Research: Portrait photographers

I can’t do the Hollywood portrait exercise just yet as I’m waiting for my model to be available. So I’m taking a little time to take a look at a few portrait photographers suggested by my tutor.

I’ll use a checklist to look at an example portrait from each. It is a merging of the one in the course notes:

  • Pose/gesture
  • Clothes
  • Props
  • Lighting
  • Background
  • Meaning

… and one proposed by Bate (2009: 73):

  • Face (the point missing from the above list)
  • Pose
  • Clothing
  • Location

I’m also looking for something that has become a personal interest of mine whilst studying portraiture: what (if anything) does the portrait tell me about the character of the subject?

Bate categorises viewed portrait subjects as one of the following (2009: 80):

  • Known: celebrities – large audience but based on a hyperreal ‘knowledge’
  • Familiar: friends and family – of significance to a limited but knowledgeable audience
  • Unfamiliar: strangers – the vast majority of portraits viewed, and of most interest to me as I will explain below

In the first two there is the pleasure of recognition, as they reinforce what you already know (or think you know) about the subject.

Unfamiliar subjects, on the other hand, provoke no direct recognition; the interest to the viewer has to come from somewhere else. This is what I am finding increasingly fascinating.

A really compelling portrait of an unfamiliar subject makes you think you know something about the character of the subject. It’s an illusion, of course – an imagined recognition.

Bate warns of risks associated with unfamiliar portraits:

“Those seen as unfamiliar either struggle to be represented at all (fight to be represented) or find themselves already represented in ways that do not fit or correspond with their self-image.” (Bate 2009: 81)

I will come back to this point when discussing some of the photographers below.

Charles Fréger

Fréger adopts a very deadpan, almost typographical approach to his projects, where the subjects are asked to adopt a very neutral expression and in many cases identical pose and background. He chooses ‘tribes’ and photographs their members, but to me they amount to something less than portraiture; they emphasise the group identity over the individuals and little if any character shines through. Identity here is structural (external) rather than displaying agency (internal) (Woodward 2004: 6-8).

To the point Bate raises, quoted above, my sense of these collections is that don’t allow for meaningful personal representation. For this reason, although I admire them aesthetically, I find them quite clinical. To be fair to Fréger I’m not sure he intends to portray individuals as such.

from Menti, 2004 © Charles Fréger
from Menti, 2004 © Charles Fréger
  • Face: neutral, blank
  • Pose/gesture: hesitant
  • Clothes: look too big, emphasise his youth
  • Props: oversized hat adds to effect of someone young trying to look older
  • Lighting: fairly even, off to one side on face
  • Background: unusual for Fréger in being 3D rather than flat; looks traditional, institutional; subject is between two rooms
  • Meaning: a young recruit is poised on the transition from his youth to his adult responsibility

Julian Germain

I was recommended two Germain projects in particular: Classroom Portraits (2005) and For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness (2005).

The former comprises photos of whole classrooms, not individual pupils, and so had a similar effect on me to the Fréger work in that the group identity dominates. This doesn’t make them bad pictures by any means, but I found no emotional connection to them.

For every minute… on the other hand I found really engaging. It’s a series centred around one man, Charles Snelling, that Germain photographed over eight years. The length of the relationship and the focus on one person made these images much more revealing of a personality than his other work. It’s not really a portrait project, but a documentary project with some portraits included. I found it quite uplifting. I did come away with a sense that I knew something of the man’s character – a successful project from my point of view.

Charles Snelling © Julian Germain
Charles Snelling © Julian Germain
  • Face: neutral, blank
  • Pose/gesture: hesitant, looking like he’s been asked to pose like that
  • Clothes: well-worn but formal; depicts a generation that understood the importance of looking smart
  • Props: flowers – he loves flowers and loves colours
  • Lighting: looks like mainly window light
  • Background: old-fashioned but very colourful
  • Meaning: a gentle, optimistic man who appreciates the simple things in life

I love the light in this one. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, it signifies his sunny demeanour. The central placement and the two hands holding flowers give this image a static feel, something that a lot of photographers consciously avoid – but it works here; Snelling is happy to be where he is. The background is interesting in that the portion behind his head, which most photographers would keep plain to bring out the head, is the cluttered half of the wall – but there’s enough of a separation though depth of field to keep Snelling standing out. The slight angle of the wallpaper line is quite endearing as to me it says: yes, it’s imperfect but that’s OK.

