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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.

Story and background photo by Rebecca Long Pyper.