PP2: Looking at Portraits

If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than ‘just a picture’, it is a place of work: semiotic event for social identity. (Bate, 2009, p. 68)

As part of my current projects the copy and the series I have been looking at portraiture and so the chapter ‘Looking at Portraits’ in David Bates book Photography: The Key Concepts. The chapter looked at the history of portraits and how both artist and photographer were influenced by each other. For example Bates mentions how in the early days of photography when the subject would have to rest of their hand to stop their head from moving was brought into portrait painting as a thoughtful look. Bates also mentioned French photographer Nadar who presented in his work the style of a traditional portrait artist which included “…the need to satisfy a sitter with a society portrait that idealized the sitter for future generations to look up to.” (Bate, 2009, p. 69) His worked combined the rules of a aristocratic portrait painting with the closeness of the Daguerreotype. Below shows an example of one of Nadar’s portraits which is of painter Édouard Manet. It seems in itself quite interesting a photographer taking a photograph of a painter.

(One off: Félix Nadar (2012) Available at: http://www.thegreatleapsideways.com/?p=2791 (Accessed: 19 February 2016).

The chapter also discusses the different elements in a portrait; which can be brought down to four key aspects:

  • Face – personal appearance
  • Pose – manner and attitude
  • Clothing – social class, sex, cultural values and fashion
  • Location – social scene of the person in the picture

When looking at these elements I was thinking of my own image for the copy and what I am going to do for the series. In these photographs, done in the style of Thomas Ruff they resemble passport photos. The background is plain foregrounding the face of the sitter which enables the viewer to really look at their face rather than anything else. It also acts as a way to take away any social connotations you could associate with their surroundings.

My image using large format.

The neutral facial expression of the sitter takes away any emotion leaving the viewer guessing what they are feeling. However “…we may still try to read beyond these surface characteristics…” (Bate, 2009, p. 75) as we know that this isn’t how they look all the time “They are temporary or even merely masks.” (Bate, 2009, p. 75). In a way I am asking the sitter to put on a mask, this may be the way their face naturally rests but I am asking them to take away all the emotion from their face; the way people put masks on to do this for them.

The pose is also following this neutral theme, which passports and police identity portraits use in order to capture people as they really are; to look beyond their identity using mood or characteristics. By using this way of photographing people it makes “…us all look like criminals at least puts everyone on a level playing field.” (Bate, 2009, p. 76) which is what Ruff intended to do with his portraits; to put everyone in the same position to just show the surface.

The clothing gives more away than anything else in the portrait style I have used, and especially with my series I think will give away aspects of the sitters personality as you can wear it through your clothes even if you don’t think that you are or have no interest in fashion. For the copy image my model was presenting herself as someone else, trying to copy the facial expression from Ruff’s image and so the clothing was taken from this as well.

I found this chapter on portraiture by David Bates very interesting when relating it to my own work and that of others. It will also give me more knowledge when thinking of doing portraits in the future and help me question why I’m using a certain background, pose ect…

– Looking at Portraits (2009) in Photography the key concepts. Oxford: Berg Publishers, .
– One off: Félix Nadar (2012) Available at: http://www.thegreatleapsideways.com/?p=2791 (Accessed: 19 February 2016).


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