Number 5:
Photography as Drawing:
Photographing People III: Faces and Hands

Published April 2005

We return to our discussion of the relation of drawing to the creation of vivid, singular, affecting and memorable human beings by considering the photography of the face and the hands.

Our faces and hands are the most expressive parts of our bodies.

With respect to our subjects, the friends, family members and anonymous strangers of our pictures, faces and hands are the chief means by which the people we photograph express their feelings.

With respect to ourselves as picture makers, it is in large part by the way we photograph faces and hands that we create the states of being—the moods, energies, emotions: in short, the souls—of our picture’s human characters, and so create the impression of human feeling our pictures convey to others.

No better illustration of this can be found than in these two photographs by the great 1940s American press photographer Weegee:

Such emotional intensity in each glance and stare, each flashing eye, each turn of a head, each pointing finger, clenched fist and gesturing hand!

Moreover, each picture’s intensity is so different from the other’s that we feel certain that a moment in some unknown event has moved a group of women to fear, confusion and a need for human contact and that a different moment, or perhaps some other event, has moved a group of men to frustration, anger and outrage.

As for the point that we “create” our pictures’ states of being and emotions, I can think of no better illustration than these two pictures of the Metropolitan Opera chorus in rehearsal.

Face and Hands: Specificity and Variation in the Figure Group

As we saw in January’s column, the impression a photograph gives of a unique individual depends in part on how specifically we draw that person: on the specificity of the form or a picture’s human figure.

Similarly, in February’s column we saw that the impression of unique individuals within a figure group depends in part on how specifically each figure is drawn with respect to the others—on variations on the motif of the human figure.

The same is true of the drawing of the human face and hands. And when we say “face” we almost inevitably imply “head”—the ground against which the figure of the human face is seen.

In figure groups like Wegee Metropolitan Opera pictures, the variations on the heads, faces and hands are obvious. First, the women:

Then the men:

Variations on the head, face and hand are, in fact, easy enough to see in pictures of two or more people, as in these two photographs from c. 1956 by Robert Frank:

But this is because Weegee and Robert Frank knew what it is to draw a head, a face, a hand; knew, in other words, the principles of specificity and variation as practiced in the portrait, where the head is the ground against which the figure of the face is seen, and the face is the ground against which can be seen, in turn, the figures of the facial features, conceived as forms, and the variations between the motifs of such things as eyes, lips, ears, cheeks, the underlying bones, wrinkles of the skin, also conceived as form, They also knew the same things about depictions of the hand with respect to its general shape and the shapes of fingers, etc. conceived as forms.

With strong portraits of striking human beings we feel so much in the presence of a forceful personality—someone larger than life, or more intense than ourselves and those ordinarily around us, or someone from an exotic or marginal social, emotional or sexual realm—that we overlook those aspects of form that create the impression of physical uniqueness and emotional or psychological power in the sitter. We confuse, in effect, the subject and the art and forget that the power of the picture is in the art.

With respect to this, Diane Arbus’s 1960s portraits of transvestites, midgets, nudists, burlesque queens, circus performers and other marginal, apparently marginal, or apparently grotesque characters—called, by Arbus’s unobservant critics, “freaks”—are one of twentieth-century portraiture’s classic cases in point. (Weegee’s are another.)

Garry Winogrand once remarked that it was a mistake to attribute the strength of Arbus’s pictures to the dramatic and sometimes sensational nature of her subjects when, in fact, it was in the greatness of her art.

“If a dramatic subject were the guarantee of a dramatic photograph,” Winogrand would say, “every photograph of a close play at home plate would be a masterpiece.” Consider this portrait by Diane Arbus, A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C., 1966.

The general shape of this young man’s long oval head is made specific by the contours of the hair rollers, which extend and make irregular the contour of the skull. It is also made specific by the encroachment of the shadow onto the left cheek. Narrowing the skull at cheekbone and jaw, the shadow also seems to suspend the ear as a separate object (a separate form) in the dark background space. And so we have a head, seen frontally, but with only one ear.

Within this shape (against this ground), each eyebrow, eyelid, eye, side of the nose, nostril, lip, jaw-line and (given the shadows) cheek is a variation on the other, is a distinct form. Notice, for example, how the right eyebrow is a free-standing curve against the plain ground of the forehead but the left eyebrow ends in and joins with the form of the shadow and hair along the (subject's) right side of the head.

The form of the hand is as singular in relation to hands as the head is to the generalized form of the skull. Against this ground, each finger is a strong variation on the others: each joint, knuckle, shadow (between fingers and on the palm), each fingernail, each line, is a unique form.

So for the form of each of the five hair rollers against the form, the ground, created by the dark form of the hair..

Each strand of hair on the subject’s forehead. is a unique line, and all strands extend the contour line of the hair downward into the forehead, giving the form of the forehead itself a jagged and descending top edge.

