The connected portrait

Arthur Levi Rainville, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, API,  has portrait photography in his blood. He grew up watching his father create portraits in their New England town, where generations of clients regarded him as a fixture in the community and the lives of their families. “He  wasn’t in it for the glory,” says Rainville. “His work never appeared in museums, but it appears on walls all around our town, and it’s priceless.”

When Rainville started in the business, working with his father out of their studio in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, he was fresh out of photography school and brimming with confidence. But people still preferred his father’s images. Rainville didn’t understand it. He was the hot new thing in town. He was doing exciting and innovative work while his father was old school. Rainville felt frustrated, stuck in a small town where the population didn’t appreciate finer artistic sensibilities.

© Arthur Levi Rainville

“I didn’t understand until later that it is all about the connection you make with your subjects,” he says. “My father understood that, and that’s why he was so beloved. He got to know his subjects and made portraits that were about them, not just pictures of them. It’s all about the harmonic resonance that you set up between yourself and the subject you’re about to portray.”

Now, some 50 years later and semi-retired from studio work, Rainville looks back on a long and fruitful career with the understanding that the connection between portraitist and subject is everything. It’s the starting place for artistic exploration, the launching pad for making insightful images, and the place from which lasting client relationships are built.

An artist’s evolution

For Rainville, portrait photography boils down to two key elements: the art and the heart. On the artistic side, he embarked on an ambitious program of self-education and artistic exploration. He studied photographers, classic portrait painters, and artists from other genres. Over time, he developed a style he dubbed “mansuesco” (from the Latin mansuesco: to be softened).

It was the late 1960s, and Rainville was experimenting with soft-looking images using various techniques. “I would buy the worst film I could find and then leave it on the window sill to season,” he recalls. “That gave it a graininess that you wouldn’t normally want, but it delivered a unique look. Much like impressionism, each image in this style didn’t need to look the exact same, but the spirit was always the same.”

To create a mansuesco portrait, Rainville schedules a planning session, during which he often spends more time with the client than during the actual portrait sitting. “It needs to be a collaboration between the subject and the artist,” he says. “The subject needs to take part, needs to take some ownership, and so this preliminary meeting is important.”

© Arthur Levi Rainville

His development of manseusco portraits gave Rainville a distinct style that helped him define himself as a high-end artist. However, he recognized that not all clients would be suited to that approach, so he developed a more “heart-centered” style that would provide clients another option. These portraits are meant to convey a sincere expression of emotion—a moment of celebration, as Rainville calls it—encouraged through a strong connection with the photographer. He calls this style “degage”(from the French dégagé: unconcerned or unconstrained).

To create such a portrait, Rainville sets up a scene and uses two cameras on tripods. He creates a bank of light to camera left using a large soft box, mimicking the light you’d see if a subject was sitting outside in open shade. Once the equipment is set up to his liking, he doesn’t adjust it. One camera records video while the other shoots stills, triggered by a remote that Rainville carries with him as he moves around and interacts with the subject. He doesn’t allow anything to interrupt the process—no technical tweaks, no checking on the images he’s captured. The flow is natural, the reactions sincere. “After long enough doing this, you intuitively know when to push the [remote shutter] button,” he says. “If you are conversing with someone and really paying attention to the conversation, then you should be able to close your eyes and know when they are going to make certain expressions. If you apply that same intuition to photographing a portrait, you can feel when to push the button to capture certain expressions.”

For the degage portraits, Rainville meets with clients prior to their session but doesn’t conduct that same deep dive as is needed for mansuesco clients. For these clients, he prefers to keep the association fresh for the actual portrait session, “so I don’t diffuse the essence of meeting this beautiful personality for the first time,” he explains.

The next level

Working at the level of an artist rather than a picture-taker is a process that requires focus and years of diligence. The first step, says Rainville, is defining yourself as an artist in the work you create. “That boils down to discovering your distinct visual style,” he says. “Once you figure out how you like to make pictures, then you have a marketable style. The problem with a very distinct style is it excludes a lot of people. You’re not going to be right for every client, and you have to be OK with that.”

© Arthur Levi Rainville

Step two is finding clients who appreciate you and share your vision. These people may not be in your immediate area, so you have to
go find them. You have to create a marketing campaign, draw in the right people, and then create an experience they’ll enjoy. “Help them understand that what you’re doing is special and why it’s right for them,” he says.

Of course, this process takes time and resources, which many hard-working photographers may not have readily available. Rainville suggests doing what pays the bills, especially if you have a profitable photography business already, and then adding in higher-end artistic work as a second business line. Build it up gradually, piece by piece, and in time you may be able to transition more business into the higher-end model. It may still be difficult, and you may lose some longtime clients during the evolution, which can be hard. “You need to set priorities,” says Rainville. “If this is really important to you to grow as an artist and a business person, then you have to make some hard choices.”

Setting priorities also means prioritizing your own growth as an artist in addition to the growth of your business. Self-education is a big part of this process, as is allowing time to experiment artistically. “Make an appointment with yourself, for yourself,” suggests Rainville. “You can start with just half an hour, and don’t let anything else infringe on that half an hour. Just sit and think, play artistically. You’ll be amazed at how much you enjoy doing that and how much you’ll gain from it.”

Above all else, it’s critical to continually strive for improvement and not let yourself be lulled into complacency by routine. “If you get to a point where you’re satisfied with everything you do, then you’ll be satisfied with anything you do,” says Rainville. “I think that’s where a lot of photographers struggle. They find satisfaction, and they try to hold on to it, and it can drag them down. If you want to succeed in today’s market as an artist, you have to always push yourself, always look for ways to distinguish yourself. That’s more important now than ever before. If we can’t distinguish ourselves from what people can do for themselves, then we lose our relevancy. So we must find ways to define ourselves, the artistic side and the ‘heart-istic’ side, and then we will always have a place in people’s lives.”

RELATED: See a gallery of images by Arthur Levi Rainville.

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.