They Didn’t Need Dialogue:

The Importance of The Great Photo Portrait Artists

By Bill Dobbins

There is good reason to think that, although we see the world in motion and can remember sequences of images, what sticks in the mind and forms the strongest memories are actually still images.  This is often true when it comes to movies.  “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard.  Look at the earliest films in history and you won’t see many close-ups of faces.  The invention of the close-up helped to radically increase the power of the moving pictures and to create “stars,” which greatly amplified the financial success of the movie business.

Sophia Loren was a movie superstar. But she was also extremely photogenic and sat for many outstanding portraits. Such as this one by Irving Penn.
This portrait of Picasso by Irving Penn is one of the most iconic shot of the great artist.

But photographers discovered the effectiveness of the portrait early on and we see examples of this kind of image dating back to the civil war and beyond.  There is actually a physiological reason why portraits are so compelling to human beings.  We have a considerable number of brain cells and circuits devoted specifically to recognizing the human face.  We are a species that has survived by means of our ability to socially organize and recognizing others is essential to this effort.  Animals can’t do this.  Your dog or cat might know who you are but not by recognizing your face.

There is a brain disorder called “face blindness” that renders a person unable to recognize faces even though the see them quite clearly.  This condition afflicts painter Chuck Close, which is especially remarkable because his specialty is painting portraits.

Before the invention of photography, all the portraits we have of historical figures are paintings, drawing or sculptures. But we actually have photo portraits of more recent individuals like Abraham Lincoln.

Another scene in Sunset Boulevard has real-life silent star Gloria Swanson playing has-been silent star Norma Desmond complaining about the introduction of sound into the movies.  “We didn’t need dialogue,” Norma says.  “We had faces!”  Consider how many movie stars you think of in terms of a specific dramatic close-up, or ones you recognize instantly when you see them.

Given the importance of the face to our evolutionary success, it stands to reason that the portrait would become a favored subject for painters and photographers and the close-up a valued tool for film makers.  Of course, until the invention of photography the making of portraits was largely the job of painters (and some sculptors as well).  As far as we know, Jesus or Alexander the Great never sat for a formal portrait but others like Henry VIII, Queen Victoria, George Washington and J.P. Morgan did.  Even today successful citizens, businessmen and politicians often celebrate their success by commissioning painters to do their portraits.

August Sander was a German photographer who did portraits of a cross section of individuals from the Weimar Republic.
Self portrait by Chuck Close. He is “face blind” and creates portraits by transferring info from a photo using a very fine grid system.

Early photographic portraits were very formal in structure is large part because of the nature of the craft at that point.  Big, view cameras, slow lenses and emulsions, long exposures all meant those sitting for portraits had to hold still for considerable time, sometimes with their heads held stead by a posing stand.  No wonder you didn’t see subjects of portraits smiling.  Holding a fixed smile for a long time is not only difficult but is hardly likely to be flattering.

After the turn of the 20th century, portraits that showed a lot more character and personality became more common.  In interesting portrait photographer of the period was a German named August Sander.  Sander did not confine himself to portraits of the rich and famous but created some 40,000 images featuring farmers, tradesmen, the professions, women and many other classes and categories.  This documentary series gives us amazing insight into the social make up of the Weimar Republic.

Edward Steichen shot fashion, advertising, portraits and was even a war photographer during WWII. This is a portrait of Gloria Swanson, who played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, as a young actress.

The first major star of photography in the 20th century was probably Alfred Stieglitz.  Stieglitz was an early advocate of photography as art – as well as a champion of modern artists from Europe like Picasso and Matisse.  He was also an ardent supporter of  Edward Steichen.  Steichen had one of the longest and most influential careers in the history of  photography and he shot all sorts of subjects including advertising, fashion, documentary images – and portraits.  His archives include portraits of sculptor August Rodin and movie stars Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson (who played Norma Desmond).

