held it in front of Churchill, and asked, "Will you please remove it, sir?" The request was ignored. Karsh went back behind the camera to check the focus one last time. He then walked back to Churchill, said, "Forgive me, sir," and pulled the cigar from the great man’s mouth. "By the time I had walked the four to six feet back to my camera," Karsh writes, "he was looking as belligerently at me as if he could have devoured me. And I took the picture."

I’ve looked at that photograph countless times over the years, and I don’t see belligerence. I simply see a lack of a smile. The belligerence claim is further called into question by the fact that Churchill smiled warmly for a second picture made a moment later. Even a man of Karsh’s considerable charm couldn’t have turned Churchill from lion to lamb in an instant.

One of my favorite interpretations of a photograph claims to detect much more than emotion. It says a 1924 photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz of his lover, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, standing against her sister Ida, illustrates the nature of the relationships among them. In a 1993 auction catalog that included a print of this image, an unidentified writer tells what he or she sees:

Interestingly, Stieglitz represents the sisters as sharing the same body (their two heads emerging from the black mass of their coats) – an obvious reference to kinship and, perhaps to the dark (mysterious) female element. Their facial expressions and body language reveal much about the sisters, and of course, are also telling with regard to their relationship to Stieglitz: Georgia stands confidently, erectly, and confronts her paramour with the arrogant and direct gaze so familiar in many of the later studies; Ida appears softer, her mien unsure and unassuming, and averts her gaze to the left. As a pictorial study of contrasting female types the portrait is emblematic of the formalist underpinnings of Stieglitz’s directorial eye, and his dual, and conflicting perception of women.
Wow! Two years later, another observer wrote this about the photo: "Ida casts a nervous glance her sister’s way as if to suggest that she knows something that her sister doesn’t."

It must be remembered that photographers are working in the visual realm. It appears to me the details recorded in the Stieglitz photograph – the similar clothing, Georgia looking at the camera lens and Ida looking away – were just pieces that made things visually interesting. Stieglitz himself once said, "I want solely to make an image of what I have seen, not of what it means to me. It is only after I have created an equivalent of what has moved me that I can begin to think about its significance." That’s it. The interpretations come later.

Despite the auction catalog writer’s fine hyperbole, the photograph sold for $24,200, which was below the $25,000 - $35,000 preauction estimate.

Eight years after taking the photo of the sisters, Stieglitz made a photograph of his friend Dorothy Norman’s hands. The actor Charlie Chaplin saw the photo at Stieglitz’s New York gallery and spent the next 30 minutes staring at it. Chaplin told him, "Stieglitz, what you’ve gotten in that!"

"I didn’t ask him what he saw," Stieglitz later recalled.

Edward Weston made a famous picture of Charis Weston during a mountain hiking trip. Had she not been fully clothed, the manner in which she was sitting would have been of considerable interest to a gynecologist. Despite the fact that the picture shows an attractive woman in a far from ladylike pose, one observer looked beyond the person to find human characteristics. Writing about the picture 50 years after it was made, Wilson said: "Then there was the critic who determined that the sexuality was symbolized by the indentations in the rock wall behind me."

OK, let me get this straight. The woman isn’t sexy, the rocks are? Hey, look at those rocks – hubba, hubba?

In this essay, I have tried my best to avoid doing what I am complaining about – reading things into photographs. Just as a magician can spot a fraudulent mystic when a scientist cannot, I believe my background as someone who has photographed thousands of people makes it possible for me to objectively view the photographs discussed here.

Works consulted:
Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light (Home Vision Arts video, 1995)
Richard Avedon: Evidence, 1944-1994 (Random House, 1994)
Yousuf Karsh: In Search of Greatness (Alfred A. Knopf, 1962)
Yousuf Karsh: A Sixty Year Retrospective (Little, Brown and Company, 1996)
Sally Mann: Immediate Family (Aperture, 1992)
Duane Michals: Album (Twelvetrees Press, 1988)
Nancy Newhall: From Adams to Stieglitz (Aperture, 1989)
Dorothy Norman: Alfred Stieglitz, An American Seer (Aperture, 1973)
Charis Wilson and Edward Weston: California and the West (Aperture, 1978)
Getty Museum: In Focus, Alfred Stieglitz (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995)
Photographs (Swann Galleries, 1993)
Prices Realized List (Swann Galleries, 1993)

About the author:
William McEwen’s photographs have been exhibited throughout the United States, are in several public collections and have been published internationally. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Jennifer and their daughters Erin and Lindsay. His book People and Portraits: Reflections and Essays was published in 2001. More of his work can be viewed on line at

William McEwen mcewen
954 Tennessee Trail
Arlington, TX 76017-6369