Photographers who make great portraits can’t always articulate what makes them exceptional. It is a visceral thing. A startling image jumps out at you, holds you with rapt attention and conjures complicated emotions. They simply take your breath away.
When Hamidah Glasgow from The Center for Fine Art Photography asked me to judge this exhibition, neither of us expected 2723 entries. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of images and found the editing process challenging. In spite of the fact that many of the contributing artists chose projects with intriguing titles: “State Fair Hotties,” “Black Angeles,” “An Itinerant Family Circus” in Lima, Peru, “Waiting,” “People all Buying from the Same Store,” “Mennonite Girls,” the “Klu Klux, Klan,” “The Amish,” “Dolls for Dementia Patients,” and “Truth and Consequences Camp,”) the images were not as strong as the ideas promised. Other photographers focused on burn victims, disaster survivors and people suffering from devastating illnesses. Although the fact of the subject matter was disturbing, the pictures themseves were not as powerful. There were at least 100 pictures of animals, many of them quite remarkable, but I only chose one.
As I narrowed down the entries, I found myself ruling out pictures that were oddly cropped, pictures that reminded me of other pictures, composites, diptychs, and reflections. The most common technical problems were Photoshop related: over-sharpening, masking, layering, overly enhanced grain and the most common: too much contrast. The most effective portraits were of a boy with his dead horse, people that looked like mannequins, children that had seen too much suffering, a bird’s eye view, a tear stained cheek, and fleeting moments that had happened so fast that the eye might not have registered seeing them.
Once I edited the pictures down to 52, I saw in them many people staring back at me with mournful gazes. They seemed either downtrodden or drunk, bereft, joyless, suspicious, or resigned. In some portraits people appeared to be gasping for air, while others gave the impression of being afraid to take a single breath. Almost all of them were alone. It is the subjects’ emotional availability that captivates us, and for as long as we allow ourselves to look, we can and be alone together.