Feb 192012

E. H. Gombrich

Making A Likeness

What is the difference between

a mug shot and a portrait? Capturing

the likeness of a sitter is a skill

which continues to captivate an audience.

Even though a photograph

is taken from reality, it does not 

guarantee the portrait will ring the bells

of recognition. 

Mélanie Cartier-Bresson.  Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Mélanie Cartier-Bresson. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

— What is a Portrait? 

The introduction to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book of portraits, called Tete a Tete was written by E.H. Gombrich.  Who is Mr. Gombrich, you might ask?  Born in Austria in 1909, just before World War I, he left as a young man to work at the Warburg Institute (London, UK) where he earned his first break in the academic world.  His more notable publications are “A Little History of the World” and “The Story of Art.”  These accessible texts to the respective topics of world history and art opened the academic doors of knowledge to anyone with the inclination to read a book.  The reason Gombrich’s personal history is relevant to this entry is because he was a man of great education, who links connections across multiple fields as easily as a pianist changes chords.

The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich

When he was not penning a book on the Renaissance or art theory, he wrote essays which are some of the finest examples of collected analogies and comparisons that can be found on the topics of art and culture.  I enjoy his ability to take a complex subject like Art, break it down into small components and relate it to analogous topics that we all can understand.  Gombrich descends from the philosopher’s towering pulpit to encourage us to study the world around us, with the knowledge that human existence contains universal element.  These commonalities enrich our understanding of art, history, and possibly even humanity.

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich

But before we get too lofty, let us look at the relationship of Gombrich and Cartier-Bresson.  They were born within a year of each other and lived to see the turn of the millennium. Gombrich (1909-2001) HCB (1908-2004).  They lived through World War I and were effected as children who grew up in post war Europe.  They both went on to serve for their respective countries during World War II, though Cartier-Bresson was the only one who served time in a German Prison camp.  Their experiences illuminated aspects of the world which consume most young people coming of age.  Those in search of themselves must, at some point, engage the question “WHY?”  Surely this has happened to you, I know it has happened to me.  Between all of us, we might have a few answers, but more likely we end up with motivations to continue the search for an almost unanswerable question.

Avigdor Arikha. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

As the Second World War ended, they each exploded professionally.  Gombrich had spent five years in the service of Her Majesty’s Service, while Cartier-Bresson buried his three Leica’s in a box in the woods.  He did not take a picture for over three years, while he was in prison.  At least he did not take any with his camera.  But we know his eye was constantly clicking, registering moments of geometry and rhythm.  The time away from their work might seem like a loss but in both cases, the men agreed the difficulty was an advantage.  Gombrich was enlisted to translate German messages into English.  For ten hours a day, sometimes more, he studied language, its symbols and meanings.  It served as a formative study, which took Gombrich completely by surprise.  But when his time in the Service was complete, he possessed a new found appreciation for type, communication and most importantly meaning.

Alberto Giacometti. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

— What is a Likeness

Our visual and linguistic languages, or our words and pictures (to avoid sounding too academic) are not easily translatable.  A picture can speak with a clarity which might require a thousands words to explain.  Likewise for anyone who has looked at a set of Ikea directions will agree that careful wording could make those Swedish hieroglyphs much easier to comprehend.  One system is not better than the other.  They each have their respective strengths.  Today, we will sit back in our chairs to consider:


“When we make a portrait, what are we really doing?” 


Martine Franck. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

— Is that Mona Lisa

The introduction to Tete A Tete posses a question to the reader, “Would we recognize the Mona Lisa on the streets of Florence?”  How can a portrait be more true than the actual person?  Have you ever had a meeting with someone you only know from a picture?  Its confusing.  They never seem to match perfectly.  This causes obvious disasters for online dating, but furthermore is a problem for the photographer.  We need to understand what makes a portrait work.  If the likeness of a photo is wrong the picture will not read.  It will look like the sitters distant, deformed cousin.

Jean-Paul Sartre. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

A good portrait however, will define a person beyond their physical presence.  In the case of Jean-Paul Sartres, Gombrich points out that the image makes it feel as if we were “face to face” with the father of Existentialism, even if we never met him.  Time and distance become irrelevant in a portrait.  If the photographer does their job well, we feel as if we KNOW the sitter whether we have met them or not.  So how does all of this work?

