Timothy Archibald on Portraiture

fototazo has asked twelve photographers what makes a good portrait. This is the 11th in the series of their responses. The other responses is the series have come from Cori Pepelnjak, Anastasia Cazabon, Margo Ovcharenko, Shen Wei, Lucas Foglia, Susan Worsham, Steve Davis, Elinor Carucci, Mark Powell and Jess T. Dugan.

San Francisco-based photographer Timothy Archibald is the author of Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews (Process, 2005) and ECHOLILIA/Sometimes I wonder (Echo Press, 2011) and runs the blog T.A.

© Phyllis Galembo. Surprise Box, Jacmel, Haiti, 2004

Timothy Archibald: A great portrait is like a great book or a great song....it has the thing that it is supposed to be about, but then, at closer inspection, it can be about anything, everything, things that are personal to your journey and things that are universal.

It can be this thing you can project into and learn things from all at the same time.

How does a photograph achieve that? That...well, that is the hard part...its just too hard to explain how to create it...one never really knows how to do it, but you know it when you see it.

A recent book that was filled with what struck me as great portraits is Maske by Phyllis Galembo. The attached image is titled "Surprise Box, Jacmel, Haiti 2004." There is no question that I would be able to look at this image time and time again and get something from it. The content is candy-coated...the color and lighting gives us some visual splendor to suck us into the image. But look closely: a hooded man, shiny body, holding a box with a plastic E.T. in it. It's folk art, and pop art, and anthropology all wrapped up and presented to us...but that is just the candy packaging. Look at it long enough and it's like looking at a Rothko painting. Is that guy me? Is that guy the photographer's alter ego? The body language and gesture...the act of giving a gift. Is it generosity...emotional and spiritual generosity....or is it simply American junk? And the pose...is it Madonna and child-esque? Baby Jesus in the shape of E.T.? Really...I could go on and on and on. When that feeling overtakes me...the sheer enthusiasm in which I could really just spit out a stream of consciousness list of all the open-ended things in an image and their possible meanings and references...that is when I feel a portrait is great.