BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Gazing into the camera of one of Chicago’s top portraitists could be intimidating unless that photographer is Jessica Tampas, surely one of the empathetic and talented people around.
Her career in Chicago began 30 years ago when her wide brown eyes first focused through the lens of her Hasselblad on some of Chicago’s most fascinating people. Photographing since her days as a student at the Emma Willard School, the Burlington, Vermont, native explained recently why people have always been her favorite subject:
“I love faces and I’m endlessly drawn to them. I once read that the first thing a baby recognizes is the human face. This has always intrigued me, and I think for me it must be true because it has become a lifelong study for me. I think a great portrait allows one to connect with the human spirit.”
We asked Jessica a few questions about her process, her career, and advice for budding photographers.
How do you begin with a subject?
Before I start photographing my subjects, I have conversations with them. During these conversations, I make mental notes about their natural expressions, their posture, and their body language. These unstaged moments of human communication are highly individualized, and this is what I try to capture with my camera.
How do you get your subjects to relax?
As a portrait photographer, I try to be as empathic as possible with my subjects. I find that the best way to photograph people is with enormous respect and kindness. It is always about collaboration and not appearing that I am the one in control.
I try to make it fun and easy and non-threatening. As we know, having a camera pointed at your face can be very intimidating. My goal is to make it as painless as possible.
Do you have tips for amateur photographers?
People always ask me for advice on how to take better pictures. The one thing I always suggest is to pay close attention to the light. Lighting can make or break a great image. The word photography derived from the Greek words ‘photos’ and ‘graphe,’ literally meaning drawing with light.
Natural light is always my preference. I always tell people to keep things as simple as possible. Simple clothing is a must, avoid shadows, and shoot for even lighting across the subject.
This is precisely my approach to photographing my own child—that is, when he is agreeable. I do admit that photographing one’s own children has its challenges, and sometimes it’s best to leave the job to others.
How has your role as a leading portraitist changed during your career?
The world of photography has undergone a major metamorphosis. For one thing, film is scarce these days. Digital images are the rule. When I first began as a portrait photographer 30 years ago in Chicago, there were only a handful of professional studios. Now they are ubiquitous.
When I began my career, I traveled with two Hasselblads, 30 rolls of film, and a tripod in tow. Today I travel with my iPhone 7 plus in my pocket! That being said, there’s still a special place for a spectacular portrait that is well composed and thoughtfully executed.