Andre Pieyre de Mandiagues. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

— Smile 

Gombrich breaks a portrait down into the subtlety of the face, the expression, decorum and types of scenes.  There are more categories and he encourages us to add to the list.  We will look at them individually to understand the build up of a portrait.  Truth be told, many portraits do not work.  They fall into a forgettable pile of papers which are best used for starting a fire.  They are repetitive and made for mass consumption, as a result they are,


…insensitive to the subtleties of the human expression.  


When Gombrich needs support for his articles, we get a sense for the depth of his working knowledge.  While many of us have slight recollection of names like Leone Battista Alberti from a class on Renaissance Art, Gombrich possesses a seductive working knowledge of these artists.  It is useful, because aside from his personal convictions, he often shares a sentiment with well respected historical figures.

Leone Battista Albert


“Alberti quite correctly wrote that it is 

not easy to distinguish in a painting 

a laughing from weeping face. 

E. H. Gombrich, page 3”


Working in two dimensions means the viewer cannot tell if a person is screaming or laughing.  With the sound removed, the portrait artist is dependent on other visual cues to indicate the mood of the sitter.  And on Alberti’s advice, would be wise to avoid depicting emotions that are unclear or ambiguous.  Clarity will strengthen an image.  

Leonardo Da Vinci's Drawing of an Old Man in Profile


We all have pictures of ourselves where it looks like someone else.  The angle isn’t right or the expression seems off.  There are views which are more indicative of the way we look than others.  Leonardo Da Vinci noted that if you get the outline of a person right, the picture will look like them.  Artists have conventions for depicting subjects so they avoid “…the spouse who complains there is ‘something wrong about the mouth’ in the portrait of her husband. page 3.”  We want to understand what a GOOD view of a person means.  To start with Gombrich suggests we look through police files to observe a full frontal and a profile portrait.  Even if we are not dissecting bodies like Leonardo or Michelangelo we need to possess some knowledge of anatomy.

Henri Matisse. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Cartier-Bresson learned his anatomy in figure drawing classes.  He learned about the proportions of the head, its major divisions, and the ways in which an artist can distort a head to fit the needs of a picture.  But if we do not know how to measure a head the results of our portraiture will be guess work.  Leave the lottery to chance, but work to get a handle of the human head if you would like to make a good portrait.

Matisse and his Pigeons. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS


“I like to photograph the animal in his _abitat.”  Drop the H on habitat if you would like to deliver the line with a french accent.  I have heard this line quoted by more photographers than I can name in a single entry.  Cartier-Bresson nailed the bullseye when he made this statement.  The habitat or decorum is critical to a master portrait.  It gives a sense of time, place, and sensibility about the subject.  A flawless example of this exists in the portrait of Henri Matisse and his Pigeons or André Pieyre de Mandiargues in his library.  The next time you make a portrait really take the time to find a suitable background for the subject.  Look for keys to inform the mood of the scene.  Without it, the body will float in space.

John Berger. © Henri Cartier-Bresson?MAGNUM PHOTOS


There are no mysteries with a portrait.  The sitter knows their picture is being taken.  An implicit agreement exists between the sitter and the photographer.  Unlike a photograph taken on the street, where there are no trained actors, the portrait artist and the sitter are each aware of the others presence.  Gombrich gives a few examples of “Types of Cartier-Bresson portraits.”  There are pictures where the sitter is arguing with the lens (John Berger), ones where they are lost in thought (William Faulkner), some where they have just discovered the camera (Avigdor Arikha) or those who are distracted (Coco Chanel).

William Faulkner. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

We are invited to continue this list for Gombrich as many more types surely exist.  The underlying lesson in this exercise is that in spite of the formality of a portrait and the fixed set of variables, there are an infinite number of possibilities.  Cartier-Bresson illustrates how a portrait does not need fancy lighting, studios or assistants.  A good portrait requires a keen eye and patience.  Both are skills that we can all practice.

Coco Chanel. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

When we consider that Cartier-Bresson spent FOUR MONTHS sitting in the corner of Matisse’s studio before he snapped a single picture, we start to understand how delicate this game really is.  The whole idea of a photographer having a few hours with a subject for a magazine layout seems utterly trivial when we look at the results of Cartier-Bresson’s time spent with Matisse.  Only after months and months of time together was he able to make what I consider to be one of the masterpieces of 20th century portraiture.

