What makes a good photographic portrait?

There are many different ways to gauge the success of a photographic portrait.

Does the portrait succeed on a technical level? For instance, is it lit well? Is it properly exposed?

Next, does the portrait succeed on an emotional level?  Is it merely a record of a fleeting expression at a point in time? Or is it riveting? Is there something about the portrait that takes your breath away?

Next, does the portrait tell a story about the subject? By looking at it, can the viewer learn something about person being photographed? Their circumstances? Their burdens? Their joys? Does the portrait capture the essence of the person?

I believe that for a photographic portrait to succeed, it must succeed on all of these levels. I, like most photographers, have certainly taken many portraits that were well lit and that captured the moment.

But unless the portrait reveals something about the subject and tells a story, I consider it a photographic record and not a photographic portrait.

Homeless Lady with Tear on Thanksgiving Morning

Every person tells a story with his or her life. They “wear” this story. You can see it on their faces. We all stand for something. Beauty. Fairness. Toughness. Hope. Sadness. Sorrow. Strength. Creativity. Fun. Love. Intelligence. This list is infinite.

When I can capture that essence, and do it in a way that tells a story, it will create a riveting portrait that stops viewers in their tracks and compels them to try to understand what the subject is trying to communicate with his or her life.

I consider some of the Chicago Uptown portraits I took almost 40 years ago to be some of the most successful in my life. Each tells a story about the subject. Four decades later, people still gaze at them for the longest time, feeling the struggles,  joys, sadness and sorrows of life in that place at that time.

The portrait above was taken on the street outside a women’s shelter on a cold Thanksgiving morning. It was so cold that morning, the ground glass in my Rollie SL66 was fogging up. I didn’t see the tear on the woman’s cheek until I developed the film.  See more portraits of Uptown Chicago in the portfolio section.

How do you judge the success of a portrait?