Talking Pictures (19) – Genre: Portrait Photography [Steve McCurry]


Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, 1984

Welcome followers and visitors to additional chapter to my blog and the  latest update in my photography diary. The aim of this particular task is to gain, through research, an understanding of the scope of photography and its varied genres that will inform and support a personal project. Today’s topic is Portrait Photography.

Portrait Photography may be defined as;

  • simply creating a likeness of a person, especially of the face.
  • a good quality image that not only captures a person’s physical likeness but also something of the person’s character, generally in a manner that is attractive and pleasing to the subject.


  • simply the depiction of an individual
  • recording the physical form and features of the portrait sitter including characterisation, personal context, possible relationships and often a connection with that persons life, lifestyle and work.
  • conveying a very real and intense sense of the sitters personality, their interests and personal environment.


  • an image depicting only the face or head and shoulders of a subject.


  • being more than just a visual record that is used to show the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth, taste, learning or other qualities of the sitter.


  • capturing the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses.
  • being an image of a subject that may be artistic or clinical as part of a medical study.
  • the commissioning of images for special occasions, such as weddings or school events.
  • serving many purposes, from usage on a personal web site to display in the lobby of a business.

Johnson, A., Lecture Notes


A true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.”

Philippe Halsman



Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, 1984

Compositionally the subject is set off centre of the image facing outwards towards the camera. The slight shift the subject makes to the positioning of her haunting eyes inscribe a sense of dramatic movement imbued with a sense of unseen horror that floods the image with an intense raw energy.

The lighting appears to be natural and coming from both the front and right of frame and entering the space from slightly above and directly from behind the photographer.

The main focus is the subject’s face isolated by its clarity and sharpness within the encircling ragged head wrap which accentuates the piercing eloquent stare of the eyes. The face has no significant dark shadowing causing no loss of the catchlights which flatters and intensifies the subject’s explosive emotive expression.

The rule of thirds subdivides the image compositionally into different spatial planes both horizontally and vertically across the frame.

If one views the image from bottom frame up it exemplifies the rule of thirds vertically and dictates how the image is laid out.

The lower third is composed of the subject’s right shoulder, directly in the foreground, which accentuates the turn of the child’s upper torso mantled in the leading lines of the folds in the rust red garment. The middle third stretching from the girl’s chin to the top of her forehead, includes her face hair, part of the garment’s hood and background. The top third accommodates the top of the subject’s head, hair, hood and the background.

If one views the composition vertically from left to right the first third contains the left side of the subject’s face to the vertical edge of her nose. The central third which stretches to the top of her right cheek bone connecting with a vertical line traversing the edge of her shoulder upwards passing her hidden ear and up to the top of the frame traversing the green vertical line observed in the background. The final third is occupied with the subject’s shoulder, the remainder of her hair, hood and the blurred green background.

Where the lines of the horizontal and vertical planes intersect is where the main focal point of the image is housed – the strident defiant outward turned face and penetrating soul filled eyes.

The shallow depth of field, the contrasting complementary colours of red and green, the green and white of the eyes, the tanned flesh of the face with its muted tones and the blurring of the background infuse the  portrait with significant emotive intensity and regal qualities of the sublime.

The composition is filled with a series of curving leading lines that not only provide a rhythmic energy within the image but draw the viewer to the very heart and focus of the image, the subject’s face and eyes. These elements accentuate the young subject’s hidden femininity, fears and vulnerability.

The curving lines are counterpointed by the vertical lines of her nose and the horizontal structure of her brow bone; which, with the manner in which the image occupies its various spatial structure create a sense of stability revealing an internal strength and determination to survive against all the odds.

“ …I did know that there was a power and that there was something completely special and unusual and extraordinary about this look.”

Steve McCurry

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