Research: Portraiture


West, S. (2004) Portraiture (Oxford history of Art series). New York: Oxford University Press.

My further research into portraiture and it’s history led me to Portraiture by Shearer West. In the book West talks about portraitures relationship with time and how “…a portrait calls attention to the process of its production – to the appearance of an individual in the fugitive moment in which it was produced.” (West, 2004, pg. 43) The moment in which the photograph is taken is how it will always be, they will then be stuck in that moment; this deciphers how people will see them.

Along with portrait photography came the ‘Cartes-de-visite’, they were used to circulate photographs of famous actors, musicians and writers. Theatre managers would also use them for promotional purposes for their popular actors (West, 2004, pg. 190).

West also talked about the effect photography had on portraiture painting and how it had a major impact on how portraiture was looked at. Although when photography was first invented it was used for many things and not just portraiture is was by far the most popular field for professional photographers of the time. This was mainly because “…photography appeared to provide a foolproof means of conveying likeness.” (West, 2004, pg. 189) before photography, other than the most skilled painter there was no way of showing a person or object the way photography can. It completely changed how we look at documentation.

The ‘Carte-de-visite’ was used by professional photographers as a way to quickly and cheaply produce portraits for customers. They were produced as calling cards which included their name and address along with their photograph. These became means of “social exchange among the increasingly prevalent bourgeoisie in the mid-nineteenth-century Western Europe and America.”  (West, 2004, pg. 189) they were portable so people could keep them in their pocket, much like business cards we have today.

With early photography came long exposures so the sitter had to sit very still for several minutes, but still no where near as long as a sitter would have to be still for a painting. West comments on how “…even once these technical problems were overcome, photographs appeared no more spontaneous than painted portraits, and indeed often seemed to be governed by the same conventions.” (West, 2004, pg. 189) this I feel is very true, portraiture hasn’t really changed throughout it’s history, it still holds the same keys elements. As we have been using large format cameras for our project ‘the Copy’ I think everyone has realised how hard it is to stay so still for a long period of time; but even though now the shutter speed can be a lot quicker and so is setting up we’re still using the same poses.

I found this book very helpful for my studies; it was interesting reading about how painting and photography have worked with each other in portraiture and how they have influents portraiture as a genre.


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