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James Story, coal miner © Richard Avedon

The Portrait (like The Nude) has morphed down the ages, its focus changing from What was there to perhaps WHO was there? It never ceases to amaze me that good portraiture leaves me wondering about a “subject”, often long since gone, but living on intensely and curiously in the moment, through photography. 

The pictures have a reality for me that the people don’t. It is through the photographs that I know them. -Richard Avedon

Many years ago I remember taking myself to a small group show in the 6th arrondissement, Paris, to see a single original Richard Avedon portrait from his “In the  American West” series. I just wanted to feel the scale and intimacy from his “James Story, coal miner”  an image of Biblical sensibilities. I wasn’t disappointed.

I love great portraits, and feel they are the very essence of photography. No painting or drawing has the authenticity of portrait photography and its inherent “truth” (though this has now been challenged somewhat in the digital era). I’m also fascinated in the ‘mythos’ of the medium, the story behind what we see, a coupling of (recent) history ,photo gossip, and those that created it.

Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx © Diane Arbus

There is, of course Diane Arbus, and her relentless photographing a Jewish giant for ten years until she recognized the image she wanted. This concept of “time past” images makes me think of Nicolas Nixon and his “ritual” (discipline?) of photographing, together, every year, his wife and her 3 (Brown) sisters, since 1975.

“Time will say nothing but I told you so”…W H Auden

There are many “arguments” with portraiture that seem never to go away. Is portraiture complicit, or can we make portraits of the subject unaware of being photographed? Or put another way, must “real” portraiture be front on (as opposed to oblique) and need the complicity of both subject and photographer. I like this later “argument”. The subject gives of themselves, the photographer takes (or makes). Together they reveal themselves.

I find portrait photography incredibly challenging and awkward at times. One is dealing with another person, their vanity is being challenged and yet there is something compelling about what may be revealed. I believe psychology is more important in portrait photography than equipment. What do we want from our subjects, not forgetting that most great portraiture is in a sense a self portrait (can I hear the deleting of a trillion “selfies”?) What do we want to “say” about ourselves by photographing others? (or photographing ourselves?) Who are WE anyway?

In a portrait, I’m looking for the silence in somebody.Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier Bresson said great portraiture had something to do with the “silence” in people, and what he meant was perhaps the sense of vulnerability that we see and feel in ”silence”. This is the vulnerability we wear at the core of our humanity.

This year, for the 10th Head On Portrait prize there will be the usual recriminations. This is because the ethos of Head On will “stir the possum”, ask the questions, and have us bitching and twitching, loving and talking it up, challenging our understanding and complacency. The main thing, through all the froth and bubble, will be to keep your eye on the image, and see if he or she “talks” to you. If it does, you may search then for further images from the photographer’s oeuvre, as the real persistence of vision is where we all celebrate the power of this curious and wonderful medium.


Jon Lewis

Post Script – Reflecting on last weeks “Multimedia” Blog. Where do GoPros fit ie the astonishing (seconds/minutes) of tube wave riding, base jumping etc. They seem at home on F/B for example? It aint art but….??


10th Anniversary Head On Portrait Prize deadline 9 March 2014

open to residents of Australia only

40 finalists will be exhibited during the festival and prizes will be awarded for the three best images.

First prize valued at over $10,000 and includes $5,000 cash and a great Olympus Camera Kit worth $4,396  (Olympus OM-D E-M1 body with 12-40mm f2.8 lens, 45mm f1.8 lens, 45mm f1.8 lens, 75mm f1.8 lens), 1 Year subscription to Adobe Creative Suite worth $600 and more!

Second prize valued at over $2,500 and includes a great Olympus Camera Kit worth $1,498 (Olympus OM-D E-M5 body with 25mm f1.8 lens), 1 Year subscription to Adobe Creative Suite worth $600 and more!

Third prize valued at over $2,300 and includes a great Olympus Camera Kit worth $1,298  (Olympus OM-D E-M10 body with 25mm f1.8 lens), 1 Year subscription to Adobe Creative Suite worth $600 and more!

As a Head On first, the exhibition is expected to travel to the Auckland Festival of Photography, thePingyao International  Photography Festival (China) and finally to Photoville (New York City) for the international debut of the Head On Portrait Prize.

Judges this year are Creative Director United Photo Industries (New York) Sam Barzilay, Principal Curator Powerhouse Museum Anne-Marie Van de Ven, acclaimed photoartist Polixeni Papapetrou and Head On Photo Festival Director Moshe Rosenzveig.

 View Portrait Prize Terms and Conditions

Entry fee:
$25 per entry – members 
$30 per entry – non-members

In order to receive the member price, you must first purchase the membership package


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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage