(Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Chris Orwig’s book, “Authentic Portraiture.” Chris is a photographer and teacher who blends a down-to-earth approach with technical expertise. He has authored seven books and over 5,000 hours of online tutorials. Chris also regularly speaks on creativity and photography at conferences and workshops, and has been invited to speak for companies like Google, Facebook, Adobe and on the TEDx stage. Find out more at chrisorwig.com or follow him on Instagram.)
Authentic portraiture hinges on what, at least at first glance, seems like a contradiction: A good portrait is about who someone is and not what they look like, yet the only way to reveal the subject’s essence is through what we see and how they look.
Additionally, how someone looks often hides or disguises what lies within — we all wear social armor to protect our inner self, and rightly so, as it’s the only way to survive. So much depends on how we look, from first impressions and job interviews to dating and whether or not we trust someone. That’s why capturing authenticity is incredibly difficult and, if we’re being honest, probably impossible to achieve. But authentic portraiture isn’t about creating a perfect portrait; it’s about striving to capture something that is more real than fake. And the same thing is true in life: We strive for authenticity even though it’s always out of reach.
The reason we put so much effort into authenticity and, at the same time, admit it is an unreachable goal is because this paradox is what makes us real. When we honestly accept and admit, even to a small degree, inauthenticity, we become authentic ourselves. In a strange twist, it’s the acceptance and admission of the impossible that allows authenticity to take on its truest form.
Still, the attempt to capture authenticity is incredibly hard. Even harder is being your true and authentic yourself. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously put it, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” We all know it’s hard to be our true self, but sometimes we forget that same challenge applies to our subjects, too. We forget what it’s like to be on the other side of the lens, to have someone else evaluate themselves while we wield a camera that captures every “flaw.” So part of our job as portrait photographers is to encourage and support that subject in their journey of being him- or herself.
The quote by Emerson sums up so much of human experience, and it raises questions, too, such as, “What does it mean to be yourself and why does the ‘world’ make that so hard?” Emerson reminds us that being true doesn’t come from following the crowd. It comes from relying on that inner light rather than the blaze from the crowd. And as faint as it might be, the spark within is always more trustworthy than the warm glow from the crowd.
According to some psychological typology tests, I’m a mix of an introvert and extrovert but I tip the scale more toward introversion. What this means in practical terms is that I have my best moments away from the crowds. I come up with my best ideas while I’m on a solo bike ride on the mountain behind my home. At parties, I enjoy one-on-one conversations more than talking with a group. And I have created most of my favorite photographs when there weren’t a lot of people around. Knowing this about myself, I almost always keep my photoshoots simple and small. Ninety percent of the time, it’s natural light and one on one. No assistants, no lights, no hype. That’s the way I like to work because it frees me up to be myself. If I can be a truer version of myself, I know that can help the people around me find and access their inner truth as well.
Take a moment to think about your own personality type and the environment that helps you become the truest version of yourself. Then pursue portraiture with that in mind.