The Value of a Portrait, My Birthday Self Portrait

I just had a birthday and because it was a big monumental birthday, I thought it was a good time to create a new updated portrait.

As a photographer I believe strongly in portraits, particularly of the value they give us in years to come. Of everything we can spend money on, very few things have as much value in the future as well-made professional portraits.

I have made a living my entire life, creating and selling portraits to people, which is kind of an odd way to make a living considering that no one likes getting their picture taken, including me.

However I feel strongly that everyone should have a great portrait of themselves that they like, and it shouldn’t be one from 10 years ago either. But sometimes we as photographers put off getting our own portraits done for the same reasons our clients put it off: it feels vain, I’ll do it later, I’m getting older, I don’t have time, etc.

It wasn’t too long ago when our relatives would scrimp and save to get one or two great portraits in a lifetime. These would be heirlooms that would be passed down through generations. Now we live in an age of digital snapshot proliferation, where every device is a camera, and no image is very good – but at least we have a lot of them. Add to that the fact that everyone and their neighbor decided they too are a photographer because it’s seemingly the easiest job in the world, flooding us with tons of sub-par images shined up with plastic effects. And social media has led to the constant posting of iPhone selfless at the gym, in the mirror, duck-faced-driving selfless, and on and on. All of this devaluing the actual importance of a good, well-made professional portrait. What are we passing on to our children?

How many times do we wish we had a better portrait of someone that we loved but lost? Maybe it was a relative that passed away or maybe it was someone we cared about that is no longer in our lives.

But aside from the value of a portrait that comes later, what about the value right now to us? I think a good portrait, that is well taken and doesn’t have all the artificial retouching, is good for the soul. Why? Think of the all-to-common alternative. How do you feel about yourself when your so-called “professional” photograph is only deemed okay by the photographer after they have over-retouched everyone until they have plastic, rubber faces? What does that say about you? How do you feel when you look at it, knowing that in real life, you don’t look like that?

What’s wrong with being the age we are? What’s wrong with wrinkles that we earned through life experiences? What’s the obsession with youth, where every TV show and movie has 30 and 40 year old actors playing 20-something characters, and 20 and 30 year old actors playing teens?

Why not get a real photograph, that uses Master lighting techniques so that you look great and feel great about yourself right now, as you are, without the amateur, rubber-skin retouching? In 5, 10, and 20 years into the future, what images of yourself are you going to look back on and still love? What images are your children and grandchildren going to want copies of?

This is why, even though I too don’t like getting my picture taken, I set up my studio for a portrait. For my 40th birthday, I wanted a new portrait that said I was happy to be 40, that I own these lines and wrinkles. So I set up my studio for a black & white self portrait, fired with a remote, and used a specific and aggressive lighting style that would create the gritty look that I wanted.

I finished it with some toning and an edge, and here is the result.


Until next time, America.


1 Response

  1. Hi Bry,

    Well said! Sadly, in spite of your comments, which I completely support, it will only get worse with continual technical development. That development is certainly a good thing. But it does bring with it more of the poor stuff that you see out there. A colleague of mine nailed it when he said that the only thing that matters to the masses in their photos is content. Apparently light has no particular value to the masses as they make their images. As image professionals, it is all about the light!
    By the way, happy birthday…and you look great!

    Greg Lewis CPP
    Lewis PhotoConcepts
    2011-2012 President of The Professional Photographers Society of New York State (PPSNYS)

Leave a Reply