Portrait photographers are told time and time again that their goal is to somehow bring a subject's soul, as Godard would phrase it, to life. Is this just myth? Is it even possible? Can you manipulate what aspects of a person's personality are highlighted in a portrait?
It’s close to impossible not to judge someone by their appearance. We’re all conditioned to do it. We may try not to, but it’s very hard to avoid, at least unconsciously, judging a book by its cover.
Several studies have indicated that viewers tend to judge trustworthiness from facial photographs to predict online financial lending decisions, facial impressions of competence predict voting choices, and facial impressions of attractiveness affect hiring and promotions.
A recent article by Rainer Zitelmann in Forbes magazine suggests that photographs can provide significant clues about the subject's personality:
When you photography a face... you photograph the soul behind it.
- Jean-Luc Godard
The Personality Judgements Based on Physical Appearance study tried to answer two questions:
- What traits can be perceived accurately based on physical appearance in a standardized (posed) photograph?
- Does accuracy improve when spontaneously expressed nonverbal components of physical appearance are visible to observers?
According to Zitelmann, the study found that when presented with highly posed photos of a subject, the viewer was able to assess openness, self-esteem, and emotional stability at a rate a little better than chance. On the other hand, viewers were not successful at judging agreeableness and conscientiousness.
When viewers were presented with photos where the subjects selected their own facial expressions and posture, the viewers were significantly more successful in assessing the subjects:
...observers are able to form reasonably accurate impressions for a number of traits simply on the basis of physical appearance.
A similar study, First Impressions of Personality Traits From Body Shapes, was designed to find out whether or not
people look at a person’s body and make snap judgments about whether the person is lazy, enthusiastic, or irritable.
Viewers were shown images of body models and asked to determine if the subject was enthusiastic, extroverted, dominant, quiet, reserved, or shy.
Studies Translated for Portrait Professionals
This certainly provides photographers with something to think about when shooting commissioned portraits for LinkedIn or other social media. Perhaps you can use this to help to sell more accurate or, on the flip side, intentionally inaccurate portraits to your clients.
For clients that want to exude a dominant personality, wardrobe that accentuates broad shoulders and a tapered midsection would work well. For those whose clients want to appear warm, perhaps a more uniform lighting scheme that doesn't taper the face or midsection would work better.
What do you think? Do portraits help to share the subjects' secrets, as Karsh would have you believe, or do they fall short of the original, as Goldin suggests?
Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can.
I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I've lost.
Lead image from Mark Dunsmuir.