5 Portrait Photographers To Inspire Your Collection

Photography is a particularly compelling medium for making portraits. The possibility to render oneself or another in this representational medium is relentlessly appealing, and in any given sale, we see practitioners across the spectrum wrestle with what it means to make an image of friends, colleagues, strangers, and themselves. The resulting photographs might create an indelible and iconic image of well-known figures, find a new and intimate way of sharing something indefinable in another’s humanity, or serve as a fitting reminder of a specific historical moment.

Below Deborah Rogal, director of photographs and photobooks, shares five portrait photographers to inspire you and add to your collection.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo with Globe, silver print, 1930s, printed 1980s. To be offered in our March 11, 2021 sale of Fine Photographs. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Frida Kahlo were part of the same avant-garde circle of artists in Mexico. In this striking portrait made in the 1930s, Álvarez Bravo situates the painter next to a gleaming globe in which you can see the sunlit room and the photographer himself. Her direct gaze, tilted chin, and arm resting on the pedestal project both intimacy and strength, a dynamism we also associate with her own work. Now considered two of the most important Mexican artists, both Kahlo and Álvarez Bravo established distinctive visual vocabularies for themselves and for their country.

Relating Reading: Mexican Photography: Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño & the Influence of Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Jerry McMillan

Jerry McMillan, Joe Goode, Ed Ruscha and Jerry McMillan (Self-Portrait) with Ed’s ’39 Chevy, silver print, 1970, printed 1996. To be offered in our March 11, 2021 sale of Fine Photographs. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000.

Jerry McMillan made this group portrait of himself, Joe Goode, and Ed Ruscha with Goode’s ’39 Chevy. The trio, all transplants to Los Angeles from Oklahoma, lived together in a house with others from the same state. Today their work is indelibly identified with their adopted home, and indeed here their effortless cool as they bask in the brilliant sunshine speaks to both the aesthetics of their moment and the art we know they will produce, as well as something transcendent about dazzling afternoons and cold drinks with friends.

William Gottlieb

William Gottlieb, Billie Holiday, silver print, circa 1948, printed 1979. To be offered in our March 11, 2021 sale of Fine Photographs. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500.

William Gottlieb’s portrait of Billie Holiday captures her in a moment of performance, mouth open in song, head back, eyes shut tight. Though this is how we know Holiday—as a singer—the portrait is also poignantly intimate. Never would we see each defining detail as closely (or have the opportunity to examine so thoroughly) her performance live on stage. Her closed eyes give the image an interiority that elevates the work to the sublime.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cape Cod Woman on the Fourth of July, Massachusetts, silver print, 1947, printed 1980s. To be offered in our March 11, 2021 sale of Fine Photographs. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

This Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of a woman draped in an American flag on Cape Cod seems to capture her in mid-conversation, her sinewy arm pointing to something outside of the frame and her gaze directed elsewhere. We do not know this woman, but Cartier-Bresson manages to tell us a lot about her: her hair is a white halo, her clothes well-worn, her body a lived in one. She seems wholly herself, but also indicative of something about America that Cartier-Bresson seems to see, something proud, celebratory, but also a little bit frayed. Made in 1947, just after the end of World War II, the figure seems to gesture us forward, but not without a hard look at what’s past.

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus / Neil Selkirk, Tattooed Man at a Carnival, M.D., silver print, 1970, printed early 1970s. To be offered in our March 11, 2021 sale of Fine Photographs. Estimate $10,000 to $15,000.

Diane Arbus’s groundbreaking approach to portraiture is exemplified in her 1970 image Tattooed Man at a carnival, MD. Intimate and visceral, the figure is rendered in piercing detail, including his gleaming eyes, brawny shoulders, glistening, sweat-glazed skin, and the individual bristly hairs on his chin. Here Arbus’s rigorous examination of the method of documentary portraiture is pushed to the very limits, the traditional boundaries between her and the subject, between the viewer and the subject, apparently demolished. Photographing people often pushed to the margins of society, Arbus centered them, and here seems to elevate her subject to that of a mythical figure.

Related Reading: The Making of a Portrait: Michael Halsband’s Photograph of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

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