Flattery is not my business. While I’m a portrait photographer, I make images of strangers at events—parades, fairs, pageants, even watermelon-eating contests—that are generally hostile environments for portraiture.
The history of portraiture is one long and ugly tradition of flattery, wholesale lying, and public relations deception. Clearly, humans don’t want to be rendered as they actually appear in daily life. Instead, we would rather be enhanced, visually embellished, lit and photographed as we wish we looked.
I like to think of my pursuit of a new kind of portraiture as a one-man crusade against those false 17th century court paintings and vainglorious images of business titans and corporate board members, even against studio portraits in general. If it were up to me I’d throw out the whole lot.
When I photograph, I’m looking for individuals, couples, or families that I haven’t seen before. Of course, in a crowd almost everyone qualifies as overlooked. Yet I want to show you or point to someone who truly has been missed. I look to create portraits that you have not seen before, something new.
It’s a difficult and uncomfortable process because I’m asking strangers to stop and yet not pose for me, to ignore me, even. Which leads to the inevitable question: “Why do you want to photograph me?” My answer is always brief and entirely true: “Because you look great.”
Stephen Milanowski, 2018