“Sometimes a good portrait feels like a slap in the face and keeps you awake.”
This is how Dutch photographer Koos Breukel responds to the question, “What makes a good portrait?” Looking through his images, we come to realize how their mixture of instinct and strong technique make them difficult to forget. His photographed faces force us to wake up to the possibility of what a face can convey.
In the course of his career, Koos Breukel has produced dozens of portraits of his fellow photographers: from Cor Jaring to Lou Reed and Taryn Simon. Many were friends who happily sat in front of his camera.
When asked if photographers were difficult subjects to portray, Koos told us: “It differs from photographer to photographer. Robert Frank was annoyed at first, but in the end, he was easy to portray and became very friendly afterwards. Meanwhile, Richard Avedon was interfering with my technique—and he was right. Some were vain and others were shy but in general, I admired their work, so that made the exchange good.”
But whether photographing a generational talent or an every day person, Breukel’s portraits all share the distinctive feature of capturing a subject’s particular glance and an authentic air of simplicity. As Breukel told us: “I like people of flesh and blood. And I look for the moment that it appears that someone is present with their appearance and absent in their minds. It fits my personality that I like people as they are: without a fuzz and with all their struggles. I think that a good portrait has the personality of the maker in it.”
Finally, when pressed for some advice on how to make such great work, Breukel was characteristically idiosyncratic. He says that it’s not so much a matter of intellect or preparations. Ultimately, “it is a bit like a hunt—and my main tool is instinct.”
—Winifred Chiocchia and Alexander Strecker