While any good portrait presents a challenge, the “environmental portrait” presents the special challenge of placing the subject in surroundings that tell us something about the person. Shooting someone in their place of work — a teacher in the classroom, a film editor in the cutting room — well achieves the goal. In the best of such portraits, the background seamlessly becomes an extension of the subject, and in the best of these, the result often moves into metaphor.
One of my favorite environmental portraits — and certainly the one that opened my eyes to the greater possibilities of the genre — is that of Darius Milhaud by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
On first glance we see a slightly rotund man seated at a table in front of a blackboard, dreamily looking out into space. This is no rock star, movie icon or super athlete. It’s all quite sleepy, and after a few seconds one might be tempted to move on to more exciting stuff. But a second glance tells us to slow down. The clues lie in the props, and by props I mean almost everything except the subject himself (for if Shakespeare was right that all the world’s a stage, then the objects around us tell our story). First, we see the glasses. They occupy center stage, disdainfully lying face-down on the table. They almost distract from the subject, and by doing so tell us there’s a message here, for it’s clear that Eisenstaedt, well aware of their presence, chose to leave them as is. To my mind, they suggest that as he sits in his chair, the composer is looking within, not without. Confirmation lies in Milhaud’s dazed eyes, which also suggest he is musing more than thinking. Given who he is, one can easily surmise the composer is composing, and indeed, if we look to the blackboard behind him, we see a visual representation of that thought in the musical notes that float above. In short, the photographer has presented the environment in a manner that suggests precisely what lies in the subject’s mind — a composition. The result is an image that transcends the ordinary, giving us a kind of visual poetry.
The Milhaud portrait is not unlike the portraits of Arnold Newman, one of the great pioneers of the genre. Among Newman’s best is the iconic portrait of Igor Stravinsky.
In this image, the photographer creates a background that obeys the rule of thirds by placing a middle gray field alongside a lighter field of gray and white. In front of this he boldly paints the piano in true black. The result fully takes advantage of the black and white medium by giving us light/dark contrasts that energize the image with a strong graphic design. The contrast is continued by a half-lit face that adds a psychological density to the subject. Interestingly, the composer, too, obeys the rule of thirds when viewed against the gray field behind him. And the piano? It almost looks like a musical note, adding depth to the photograph by taking us, like Eisenstaedt’s portrait, into the realm of metaphor.
Newman is, in fact, a master of metaphor. In his portraits of Robert Oppenheimer and Kurt Godel, for example, he uses negative space to suggest the mental arena and playing field in which each subject works. In the Oppenheimer portrait, the shadowy wall dominates, telling us that everything here is big.
We are looking at a grand mind devoted to the grand task of tackling a grand universe. The delicately-held cigarette with ashes ready to fall, make a great prop, suggesting intensity and focus, as well as absent-mindedness. And as we look down at the great physicist, taking in the vastness of the nothingness that surrounds him, we can’t help but feel that we’re in the presence of a visionary. To similar effect, and perhaps more concretely, the emptiness of a large blackboard dominates the later portrait of Kurt Godel.
The great mathematician sits frozen in his seat, face dramatically half-lit, hands clenched and ready to spring into action, while the blackboard, clean and tidy like his mind, looms from behind, waiting to be filled. As in the Oppenheimer portrait, given the nature of pure mathematics, it isn’t difficult to surmise that the tabula rasa behind Godel represents both his mind and the abstract field of thought he must enter as he builds his equations.
Three additional Newman portraits sharing elements with the above are those of Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Norman Mailer.
In the first, the photographer places the architect next to a towering door that reminds us of the mighty skyscrapers Johnson conceives. In the Wright portrait, the photographer places the architect one-third into the photograph and one-third into a drawing which, like Eisenstaedt’s Milhaud portrait, suggests a work as a thought. And in the Mailer portrait, where a sheet of paper is surrounded by a blank wall, the photographer conveys the isolating and daunting task that the writer must feel as he confronts his work. By placing Mailer in split lighting, Newman also tells us that his subject well knows the dark side, and in allowing Mailer to press his knuckles into the arm of the chair, the photographer portrays a well known attribute of the author: a restrained intensity ready to explode.
That quality, restrained intensity, is also apparent in one of the great portraits of evil: Eisenstaedt’s 1933 capture of Joseph Goebbels.
Like the Prince of Darkness surrounded by attendant subjects, the Reich Minister of Propaganda grips the arms of his chair, a document awaiting his signature, while he stares at the Jewish photographer with an aversion that is frightening. All the more frightening is the fact that here is an environmental portrait in which the subject is not posing.
And in another great portrait of evil, we see Newman’s image of the German industrialist and war criminal, Alfried Krupp, looking very much like the devil.
With lighting on the sides, Krupp’s center is dark, creating a demonic look that suggests the darkness within. Given the red hue, it is also easy to see why this portrait is stronger in color than it would be in black and white.
The above images are just a few examples of fine environmental portraiture – a genre that often combines the cerebral (a Newman specialty) with the artistic. The former requires conceptual thought, something that moves the image from the mundane to the metaphoric; while the latter requires that special eye, sense of balance, and excellence in craft which endows many a great photograph.
If you’re interested in portrait photography and are looking for both instruction and inspiration, Newman and Eisenstaed are a great place to start.
(afternote: While I’m sure there are many fine books showing Newman’s portraits, one I can personally recommend is Taschen’s: Arnold Newman. In addition to essays by Newman and Philip Brookman, the book contains quality prints which inspire and instruct.)