As Gombrich closes the essay and sends us on our way, he gives us a homework assignment.  Take a famous portrait by Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt or Velasquez and cover everything in the scene but the face.  Put that face into a contemporary scene and see if it is still recognizable.  For those of you who are Photoshop wizzes, GO WILD.  Notice that the face of a figure will be completely transformed by the setting.

Alberto Giacometti. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Gombrich and Cartier-Bresson both believed there are universal qualities to the human condition.  They both understood that we have characteristics which make us different, but more things that make us similar.  Cartier-Bresson was keen to link these elements because after an hour with Tete A Tete on our laps, we would recognize Giacometti if we saw him on the street.

The portraits are so strong, so full of life and under the surface they are so well designed that we can hold on to them even after the book is closed.  Recently I heard someone say that for each famous photographer we only remember about ten photographs.  For those whose eyes simply pass over the pages of a book, it is probably true.  There are many pages of magazine toilet paper being flipped as we speak.  But for those individuals, who value time and patience, the pages of a book will allow you to recall a hundred photographs at a moments notice.  Just as Gombrich has shown us with his writing, the professional has a working knowledge of resources that will dumbfound the amateur.  From his humble beginnings as a Austrian student he reminds us that mastery is within our reach.

I am not sure what the copyrights are like on this site, but here is a link to Tete A Tete in its entirety.  But I recommend that you pick up a hardcopy of Tete A Tete as a useful edition to your growing library.



Adam Marelli 




  9 Responses to “Tête A Tête”

  1. Adam, I hope you really promote this stuff – great writing. The Caravaggio post really pulled me in (it was the first one of yours that I read) … a real breath of fresh air to see some thought and analysis instead of the gadget p0rn that is everywhere.

    • Hey Amonle,

      Very happy to hear you enjoyed the article and recently discovered the site. I figure so many photographers have over dosed on gear, they own what they need, its time for a dose of information that everyone can apply. Museums and books catch a bad wrap, as if they were the graveyards of creativity. They are a wealth of knowledge which is coded in a visual language.

      I will leave the promotion up to you, nothing is better than word of mouth. : )


  2. Ah, Adam, thank you for yet another great history/art/photography class.
    I will pay money for this…

    • Glad you like it Danni.

      This is really just the tip of the iceberg. Feel free to drop me a note if you would like some more in depth study. My One on One students get the full dose.


  3. Great article, Adam.

    I’m currently reading “The Story of Art” and it’s a great read. I really enjoy the written and pictorial evolution of artistic techniques and the frequent references supported by the history. I can’t think of a better reference book for anyone who wants to take the fast track to learning art history.

  4. Amazing !!!

    Well done !… at last something that we can read and ponder about instead of the usual gear-head blogs and sites that seem to have mushroomed all over this crazy internet highway… how refreshing and how well you write.

    Thank You, I have just discovered this site through a post in the Leica Forum and am looking forward to a good languid read through all your posts…



    • Hi Jorge,

      Please take your time reading the articles and feel free to let me know if there are any questions.

      Happy to hear you enjoy the articles. I saw a shortage of useful information for photographers. Gear, as you pointed out, is written about to DEATH. But once you have all the right gear, whatever that means to you, how do you start to make great images? There is the real challenge.

      Most of the answers we need are hidden in the notebooks, sketchbooks, and paintings of great artists. There are always a few generations of artists who want to burn down the museums and throw out tradition (Dada, Italian Futurists, & Abstract Expressionists) but this is always a mistake. The museums are exist for future generations. Its one of the few ways that artists can speak directly to us.

      Be well.


  5. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for the great article. I just picked up a copy of the book at Strand on my visit to NYC. I love the book! Keep up the great articles and recommendations. I find your work insightful and very helpful in improving my own understanding of photography and art.

    Thanks again,


    • Hi Kennet,

      Happy to hear that you came across a copy of the book at the Strand. Its a very intimate set of portraits, and I adore the Gombrich essay at the beginning. Very rarely are “art essays” as clear and relevant as Gombrich’s writing. I mean if we are going to take a portrait, might as well ask ourselves “Why am I taking this picture?”

      I hope the rest of your time in NYC was agreeable.


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