My Exhibit A is this mug shot of actor Nick Nolte. It has all the elements we associate with a psychological portrait. We can see a man in apparent crisis, caught in a vulnerable moment, all pretense dropped. There is a defiant resignation in his stare. Would Sargent have painted a picture like this? Highly unlikely. Was the photographer seeking to capture the inner man? Well, it is a mug shot, not a sitting for Vanity Fair.
Looking at examples critics hail as psychological portraits, they all seem to have these characteristics in common:
- The picture is not flattering. J.P. Morgan rejected his portrait.
- The sitter must look fierce, uncomfortable, drunk, vulnerable and/or lecherous.
- The more severe the “hatchet job” is on the sitter, the more celebrated the picture is as being “deep”
I really think any powerful portrait reveals more about the artist and viewer than it does the subject. Penn and Sargent don’t enter the sitter’s world – they pull the subjects into theirs, without apology.
I’ll close with a quote by one of my favorite portrait photographers:
“I am convinced that any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense. We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man reveals. The inner man is seldom revealed to anyone, sometimes not even the man himself.” – Arnold Newman