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Monday, 20 February 2023


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I've only done portraits for friends and family. They know I'm a photographer, and ask for a favor. I don't hesitate to retouch in Lightroom, male or female, but try to strike a balance to avoid the obvious plastic look.

It does get harder as we age. I cringe sometimes when I see my double chin in a Facetime video. I remember drawing an older woman in my college drawing class, and she kind of flinched when she saw my drawing. Too many carefully drawn wrinkles. She complemented me on my honesty. Cameras are too honest!

As a portraitist, my take is that women want to look beautiful, while men prefer to look strong and gritty. Makeup and hair is therefore a must for women, not so much for men.

Somehow, the fact that this post is couched mainly in the context of a professional -- by that I mean money changes hands -- context takes it off the table in terms of political correctness. Which is what I assume you are worried about based on the title. I guess I figure if people are paying you to make a portrait of them... generally "good" is the implied directive. What "good" means, given the financial dimension, is defined by the payor. Not the payee, i.e., you. If you have trouble managing the engagement, that's probably on you and your methodology or maybe even aesthetic -- if that's a word that applies in commercial photography. But what do I know. I've never made much, in any, money with a camera. Maybe what I've written here explains why. Never really tried.

Well, since you're tiptoeing around the question of gender, it might be worth thinking that even if there are measurable differences in behaviour between men and women, it does not mean either that men and women have a gender-specific responsibility for them.

Before preemptively fanning the flames of cancel culture, ask yourselves whether your behaviour strictly follows from your will.

Is it because men don't care about makeup and that women are simply "coquettes"? Or maybe it's because our entire culture is still traumatized by the mere possibility that someone's behaviour lightly cross the gender norm?

As always, the answer is somewhere between individual and collective, cultural responsibility. Saying that many women "like to look good" while men do not is not necessarily false, but it's not giving a rounded explanation.

Is asking someone to smile for their photo a sort of makeup?

We all like to look good, for certain meanings of "good". But women more often *have* to look good in specific ways, as they are judged on both their appearance and conformity with norms to a greater degree than men are. (So, too, are people who work in front of cameras, such as TV news anchors. But male anchors can leave more of that burden at work.)

And if women tend to be necessarily more conscious of, proactive about, and aware of the value of "looking good", compared to men, I imagine that can include greater interest in how one looks in a photograph, or higher tolerance for being photographed. Sure, in any given individual this could be natural vanity, but it's also not much of a choice for most women in most societies. High school is a time when many girls are grappling with this fact of life, so I'm not surprised that you got pushback from students.

I'm curious what hair and makeup stylists make compared to retouchers, and whether that's changed in the Photoshop era.

No you cannot say that and although it does not offend me (I am a woman) it will probably offend many. It will offend them not least because there is probably no evidence it is correct.

What you can say is I think that in recent western culture women are more likely to be concerned with their appearance (or more likely to be encouraged to be concerned with their appearance) than men are. This has not always been true, even in western culture: look up 'dandy' or look at portraits of men in 16th and 17th century Europe: these were often people very much concerned with their appearance. And outside western culture I do not even know, but I am sure there are many examples.

So what you are doing, unintentionally I am sure, is saying that a thing which is culturally-determined is instead innate. Do not do this.

[I am really only saying that, in that triptych by Kevin Ames, I would guess that Cheryl would be happier with the portrait of herself on the right rather than the portrait on the left, and that, despite my own preference for people "as they are" and not as they look with their hair and makeup done, I probably should have been more responsive to my subjects' own preferences. --Mike]

I always thought a portrait was a success if the subject either saw something authentic about themselves that he or she hadn't seen before, or if they felt it showed them as they thought of themselves, or the best selves.

The problem is that none of us sees ourselves the way others see us. My own theory about this, at the most basic physical level, this is because we only tend to see reflections of ourselves, which are left-right reversed, whereas the rest of the world sees us as the eye sees us (right side on the right side).

The other stumbling blocks are psychological. I, for instance, think of myself as a 190 lb. 24 year old, when in fact I am a 280 lb. 50-something. Photographic images of me insist on portraying the photons bouncing off the more well-padded current version of me, rather than the svelte version my mind is convinced I present to the world. Photoshop ain't going to do it, if you know what I mean.

But I found this kind of disconnect in my subjects even when I was photographing peers in my early 20's, although to a lesser degree.

The last fun project I gave myself was to photograph my brother's friends at his birthday party -- held to be co-incident with his block party in Brooklyn. I set up some gray seamless paper in open shade and told the (mostly family) groups, "We are going to do one silly picture, and one serious one." Silly first, of course. I think most folks relaxed enough while goofing off that they could look at the camera with some detachment after that.

Examples here:







Caveat: I am a hobbyist. I only do take pictures because it's fun. So I have never had a makeup artist or stylist 'cause that's not really what's going on.

As for men and women, I have found humans more or less equally vain (in which observation I include myself as a data point).

"I'm about to get myself in hot water. These days you're not supposed to make gender-specific pronouncements. It's not politically correct."

How did we arrive at this self censoring fear of saying the current, and ever changing wrong thing? We now fear of expressing an opinion on certain subjects, which can cost us our livelihood.

I find it absurd and frightening that we cannot discuss the differences between men and women anymore, when we all know there are biological, physical and behavioral differences between the two sexes, as your post above points out.

It seems in public anyway, that you cannot speak with frankness or even express biological facts, as the poor J K Rowling as found to her cost.

The latest kerfuffle over the rewritten Roald Dahl's books, is the latest episode in our decent into the world described by Orwell in 1984.

How is a portrait photographer supposed to cope?

"Women Like to Look Good" - I'd suggest that it means many women have been conditioned to believe that certain clothes, accessories and procedures are required for them to look 'good' (meaning: acceptable, favourable, liked/desired/respected).

Men have been conditioned too - both to expect the above practises of women and to adopt different but similarly necessary processes to improve their own standing.

I dislike cosmetics, they are often ridiculously expensive while most of them are toxic sh*t that that you shouldn't put anywhere near your skin. I consider extensive use of makeup as a sign of deep insecurity; although we all have them this is a visually obvious indicator.

@ Benjamin Marks
Your approach of doing a "silly" photo first and then a "serious" or normal one clearly worked, and is brilliant.

Interesting timing Mike. I still work part time in a large retail building and was asked to photograph the managers, committee and team members. Maybe 20 in all. I’d say the vanity was near 50/50 between the male and female participants. Most were happy by the 2nd photo.
The picky folks, one male and one female took about 5 shots before they said ok.

Peter Lindbergh remarked that women are more creative and adventurous in front of the camera. Men just stand there assuming their presence alone is enough to make an interesting photo. He wondered if taking Churchill’s portrait was one of the most boring gigs in photographic history, having to observe him chomping on his cigar frame after frame. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s illustrative all the same.

An interesting extension to your question about what women or men "want" is to think about what society and culture "wants" in its ideals of women and men. What people want, largely, is to be represented in a way that makes them feel safe — such that they won't be vulnerable to ridicule or embarrassment.

I venture that society is (on average) less friendly to women who don't conform, present or make an effort to present within our cultures "normal" beauty standards than it is to men. I would further venture that society is less friendly to men who care "too much" or are even very interested in how they present aesthetically. For men, looking good is supposed to be (or at least appear) effortless and by the by.

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