Oscar Rejlander, 'Unknown Woman' [believed to be the artist’s wife, Mary Bull], c.1863, albumen print, Victoria & Albert Museum, gift of Mrs Margaret Southam

Ideas Series: What Makes A Great Portrait Photograph?

Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, on the ineffable relationship between sitter and photographer.

In her extended essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf wrote that the mind of an artist must be ‘incandescent’. I have always cherished that phrase, because it captures something that is too often lost in the marketplace of art. The best works tell us what it means to be alive, offering solace and insight, inspiration and understanding. The viewer is the catalyst in the chemical reaction that is artistic expression. Once under way, it burns with insistence.

Portrait photographs are special because by definition there are at least two people involved in their making: the photographer and the sitter. Neither has complete control over the other. And so portraiture becomes a negotiation between parties, a dance of wills that results in a collaboration of sorts. In the very best portraits, both sides play a part. The photographer pries loose those things that words can’t describe, that ineffable essence that makes a person who they are. They snatch it out of the ether and pass it along to us. It’s magic, really.

Great portraits are not mere likenesses. They are not physiognomic studies nor anthropometric records. If they were, every photographer with a sharp lens and a 50 megapixel camera would be a great portraitist. In the best portraits a spark flies from sitter to maker to viewer, a synapse firing between us. We can try to describe it, but its real effects are subcutaneous. The photographs that I treasure most, I struggle to explain. That’s how I know they’re good.

A number of years ago I was going through a box of photographs in the vaults of the Victoria & Albert Museum and a chill shot down my spine. I had stumbled across a photograph that the great Victorian photographer Oscar Rejlander made of his wife, Mary Bull. In a flash, I was overwhelmed with the realisation that Rejlander had loved his wife profoundly, and she loved him. This was captured in the picture, but I didn’t know how. I stared at it, turned it over in my hands, analysed it. Still I couldn’t crack its secret. How can a photograph convey emotion? And yet there it was, plain as day, suffused in the picture.

I asked my friend, the photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper how to account for it, and he said it was in the gesture. The way she held her head and hands, the flash of her eyes, and the way Rejlander positioned his camera. Or maybe it was the way he printed it, the tonality, its richness. I am sure Thomas is right. All these things signal sympathy on a biological level. A photographer needs to be aware that such details affect the way a portrait is received. Great photographers use these elements to their advantage.

And yet, there is something more. Cameras and lenses are machines, blind and unthinking in themselves. They are tools, a means to an end. One might as well search for the heart of a camera as look into the empty liquid eyes of a shark, looking for compassion. There is none. The humanity we see in photographs is the result of human endeavour, and human endeavour only.

If I ever figure out how emotion can live in a photograph, I will retire and move on to something else. Because for me, this is what makes photography so compelling—the fact that something so dispassionate as a machine can be harnessed in the name of pure feeling. When I am looking for a great photograph, this is what I’m looking for. I want it to ask more questions than it answers. To never settle on my tongue. To provide a mirror for my own reflection. To invite me to look again and again. To grow with me as I grow older. To be incandescent, as Woolf so beautifully put it.