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• by Rebecca Long Pyper •

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Worth 1,000 connections: Why traditional portraiture is a dying art and what that means for posterity

Despite having more ways to record history than ever before, technology might be to blame for future generations being deprived of one very human artifact: photos of Mom.


For centuries men and women immortalized themselves in portraits, and it wasn’t a habit adopted by a single group. “Portraits have been a popular genre in nearly every culture and time period,” said Idaho State University’s art historian Andrea Ferber.


As symbols of status and documentation of life, portraits were drawn, painted and printed widely. In works hundreds of years old, viewers can pick up clues about the subject by the way the portrait was executed. The larger the canvas and the more of the body that was included tell how wealthy the sitter was, Ferber said — that’s why royalty are depicted head to toe and on larger canvases.


But in the 16th or 17th century, in northern Europe especially, portraiture became more popular and accessible. Because of the Reformation, the Catholic church wasn’t the sole employer of artists, who could suddenly make a living doing secular work, not just religious. That meant the wider populace was able to purchase landscapes and seascapes and commission portraits, and they did so with relish. Even the middle class could afford to have small paintings depicting a figure from the neck up.


The prevalence of painted portraits continued until the daguerreotype — an early successful form of photography — entered the scene in the 1840s, Ferber said. Thereafter, photographed portraits replaced those on canvas, but through much of the 20th century, people still had their portraits taken even as they aged, like the photographs many families have of their grandmothers in their 30s, 40s and 50s.


Portraiture dwindled as cameras dropped in price and became affordable to the masses. With every amateur wielding a point-and-shoot, the quality of photography dropped, and fewer people budgeted to have professional portraits taken because they could shoot photos themselves.


“The value of portraiture is almost nonexistent. And that is 100 percent due to the value of photography becoming nonexistent. Every single human being that can buy a camera is a ‘professional photographer,’” said photographer Craig LaMere, owner of Moz Studios in Pocatello.


LaMere is part of a dying breed. Much of his focus is in portraiture, specifically portraits of women who today aren’t nearly as likely to have individual studio shots taken.


Part of the reluctance is association; when some think of portraits today, the phrase “glamour photos” comes to mind and conjures memories of denim jackets and aerosol-sprayed hair. LaMere, who also works and teaches in the East, said in this part of the country especially, women are less likely to have individual photos taken.


“Feeling that at 30 it’s over for you, it’s a society-cultural thing here. People here are more about getting a family image, and women back East aren’t that way — they will get a portrait of themselves,” he said.


If cheaper cameras result in more people opting out of having photos taken professionally, it will mean fewer treasures for posterity to treasure.


“When (previous generations) would get those images, there was no digital world, and so these were the things they would create and pass down from generation to generation, and they were heirlooms,” LaMere said, adding that “in a digital world, no one places a value on heirlooms,” largely because people can shoot everything themselves, even with their phones.


With his work LaMere said the big goal is for women to simply feel pretty. “I don’t care what age a woman or a girl is. The mission of the studio is this: All I want to do is make you feel pretty,” he said. “To me it’s about classic portraiture for women over their 30s that is super gorgeous and pretty — and it is sexy, but it’s about pure beauty and bringing it out in those women.”


He’s serious enough about this goal that his studio boasts hair and makeup artists so clients get a shot they — and their posterity — will cherish. He also holds consultations prior to the shoot to discuss what aesthetic a customer is after, whether it be a straightforward, authentic shot or getting all gussied up a la Marie Antoinette.


LaMere’s clients order prints to display in their bedrooms or albums to place on the coffee table. Sending clients home with physical products is important, LaMere said, partly because having photos all tied up digitally can lead to problems down the road. Digital photos are more likely to remain on the computer rather than be printed and added to frames or albums where they’ll be viewed. And digital drives can become corrupt or outdated, rendering the files obsolete.


In part LaMere blames photographers themselves for the decline in portraiture. “The practitioners or the photographers, they have no idea how to shoot it or light it. They’ve lost the skill set to even produce the images,” he said.


Although traditional portraiture is a dying art, in the art world “it hasn’t declined; it has transformed. Art now is very conceptual,” Ferber said, adding that art today is more about representing identity, rather than a literal interpretation of how something or someone looks.


And there’s some irony too; pick up any shelter magazine, and you’re likely to see no-name oil portraits, picked up at flea markets and estate sales, hanging on the walls of featured homes. Ferber attributes that to “the human connection, even seeing images of human beings that you don’t know, regardless of time period or culture.” It’s that kind of connection posterity will lose if people today continue to live and die without having their portraits taken.

