Natalia Vodianova, by Paolo Roversi. I’m not generally a fan of studio portraits, or studio photography in general. When you remove all context from a person or an object, you make things extremely hard for yourself, because you put all the weight of the photograph on the subject and the relation to the camera. Contrary to popular opinion, this is really fucking hard to do.
Any monkey with a camera and an off-camera flash can make a studio portrait with decent lighting, but sticking a person in front of a neutral background and letting light fall pleasantly over them really isn’t enough to make a good portrait. A portrait is both a relationship and a situation; when you remove all information about the situation, the relationship becomes really important. When the relation between the camera and the subject is everything, that relation better have some sort of nerve, and that’s really lacking in most studio portraiture.
Photographing pretty young people in the studio is really one of the most difficult things you can do. It’s so easy to do okay, to get something that most people would be pleased with, but it’s incredibly hard to do well. Replacing the pretty person with an old, ugly, weathered or broken person, it becomes much easier. A rough face seems to tell a story, and thereby introduce some of the situation into the decontextualized studio. It’s a lie, of course: wrinkles and scars don’t really tell the story of a person’s life. They suggest, they hint, but they lie. Nevertheless, it’s much easier to create something that has the veneer of Story and so becomes easier to relate to if your subject isn’t a flawless beauty. In playing up the rough edges that seem to hint at a deeper story, you downplay the decontextualization that really is the essence of studio portraiture.
I don’t look down on fashion photographers. I admire their technical skill, their work ethic, and their ability to exercise creativity within draconian restraints. But I have a feeling most of them, or the clients for whom they tailor they images, have very different ideas than I do about what photography is good for and what it ought to do.
There is a reason I rarely feature photographs that are classically beautiful. They’re not classically beautiful for nothing. I’m the same as everyone else: they attract me too. But they very quickly become interchangeable; they lure us in, but we see not reality but Beauty, that abstract ideal. The same thing can happen to pictures of ugly things, but our natural revulsion more easily forces us to give up the abstraction and really look at the thing before us. Classic beauty, though? Whether it be Ansel Adams’s Yosemite or the flavor of the month’s supermodel, it becomes an icon and not a thing in and of itself. Since I’m convinced that modern humanity lives too much of life in the clouds, or I do in any event, this is the opposite of what I would like photography to do.
That is why Roversi’s portrait of Vodianova is impressive, and justifiably his most famous image. Because it’s so easy to make a good image of a beauty, and so hard to make a great one. You could cover a supermodel in feces, and it would probably be more interesting than ninety-nine percent of fashion editorials, but it wouldn’t be beautiful. Roversi’s image manages to carry a nerve and still remain classically beautiful. This achievement is underscored by the fact that Roversi has photographed Vodianova many times, but none of the other pictures approach this one. (Image source: all over the internet.)