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[Detail] Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Portrait Photography: Capturing Character

A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. Some portraits show only the person's face, but others show part or all of the person's body. A good portrait not only captures the person's appearance but also conveys something about his/her character or personality. Lighting, the person's pose and where their gaze is directed, props, and backgrounds are some of the ways in which a photographer can convey character.

Gottlieb faced a special challenge because many of his portrait photographs were not posed—they were candid, taken in the course of the musicians’ normal activity. He identified the following portrait of the singer Billie Holiday as one in which he had captured the subject’s character or personality especially well.

Examine the photograph carefully.

  • What adjectives would you use to describe the portrayal of Billie Holiday?
  • What emotions does the photo provoke in you?
  • What features of the photo convey Holiday’s character? What features evoke an emotional response? Consider such factors as the lighting, the background, where the photographer was positioned when he took the photo, and how much of Holiday’s body is shown in the photo.

Listen to Gottlieb’s comments on the photograph. How do his comments deepen your understanding of Holiday’s personality? Of the photograph itself?

Different photographs of the same person can convey different aspects of the individual's personality or character. Study the following photographs of Leonard Bernstein. What different aspects of his character do the photographs convey? How did Gottlieb capture these different aspects of Bernstein?

  • Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948
  • Portrait of Leonard Bernstein in his apartment, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948
  • Portrait of Leonard Bernstein in his apartment, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948