Thinking at the next level

How to promote critical thinking in your kids

Whether your child is a mini genius or currently fails to read at grade level, instilling higher-level thinking skills in youth is crucial and can set them up to make better choices throughout their lives.


“On a basic level, how do we as human beings make choices? We have to have critical-thinking skills to make any choice in our life. If you want free agency for everyone, this is essential,” said Blackfoot School District 55 gifted-and-talented facilitator Vicki Chase.


Parents don’t have to be brainiacs to teach their kids how to think at a higher level. Chase outlines a handful of practical ways moms and dads can encourage their kids to start thinking in more complex ways:


Encourage them to solve problems. “As parents one of the things we don’t allow our kids to do enough is to struggle,” Chase said. “When we do it for them, we are not allowing them to develop the problem-solving skills and strategy skills.”


That can be as simple as responding to their questions with more questions. When your child is working on homework and says, “I don’t know the answer,” respond by asking, “What can we do to figure it out?” Or if your kids ask, “Did I do this problem right?” don’t default to a quick yes or no; instead, ask why they think it’s wrong (or right) and how they came up with their answer. This approach requires kids to identify that criteria are met.


Another place to solve problems is at the grocery store. When shopping with kids, teach them about price per unit, then ask them to help choose the products that make it into the cart. This will require them to compare and contrast, plus do math. The activity promotes lifelong consumerism skills — and keeps them busy in the store so they aren’t driving you mad, Chase said.


One more place to break things down is when children report that they’ve completed a task at home. If your daughter says she’s cleaned her room, ask her what she did and what makes her think the job is finished. Encourage her to identify all the steps she took — making her bed, putting clean clothes away and dumping dirty things in the hamper, for instance. It’s also a good way for her to identify what parts of the room have not yet been cleaned up.


Think out loud. Next time you’ve got a problem to solve, do it out loud. Don’t have dinner planned? Muse aloud about what you’ll make. Ask kids for their suggestions, then discuss limitation imposed by the current state of your pantry. “We as adults know the strategies that we use (to solve problems), but kids don’t know that,” Chase said.


Inspire creativity. Chase keeps a bunch of “doodahs” in her classroom, and when kids are working on creative assignments, they construct things from the random items. “When they have to create things, they will go into that room, and things will jump out at them, and they’ll say, ‘I can use this and I can use that,’” she said. “I’ve seen some really amazing things kids have made out of boxes and markers and tape. If kids don’t have the toy they want, what can (they) create?”


As a girl Chase and her siblings created an entire Hot Wheels town on a sheet of paneling — “that was hours and hours of fun, and we created it ourselves,” she said. And surely this kind of creativity requires more brain power than watching TV or playing videogames. Encourage kids to make a store or make a car by having boxes and miscellany on hand for creative play.


Ask about alternatives. Weighing options is another way to tap higher brainpower. When there’s a task to accomplish, ask your kids their opinions. If you’ve got a Saturday’s worth of housecleaning to do, ask them what different ways the family can finish the work — do it all in the morning? Divvy up the tasks?  Or if you’ve got errands to run, ask them about different routes and how they would get to the destination. In addition to geographic awareness, “it’s allowing them opportunities to make choices, so they’re part of that decision-making process,” Chase said.


Push “why” more often. When your kid says he hates lasagna, ask for more details — what ingredients are gross? Is texture the issue? Does it take too long to make? This requires kids to recognize evidence, and that’s a big part of the educational core standards adopted in Idaho and used in the classroom, Chase said. Help children learn the difference between facts and opinions, the concrete and the abstract. “Talk to the kids and ask them what their views and feelings are — not just ‘I hate lasagna,’ but why,” Chase said.


Get to know your kids a little better. Howard Gardner identified multiple ways of being smart, from visual to logical to kinesthetic and more, and figuring out how your children are intellectually talented can boost their self-esteem. Diagnostics are available free online; they’re a fun way to celebrate what makes your kid special and intellectually strong.


Let kids evaluate their work. When a task is complete, ask how they think they did, and again dig for specifics. Evaluation is one of the highest levels of thinking, and if your children can learn to look at their work objectively, it’ll help them be more thorough in their responsibilities now and as future adults.

Story and background photo by Rebecca Long Pyper.