Classic Portraiture

Beverly Howell, about 1943

My aunt Betty left South Dakota for California when she was 18. That had to have been a huge leap for a petite girl from the midwest. She went with her oldest sister (my aunt) Phyllis. Phyllis moved back to South Dakota after a few months but Betty stayed for the rest of her life.

As close as we can tell, this portrait was taken in 1943 in California when Betty was about 22. That’s close to 70 years ago.

This photo has powerful personal and family meaning to me but as an occasional portrait photographer and as a photography teacher, it is a good example of what I have said more than once to my young students: a well-posed, well-lit portrait will never go completely out of style.

Of course, the hair and clothing fashions of the 1940s have faded. And while a white vignette isn’t something you see much of these days, everything else about this portrait still “works,” especially the Rembrandt lighting. This photo has a sepia tone to it, though the color would have been applied by hand, since color film was a novelty in the 40s.

Finally, as I look at this “analog” picture, I think of the billions of digital files (mine included) that never make their way to paper. If Betty’s portrait had been done with a digital camera and if it had only been seen and published on a computer, we wouldn’t be looking at it today. What will exist 70 years from now that will decode this and millions of other blogs – and the pictures that illustrate them?

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