Inspiration: The Traits of Portraits

Flickr Favourites: Portraiture

This post contains large images that may compromise slower internet connections.

One of things I enjoy doing most on Flickr is look through other photostreams and select which photographs are my favourites. I have a tendency I check out the favourite photographs of the artists that I have noted.

Lately, I have been marking portraits as favourites after realising my growing fascination with them. This is just conjecture, but there is something about landscape or nature shots that seem as though the subject itself has done most of the work in providing the basic aesthetics, leaving the photographer to do the remaining tweaking: composing the shot, highlighting what aspects of the subject should be highlighted or muted, and the like. But when it comes to portraiture, there seems to be an effort in communicating a certain message from both the photographer and the subject. The subject may or may not be conveying a message from their expression, and the photographer directs and/or captures the entire thing. I am awed by how a single portrait not only captures the beauty and essence of its physical subject, but also the probable nuances behind their outward portrayals.

My Favourite Portraits on Flickr

I personally don’t think I have enough experience to make any strong convictions in interpreting these portraits. I’d like to believe that there is a degree of subjectivity behind how a viewer responds to a photograph. However, kindly allow me to note my initial reactions and thoughts upon seeing the following examples of my favourite portraits on Flickr:

Inspiration: Traits in Portraits

Young talent Alexis Mire took this self portrait as homage to her childhood obsession with murky bath water. She was also inspired by controversial portrait photographer Anne Leibovitz, yet another photographer who I think has mastered the idea of pulling a reaction from viewers. I have enjoyed Mire’s photographs for some time, particularly her portraits, because her ideas for photographs seem to come from virtually anywhere and everywhere, with props that come from anything and everything. I also had a thing for murky bath water when I was much younger, and admit wasting many bars of soap in order to feed that fascination.

Inspiration: Traits in Portraits

Above is a portrait of Carrè Callaway, the frontwoman of the band Queen Kwong. The photograph is taken by self-proclaimed “life saver” Lou O’Bedlam. What initially struck me about this photograph is her beauty, the lighting, and the resulting pastel colours that peek from various corners. Then I read one of O’Bedlam’s commentaries of one of Callaway’s other shots, notably the part in which some have said Callaway looks a little sad in most of her photographs.

Upon surface impression, I think I see that assertion manifest in her photographs. However, upon letting the information sink in, there seems to be a lot of mystery in her emotions. Hidden secrets, desires, and thoughts that may or may not be divulged to the viewer. Sometimes the notion of mystery bothers people, especially those who have the need to make judgments that fit their frame of reality. Callaway’s enigmatic expressions are a reminder that not everything can be simplified and still remain to its true form, and that boxing things up can have serious repercussions.

Inspiration: Traits in Portraits Inspiration: Traits in Portraits

The above and bottom two are portraits that I wished came in very large resolutions, and I couldn’t help but notice the commonality of juxtaposing elements in the above two photographs.

The upper left portrait is that of a textile worker living in Uttar Pradesh, India, and was taken by Swedish photographer Johannes Jansson. I was struck by the brilliance of her yellow sari juxtaposing the grey background and her black hair. Her hypnotising eyes, serene expression, and the gentle folds of her garments that create the illusion of movement almost make her look like a goddess disguised as a mortal being.

The upper right photograph of the red-haired girl in a green hammock is from Brooklyn-based photographer Elizabeth Weinberg. It was something I stumbled upon a couple years ago, around the time when I started to take photography a little bit more seriously. The overall gentle beauty shown in the subject’s eyes and her relaxed posture in the shot contrasts the distress of the background. The photograph’s set-up left me momentarily speechless. It turns out this photo was featured in the August 2008 issue of NYLON Magazine.

Inspiration: Traits in Portraits Inspiration: Traits in Portraits

These last two photos capture family, and intimacy is always a given.

The above left photograph of Montrèal resident and photographer Glen Pepin‘s grandfather captures the kindness in his eyes. A part of me envied Pepin a little, because before my grandfathers passed away, I’ve wanted to take portraits of them. My matrilineal grandfather had eyes that were almost the same colours as him above.

Yet another young talent Maria McGinley and her brother Tim took a portrait as a present to their mother. In the above right photograph, their faces are both so expressive, even though Maria is not looking directly at the camera.

All Art is a Self Portrait

Then it struck me.

It is said all art is a self portrait, and of course the statement stands for itself in the art of self portraits. But perhaps the reason why viewers react to some photographs over others is that besides the innate responses that come from strong initial impressions, it can betray the fact that viewers can see aspects of themselves in those captures.

I have revealed how a few of these photographs have elements that I feel reflect with my own life, but the finer details on how I see me in all of them will remain my personal secret.