Digression: Your Drawing and Your Instrument
Or: When “What Equipment Should I Use?” is a Valid Question

Arbus used a Mamiya twin lens reflex camera because, unlike the Rolleiflex and other twin-lens reflex cameras, it accepted interchangeable lenses. (I don’t know why she didn’t use either a Bronica or a Hassleblad.) Her normal and wide-angle lenses were adequate for her interest in the drawing of the face and figure from many vantage points:

The Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Champions, Yonkers, N.Y. 1962

Man at a parade on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C. 1969

But when it was the drawing of the face alone that concerned her, for the sake of the forms and the figure-ground relationships that we have just observed, it was the telephoto lens that she needed.

Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C. 1964

A child crying, N. J. 1967

Consider, in each picture, eyebrows, hair, the lines from cheekbone to mouth and around the mouth as lines, eyes, lips, cheeks and the two sides of the face as forms, and as pairs of motifs with precise, deliberate variations, one form to the other, within each pair.

Once one has begun to see these things in even as few pictures as the nine reproduced above one can see them everywhere. They should be obvious in the classic portraits we are about to turn to.

But before our portrait gallery begins we must consider yet one more aspect of the forms of portraiture.

“The Shape of a Head and the Structure of a Face”

In 1979, Jean-Claude Lemagny, curator of photography at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, wrote a paper explaining his policy on collecting photographs. At one point he acknowledged his critics’ complaints that he did not purchase fashion photographs. He answered it saying that the Bibliotheque would start to collect fashion photographs when fashion photographers, whose subject matter almost invariably involved depiction of the models’ faces, realized that a portrait was “a study of the shape of a head and the structure of a face.” [Emphasis mine.]

A study of portraits before photography shows that Lemagny’s comment applies not just to photographic portraits but to portraiture itself.

What follows is a number of photographic portraits already published in January’s column together with my rough tracings of them. The variations of forms within the contour of head and face should be obvious. The tracings are there to highlight the shapes of the heads and the structures of the face and, where appropriate, the shapes and/or variations in the forms of the hands.

In Weston’s portrait of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, above, the form of Rivera’s head almost merges with that of the shadow of Rivera’s hat against the wall and on River’s jacket. The vague transition between head and shadow, which tends to unite rather than separate the two forms, is a painterly effect—as opposed, say, to the linear effect of the transition, in the Paul Strand portrait below, between the girls hair and forehead. Such transitions, making, here a form that is neither the form of the head nor that of the shadow, can be seen in many of the pictures here (e.g., in the shadows between arms or hands and the body and in shadows between the fingers of a hand). The distinction between the painterly and linear style of drawing will be the subject of a future Making Pictures column.

An Edward Weston Portrait as Above plus
The Form of the Head Considered as a Flat Shape on the Surface

In the last of these tracings, observe the distance between the ear lobe and the nose. It is this expanse of flat cheek, occupying so great an area within the frame, with the facial features relegated toward one side of it, the ear toward the other, thus creating so large a flat and featureless plane within the shape of the head that contributes to the appearance of the head itself as a flat shape upon the picture’s foremost plane.

A quick study of the photographs reproduced above shows the same concern on the parts of their photographers for this distance and the areas it creates when depicted. A study of the history of photography together with one of the history of painting since at least the Renaissance reveals that this distance has been a prime concern of portraitists, and a prime element in portraits themselves, for at least 500 years

The Forms Around the Head

In the classic portrait the un-figured areas between the head and the edges of the frame are sometimes referred to as negative space. Although accurate, the term can be misleading. It is more instructive to the photographer to think of the form of head as sectioning the rest of the frame off into other forms—as drawing abstract forms into the frame; and of these forms as yet another motif to be varied, and whose variations, when singular, contribute both to the picture’s visual strength and to the impression that the photograph presents the experience of beholding and feeling the force of a unique human being.

Two More by Edward Weston


Here is a photograph by Edward Weston, with its tracing,

presented in the hope that, together with the tracing and the hand details of the two Wegee photographs (above), it is sufficient to the purpose of isolating the forms of hands and the variations on the motif, and sufficient as a basis of further study.

Additional Pictures

Bill Brandt

Bill Brandt


Harry Callahan

Larry Clark (two pages from Tulsa)

Henri Cartier-Bresson


Walker Evans

Walker Evans

Dorothea Lange

Julia Margaret Cameron

Lady Hawarden Edgar Degas

When one begins to draw heads, faces and hands this way one’s photography almost inevitably slows down, but within a short period of time one begins to see one’s subjects this way and, a little while later, automatically to photograph from vantage points from which this kind of drawing can be made. In other words, drawing instead of just taking pictures soon becomes second nature.

Ben Lifson, who teaches the history, theory and practice of photography at the graduate and undergraduate levels at the University of Hartford (CT), also conducts private photography tutorials on three continents. For more information please visit his website, For information about the University of Hartford's photography programs, please visit the website

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