George Hurrell is the dean of Hollywood glamour portrait photographers from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Greta Garbo by Hurrell. Garbo had one of the few faces that looked good from any lighting or angle. A very rare quality.
In 1939, when he filmed Robin Hood, Errol Flynn was one of the most beautiful men on the planet. Ten years later, after a decade of hard living, he looked like his own grandfather. Photo by George Hurrell.
Before Marilyn there was Jean Harlow, the first of the super sexy Hollywood platinum blondes. Like Marilyn, Harlow also died young. Photo by George Hurrell.

As magazine and adversing publishing became increasingly important so did the photographic portrait.  In fact, a whole industry evolved in Hollywood based on portraits of film stars used to promote actors, actresses and their latest projects.  Probably the dean of the photographers performing this task was George Hurrell.  Burrell worked so closely with many of these stars that women like Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich would arrive at his studio wearing no make-up.  He would actually do retouching with a lead pencil right on the (usually) 11X16 BW negative in a method that was like Photoshop  for the 1930s.  The models would trust him to erase blemishes and present them with flawless skin.

In those days, aside from seeing them on screen, photos like this in magazines, posters and publicity prints were virtually the only visual of movie stars and other celebrities available to the public.

Yusuf Karsh was a mater portrait maker. Supposedly he got this stern expression out of Winston Churchill by suddenly jerking the cigar out of his mouth.

Of course, there have been many other types of celebrities in addition to movie stars.  Canadian photographer Yusuf Karsh created portraits of a whole cost of famous and influential people including Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, Queen Elizabeth, Mother Theresa Ernest Hemingway, Charles de Gaulle, John F. Kennedy along with move stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn and director Alfred Hitchcock.

The story goes that Karsh was trying to shoot Winston Churchill, who was not being very cooperative.  The photographer just couldn’t get his subject to display any personality.  Churchill was sitting in a chair smoking a cigar and Karsh suddenly stepped forward and jerked the cigar out of  his mouth.  As Churchill  reacted with an angry expression, Karsh clicked the shutter – and ended up with one of the iconic photo portraits of all time.

The glamour look of Marlene Dietrich was carefully achieved by lighting and angle. The actually had a somewhat round face but director Josef von Sternberg lit her from above, bringing out her cheekbones and giving her face a more sculptured look. Afterwards, other directors did the same – as did George Hurrell in this photo.
During her early career, Elizabeth Taylor sat for many studio portrait photographers using view cameras in formal settings. Later on magazines would send photographers who shot with 35MM or medium format cameras and created less formal or candid images,  unlike the classic glamour portraits of photographers like Hurrell and others from the 1930s.

As portrait photography became more informal in the days of Life and Look Magazines, you saw fewer of the very highly formal portraits of photographers like Karsh.  In fact, there is a story of a magazine photographer showing up to do photos of Elizabeth Taylor, who had come up though the studio system. with  35mm Leica.  Taylor supposedly looked questioningly at the photographer, down at the camera so much smaller than she was accustomed to, back up at the photographer and asked, “And who is it that does your retouching?”)

In more modern times, we see an increase in what is often called the “environmental portrait.”  These are portraits that show more than just the face and also include some aspect of the subject’s activities, lifestyle, interests or more information regarding their personality and character.  One of the most successful at this is Annie Leibovitz, one of the most famous photographers of the day who began shooting for Rolling Stone Magazine when is first began and is now very busy shooting fashion, advertising and for magazines like Vanity Fair.

Annie Leibovitz is one of the most successful of photographer and has shot portraits of celebrities, rock stars, movie stars and anyone who matters. This portrait of Meryl Streep would never have been allowed by publicists back in the old studio days.
This is part of the Annie Leibovitz portrait series with John Lennon and Yoko Ono – only in this one John is not nude.
An example of a modern environmental portrait. Movie stars like Scarlett Johannson are taking the places of models in high level fashion advertising. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.
Few photographers besides Annie Leibovitz has the prestige to be selected to do a photo like this of Queen Elizabeth. This is an example of how an environmental portrait can sometimes convey more personality that a close-up of the face.

