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The Visual Language of Portraiture

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The power in each of these portraits speaks volumes to us. We wander around these images with our eyes, picking up on subtle hints in the anatomy, decoding each nuance of expression: a raised brow, parsed lips, or a glint in the eye, and we feel something visceral.
Great photographers not only capture their subjects, but also are making commentary how they feel about their subject. They see something within that person, and work the lights, the exposure, the depth of field, posing, to find that perfect picture...that definitive statement that can transcend decades and generations, and speak to us at our core. We see these portraits and feel something.
This is the power of the visual language.

One can't look at Kurt Cobain and think of his amazing energy, his voice, and his tragic ending. This portrait is interesting and very similar to Halle Barry's portrait. It's soft light that reveals his face, but unlike Halley the photographer added some light behind him to pop out the darker right side and silhouette the strands of his hair against it. The aperture also has a shallow depth of field, that means we're close up...close enough to feel like we know him. And, in this intimate space we start to explore the nuances that expose the raw nerve of his pain. His brow is slightly knit, his dirty hair hides part of his face as a wounded eye engages us. There is a soft highlight in one eye, he's alive and he wants us to know how he feels.
This enigmatic portrait shows a beautiful but vulnerable Marilyn Monroe; sad, unhappy, pained. There is no highlight in her blue eyes; they are lifeless. Her mouth slight agape, as though she were about to tell us what hurts...why it hurts. She's leaning forward as if to whisper this painful secret to us. Her turbulent hair echoes the machinations of her mind and the tumult of her life. Frozen in that moment, unable to tell us this secret. She's so close...but yet forever out of reach.
This is a wonderful portrait of Boy George...enigmatic. His face is like the moon, revealing only half to us, mysterious and occluded. It's a high contrast image, and the light is NOT soft but rather making a direct statement about the topography of his face. He's leaning forward to engage the viewer, his eye -- intense -- is locked in on us. He is not friendly, he's challenging us with his intense gaze.
This portrait of Halle Barry is wonderful. The soft lighting allows the light to carefully caress her face and reveal the subtle nuance and texture of her beauty. The tassels of her hair are softly arranged across her forehead. The horizon line is above her, she appears vulnerable, yet confident. The highlight in her eye indexes towards us, we feel as though the highlight is coming from our direction as we greet her. She invites us with the most subtle smile.
A young Marlon Brando, before his rise to superstar status. In this portrait it appears as thought Brandon is focused into that far away place of his future self. He can't see it, or even understand what he's looking for, but he aches to create it. The bright light on his face not only reveals the structure of his handsome face, but also lights the wall behind him...making it appear as though he's looking to engage this bright future that awaits him. The darkness behind him is mysterious, brooding...propelling him...and that also adds to the Brando mystique. But, the way this portrait is lit, and the position of his body, tells us Brando is apprehensive about stepping into the light. Also, the highlight in his eye makes it appear there is some emotional vulnerability. The choice of this portrait is interesting in that he is not engaging us, rather he is absorbed in this tumultuous task of self though he dreads the light.

Josh Brolin's Portrait speaks to us in aggressive confrontation. He isn't close to us enough for us to feel as though we know him, so we can't connect. His eyes squinting, his body squared up on us, shoulders rolled forward, there are negative spaces between his arms and his body ... he's ready to engage in the confrontation between himself and the viewer. He is not occluded into the background, rather he is clearly silhouetted against the background. He stands in defiance, and you know where he stands.
This is a very old John Huston, his portrait says a lot. The light is designed to accentuate every wrinkle, every freckle, every scar he has earned through out his 80 years. He is done playing any games, there's no vanity, no pretentiousness. He leans forward and engages us, as a friend. His hands folded under his chin, he has made himself comfortable and available to listen to us. But, there is a foreboding element to this portrait, as there is no glint or highlight in his eyes. It seems to speak that his life experiences have exhausted him, and rather he is more interested in the world around him than in himself. This is an intimate portrait, John has made himself completely available to us.

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