Steve Davis on Portraiture

fototazo has asked twelve photographers what makes a good portrait. This is the 3rd in a series of their responses. The first was from Mark Powell and the second from Elinor Carucci.

Olympia-based photographer Steve Davis won 1st place in the Santa Fe Center for Photography's Project Competition Award in 2002 and is the recipient of two Washington Arts Commission / Artist Trust Fellowships. His images have appeared in Harper's and the New York Times Magazine and are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the George Eastman House, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Musee de la Photographie in Belgium and the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University.

For a full exploration of his images, visit his website here. A full-length interview with Steve was published on fototazo on March 1st and can be found here.

“A portrait!
What could be more simple
and more complex, 
more obvious and 
more profound?”
- Charles Baudelaire, 1859

Mr. Baudelaire hit the nail on the head by articulating the inherent ambivalence of a portrait. When photography was fresh and free of its own history, it was the portrait that people most wanted from the medium. The reason seems simple enough - people want to celebrate and commemorate loved ones.

I love portraiture. It's a particular form of photography that seemingly and simultaneously celebrates the intangible while so sharply demystifying the subject. I can never quite get my head around the idea, which is a good thing.

I include a portrait assignment in every photo class I teach, no matter the theme or level of the class. It forces people to question the very notion of what photography can or maybe can't offer us. What makes a portrait a portrait? My students begin by knowing the answer, but their confidence soon deteriorates. It's an easy assignment to bullshit the class (and me) with. That's ok. Most of my class will shoot more than they need, edit harder, and stress over the entire assignment - an assignment that any 5-year-old could easily take on.

A portrait is always unfinished business. It takes you halfway to gaining a deeper sense of knowing a person (even a stranger) a little bit better. For the other half, you're on your own.