Leibovitz has shot a number of very “different” portraits such as with Meryl Streep wearing clown make-up and pinching her face and John Lennon nude lying in bed embracing Yoko Ono.  But she also recently did a very formal siting with Queen Elizabeth in London and Vogue covers featuring movie stars like Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johansson.

As photography has moved on from film based to digital and so many images nowadays are seen online rather than print, the portrait has not ceased to be significant.  For one things, the more confusing input we are subjected to the more important it is to have images that communicate clearly and are easily comprehensible.  As we’ve seen, recognition of the structure of the face is fundamental to our identity as human beings.  We not only can identify individual faces but have many brain circuits devoted to reading expression, mood, intent and emotion.  The big difference between a  photo portrait and a theatrical head shot is the successful portrait conveys and communicates much more than just how the face took.  It also embodies something of the nature and personality of the subject.

The fans of teen stars of the 60s like Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon responded better to fun, informal environmental portraits than they would to more traditional glamor shots.

Portraits also tell us something about the culture of the time in which they were created.  Hollywood portraits in the 20s and 30s were intended to glamorize and idealize their subjects.  Make them into iconic, larger than life figures.  In the 40s and 50s we saw an increase in informal portraits that were meant to make celebrities more accessible, easier for the average fan to identify with.  Nowadays, we actually see all of these styles of portraits coexisting – used for different purposes.

This is obviously a likeness of Robert Downey Jr. But is it a highly Photoshopped and altered photo or an illustration? Or an illustration based on a photo? Nowadays it is increasingly difficult to tell.

We see a lot fewer highly stylized glamour portraits nowadays (which is actually too bad) but there is a high demand for larger than life, iconic images of action stars, superheroes and glamour queens.  Think of all the movie posters and billboards.  Billboards not just for movies and TV shows but everything else including fashion and other products and services.  Magazines may be in decline but there is still a huge amount of advertising and promotion done using print.

Calvin Klein has made effective us of photos in billboard ads, such as this picture of Zoe Saldana.
Face recognition has greater impact when the face is already a famous one. That’s why Apple used well known people in is ads like Albert Einstein.
The explosion of smart phone portraits and selfies can be compared to what happened in photography in 1900 when the Kodak Brownie was introduced and the age of the snap shot began.

However, in this digital age of Photoshop and CGI it starts to become difficult to know when a photograph transitions into an illustration.  Photographers have always used darkroom and printing techniques to modify their images – sometimes even combining parts of different negatives in a print.  But you could usually tell what was a photo and what was created by an artist by drawing, painting, air brush or some other method.

Why is this important?  Well, in my view the fact that the human brain is specially adapted to recognizing faces it reacts more strongly to what it sees as real face rather than a drawing or painting of a face.  Certainly, we know that violence in a cartoon doesn’t explicit the same reaction as it would in real life – or  something that looks like real life.  There is also a big difference in the impact of a movie clearly presented as a fantasy and something with more of a documentary style like Saving Private Ryan.

Of course, the most popular form of portrait right now is the smart phone picture of people you know or the selfie.

Anyway, technology will continue to change and so all the culture.  New kinds of cameras and photographic processes will be developed.  But two thing will never change.  One is that image making is done by image makers, in the minds  and sensibilities of image makers no matter the mean they use to do it.

And second is that the human face will remain one of the most important experiences in the human visual experience so the portrait will remain a highly significant photographic subject.

Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.  He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)






 This post is intended to educate and inform on photography and the history of photography and to lend critical insight into the nature and cultural impact of photographs.  Images are published pursuant to the Fair Use except to the copyright act.  If any copyright holder objects to this use the images in question will be promptly removed.

This portrait of a migrant mother by Dorothea Lange help make the effects of the depression on farmers real to many people.
The Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry for National Geographic has become one of the most famous and iconic portraits of modern times.
This photo of Marlon Brando in The Wild One helped promote his image and define the nature of outlaw bikers. In portraits, the young and beautiful remain that way forever.