What About You?

Do you believe that we react to certain forms of art because we see aspects of ourselves in them? Also, feel free to share some of your favourite portraits and other photographs in the comments.

(All photos are credited to their respective artists. Click on any image to view it on Flickr.)


  1. Maria Celina

    @elizabeth: I’m honoured to read your comment, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing this particular fact with me. It makes the photograph even more special to know that it’s what was really an outtake turned into a favourite of many.

  2. anna

    There are days when I sit for hours looking through numerous flickr photos, picking out favorites too. And yes, most of those favorites do seem to reflect a certain part of myself.

    Thanks for sharing these. I love the first and last photos. :)

  3. Gum

    I’ve always admired people who can take portrait with a ‘mystery’ in it; something like the pictures you posted.

    I believe that how we react and ‘see’ art is really subjective and relative to our experiences, beliefs/convictions. :)

  4. Maria Celina

    @jannie: Indeed we have shared a childhood story each, Jannie. I enjoyed your recollection of cutting your own bangs when you were younger (by which I also recalled a story of when I tangled my own hair with a teasing brush), and I brought up a story about all those unfortunate bars of soap. Either way, win-win!

    Like you, I also saw images of relaxation in the portrait of the red-haired girl in the green hammock. There was something about her pose in contrast with the industrial background and metallic decay that gave me some sort of respite.

    @Nikz: Nikz, I truly trust your judgment when it comes to your taste in photography, because you show a degree of transparency in the techniques and photographic genres that you explore, so your growth in this art really shows. Then again, your skills that have been there from the beginning — I remember that in the early years of blogging, you were already exploring photography years and years before people who haven’t had blogs or Flickr photostreams of their own or even an interest in photography alone (I might be wrong here; correct me if I am!) are doing now — and I’ve looked up to them for a while. I sincerely wish you much luck and success in this business pitch! I also heard that wedding photography really brings in the big bills.

    Regarding the link that you posted, what a great engagement shoot! Like you, I love the piano. I also like the outfit of the girl, though the colourful tights with the grey ensemble kind of rubs me the wrong way. A matter of taste, I guess. In fact, I was looking at the other vintage-inspired shoots from that website, and it appears that a handful of the vintage-loving girls really know how to combine clothing. I abide by the whole bohemian look, and have been for quite some time, so this concept resonates with me too.

    Oh, and the guy is an absolute looker! There appears to be a little bit of Jude Law in him!

    (And yes, I resolve to add much more eye-candy here in future posts!)

    @Nadine: I’ve yet to figure out how to capture a good portrait myself, Nadine. Hopefully this admission to this fascination with portrait photography can guide me — or us &#8212 in the right direction.

    @Charles Ravndal: When I was in college, like you, Charles, I also scoured Flickr for inspiration. When I would re-design my own website, I love surfing through various website design and CSS galleries. I still do the same thing, post-college, but mostly more for my own personal projects.

  5. Nadine

    this is a great post. I’ve also been fascinated with portraits
    but am not really sure how to capture a good one :/

  6. Nikz

    Oh, art could definitely strike you the most when you see yourself in it, I agree. It would be difficult to like something that doesn’t hit you home, in some way…

    Most of the (wedding) photographs I browse through these days serve me more as inspiration for future photoshoots with friends, or party set-ups :) And we’ll see if this leads to some kind of business … ;) I like this photoshoot in particular:
    It’d be cool to do it when engaged, but then again it’s not really necessary :) I just want the piano! Haha.

    I like the photo you picked of the red-head in the hammock! Whoever started teasing red-heads must’ve secretly wanted to have their hair colour as well. Her eyes are really stunning. And I also like the 2nd portrait (of the girl, simply looking into the camera)… they say the eyes are a mirror to the soul, and you could really see there’s something going on, by just looking at her eyes here.

    Looking forward to seeing more visual candy here! :D

  7. jannie

    my favorite one is the first one of the murky bath water. she looks really relaxed and seems to be enjoying the calm water of the tub. i also love your cute story about using up a lot of bath soap when you were little just to get the water to be murky. :D now we each have childhood story to share regarding our latest posts. lol. i know my son would do something like that with bath water if we left him alone with bar soap. :D

    another portrait i like is of the girl in the hammock. again, i think of relaxation. something i could really use. plus, the very first thing i noticed was the color of her hair. her auburn hair stands out while it lies against the green hammock. i notice her eyes too. reminds me of innocence and curiosity. while she’s laying on the hammock, she looks like she’s observing and probably wondering at the same time.

    thanks for sharing these amazing shots. i like how all of them have a certain calmness and peacefulness about them. these are great to look at before sleeping. :)

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