Street Photography- the Modern Portrait?

The relationship between a painter and a portrait sitter is one of the most emotionally intense (and often fraught) elements of portrait painting.

Looking at the history of this relationship in art history, one gets the impression that there is perhaps no more certain way to ensure two people either fall in love or develop an eternal hatred for each other than to sit them the same room for several months with an easel and some paintbrushes.

The portrait is a fundamental element of art; contemporary or classical. Not only is such an intense focus on human features a remarkable test of artistic skill- exposing relentlessly an artist’s grasp of proportion and perspective. There is also something simply visually arresting about looking at other humans. Portraits, for me, when done well are always infinitely more fascinating and captivating than even the most beautiful landscape.

 “the portrait of the twenty first century is undoubtedly the photographic portrait”

For most modern creators of portraits, long gone are the days of painters and the painted sitting in studios for weeks or months with their eyes stinging from the acrylic paint and paint striper. Whilst some painters still use the traditional process, and to great effect, the portrait of the twenty first century is undoubtedly the photographic portrait.

If this is the case, then certainly one man is coming to the fore as the master in this new art genre. Brandon Stanton is the creator of blogging phenomenon Humans of New York.

A young girl photographed on the subway - Image credit: Brandon Stanton

A young girl photographed on the subway
Image credit: Brandon Stanton

 “I ask him if his outfit is for Fashion Week? ‘Nah I just got outta jail. I’ve been wearing this sh*t for two weeks’ “

Photographed on the subway. Impressed by his unusual outfit, Stanton asked him if he was here for New York Fashion Week. He replied that- no, he'd just gotten out of prison the clothes were what he'd been wearing for the past fortnight. Image credit: Brandon Stanton

Photographed on the subway. Impressed by his unusual outfit, Stanton asked him if he was here for New York Fashion Week? “Nah I just got outta jail. I’ve been wearing this sh*t for two weeks”
Image credit: Brandon Stanton

"It's {the tattoo} French for 'Army of Shadows""What does it mean to you?"“I was going through a really rough time in my life, and it felt like a whole army was after me. But when I started feeling better, I realized it was nothing but an army of shadows.”Image Credit: Brandon Stanton

“It’s {the tattoo} French for ‘Army of Shadows”
“What does it mean to you?”
“I was going through a really rough time in my life, and it felt like a whole army was after me. But when I started feeling better, I realized it was nothing but an army of shadows.”
Image Credit: Brandon Stanton

The blog posts daily photographs of an eclectic mix individuals in the city preoccupied with every day life.

Stanton’s story is a very modern one. After a disastrous end to a career in finance and trading, he gave up the fast pace of life to photograph strangers on the street from the summer of 2010. His initial mission was to create a photographic census of New York. He envisaged taking 10,000 photos and plotting each one on a map.

Seen in New YorkImage credit: Brandon Stanton

Seen in New York
Image credit: Brandon Stanton

A thirteen year old New York Fashion Week attendee. "Her mother explained that she was wearing her first collection"Image credit: Brandon Stanton

A thirteen year old New York Fashion Week attendee. “Her mother explained that she was wearing her first collection”
Image credit: Brandon Stanton

 “This new genre of portraits may not equal the intensity of relationships between the painter and painted in classical art, but it more than makes up for it in humour, drama and intrigue in its own way”

Stanton explains, ‘He described himself as a professional muse, which called me to laugh. But he wasn’t smiling, “I give people guidance” he said, ” I’m going to meet my first client of the new year”. I didn’t want to ask any more questions, some things are better left a mystery’.
Image credit: Brandon Stanton

Stanton explains that around two thirds of the people he stops will be happy to have their photos taken. The process of the portrait can last anywhere from five seconds to five minutes. But never any longer.

However, when he would approach people to take their photos, he found that he would often find out so much more than merely their image and geographical home. He would get jokes, confessions, gossip, and even life stories. So he began to compile his photographs with a little comment or two from the subjects of his photographs. The result is a personal and touching catalogue of everyday life in all its oddity and banality in New York. This new genre of portraits may not equal the intensity of relationships between the painter and painted in classical art, but it more than makes up for it in humour, drama and intrigue in its own way.

You can see more of Brandon Stanton’s images by clicking here for the Humans of New York tumblr or here for the facebook page.

What are your thoughts on street portraiture? Is it art’s new portrait? Do you think the relationship between artist and sitter is being changed?

Comment below or click here to the join the conversation on the Fawn Review facebook page.

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