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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Observation point

by Gary Grealy, 14 June 2016

Why Portraiture? I have always gravitated to the figurative, the human form and, ultimately, the portrait.

The Art Lovers – Noah and Savannah 2015 by Gary Grealy
The Art Lovers – Noah and Savannah 2015 by Gary Grealy

I must confess at the outset that my photographic hero is the American photographer Irving Penn, who was still working until his death in 2009 at the age of ninety-two. He was a master of many subjects, from still life to fashion. However, for me, it is the portraits that are captivating; it is the simplicity of a plain background and beautiful lighting, with the subject as the hero.

This approach has been my intent over many years! I will always opt for a simple background rather than complexity. As with most rules, this is occasionally broken, maybe at the request of a subject, or simply that I find on a rare occasion that the background adds something. It is all about the subject; they must be the hero! I want to be within an arms length of the sitter. I am looking for the character, the history in the roadmap of the face. I want intimacy between the lens and subject. Hence, a lot of my portraits are quite closely cropped.

Another element to my approach is the need to research my subject. I read as much as possible. I will view every video I can find. On many occasions I have listened to a radio interview or seen a documentary on an individual, and this has been the catalyst to contact that person to ask if they will sit for a portrait. If possible, I like to meet with the subject prior to the sitting; generally this is only a brief hello so they have met me and I have a sense of the person and their environment. This also allows me to establish the equipment I will require for the sitting.

The process of visualising the image begins with a drawing. With this technique, I find the composition quickly becomes clear. On the day of the sitting I want a completely resolved image in my mind; I don’t want my subject twiddling their thumbs while I play with lights. To this end, I pre-light every portrait I make. I photograph myself in the lighting style I intend to use for the portrait. On the day, the lights are set and I begin. Some sittings may require fifty frames; many take ten.

Why portraiture? I love the interaction and the collaboration! Why portraits of artists and people from the art world? I think it is the smell of oil paint and the exhilaration of being in the presence of creativity!?

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.