Once in a while, I get a commission for a portrait that takes my breath away. I love doing portraiture because, for me, faces have a story to tell. Most of the photos I get are interesting, but this one just blew me away. All portraits are, off course, important to the owners, so all get treated with the same care.
This time was extra special. I got a tiny photo of a young woman in an elegant pose and a huge, vibrant smile. I could see that the photo was quite old and she seemed to be from Papua New Guinea. A brilliant fuzz of black hair crowned her face, and, (my heart sank at this time) facial tattoos. Her aliveness and radiance were just palpable.
I have tackled a few challenging portraits: old people, young people, ringlets, bad photos and smiles (believe it or not, teeth are one of the hardest things to tackle). However, I never considered that I'd be doing facial tattoos. They are basically a drawing on a curved surface. I also remember looking at it thinking how much it must have hurt.
She was the great-grand-mother of the lady who commissioned the portrait, and what I learned was that the tattoos were a sign of high status. Unfortunately, that is all I know, apart from the fact that she seemed very happy.
By contrast, I can tell you about the photos I've seen from my great-grand-parents. They were farmers and fishermen. They looked straight into the camera without so much as a hint a smile. 'Vibrant' or 'happy' are definitely not words that spring to mind. 'Stern', 'serious' and 'hard life' seem to be etched on their faces.
I have included a sequence of photos to show the progression in this portrait. When it works well, it is like a polaroid that slowly comes to life. I am very happy with the result, and I think the tattoos worked out just fine! It has been an absolute privilege!