Christoph Soeder

from Clear-Cut © Christoph Soeder
from Clear-Cut © Christoph Soeder

The highlight of this round of research for me – really impressive stuff.

My tutor started me off at Soeder’s barbershop project Clear-Cut but this was perhaps the least fascinating set for me. It is worth commenting however that while Soeder does something in Clear-Cut that I’ve called out Fréger for, namely posing people in identical settings, he manages to get across something of the sitters’ personalities in a way that the blank faces of Fréger’s work don’t allow. The facial expression – the only point of difference between the portraits – gives some indication of the person behind the sheet, even if only for that fleeting moment. They are individuals placed in the same setting, not interchangeable members of a group.

I looked at Soeder’s other portrait work, and found that the less tightly themed the project, the more distinctive and personalised the portraits. There’s a set of people who work in the arts, some of them I knew but most not. He took a different visual approach with each sitter. The example I chose to analyse was of the flautist Miriam Altenburg.

Miriam Altenburg © Christoph Soeder
Miriam Altenburg © Christoph Soeder
  • Face: deep in concentration but with a slight smile; implies she is wrapped up in something that she enjoys doing – in my imagination she is reading music
  • Pose/gesture: looking down but not submissive; more focused
  • Clothes: look informal but also de-emphasised, not important
  • Props: none
  • Lighting: looks from shadow to left of nose like mainly lit from right hand side; high contrast around top half draws attention to the eyes
  • Background: dark but hardly in frame anyway due to tight cropping
  • Meaning: a strong-willed, focused person who enjoys her work

What I liked about this is that it avoided the cliché of showing her playing her flute, or even focusing on her lips, which would have positioned her as flautist first and individual second; Soeder has presented an individual upon which the viewer can project a real personality based on some of the visual cues that he picked up on. On a purely visual level I found it pleasing; triangles dominate, from the upwards one formed by her parting to the one made by her eyes and her mouth, echoed by the shape of her face, made triangular by the vantage point, leading down to the neckline of her top. The viewer’s eye, drawn to the very strong eyes, is drawn down by the triangles, out of the lower frame of the picture to allow one to imagine what it is she is staring at. This dominance of shapes is one of the reasons I think this works well in B&W.

The fact that I found so much to write about one picture means that it succeeded for me. I found myself drawn into it and filling in gaps in my knowledge with my imagination.

from Freak in a Dress © Christoph Soeder
from Freak in a Dress © Christoph Soeder

Before I move off Soeder, I also found his more conceptual series Freak in a Dress really interesting. It’s a series of portraits (some might be self-portraits?) based on masks. This makes him one of a long and illustrious list of artists who has used portraiture to examine the nature of identity, rather than just trying to depict one person’s identity.

This one in particular interested me, as it is shot from the point of view of the mask being on the viewer rather than the subject – signifying how people project onto others, more than how people adopt ‘masks’ to present themselves in a certain way? It’s a fascinating effect.

Sissel Thastum

I looked at one project, I am here when you are here, which by its own artist’s statement is not a portrait project per se, but a personal project centred around the Thastum’s mother. Like Germain’s For every minute… its focus on a single individual gives it a depth that a regular portrait set lacks, with the added power of the incredibly strong bond between mother and child.

from I am here when you are here © Sissel Thastum
from I am here when you are here © Sissel Thastum
  • Face: expression is wistful, distracted
  • Pose/gesture: relaxed, stretching out? or baring herself with arms up in a gesture of submission?
  • Clothes: naked – innocent, carefree, or perhaps vulnerable
  • Props: none
  • Lighting: extremely strong from right – face is half obliterated by light – denoting a missing part of her character? how she feels when her daughter is not there?
  • Background: plain, unobtrusive
  • Meaning: a mother who misses her daughter – wondering where the years have gone?

With apologies for Scandinavian stereotyping, there’s a real melancholy feel to this project, and especially this portrait. The blown highlight area gives the viewer a literal blank space upon which to project their own thoughts.

Alec Soth

I’m a self-confessed Alec Soth fanboy – my desktop wallpaper cycles through a bunch of his portraits so I know some of them very well. His work is a blend of portraiture, landscapes, interiors, still-life – a bit of everything. He kind of works in what I think of as the space between documentary and art. His best portraits give you the feeling that you really do know something about the person he’s photographed, yet they are refreshingly free of cliché and external ‘quirky’ identifiers.

I have a few favourites but the one below is the one I keep coming back to.

Adelyn © Alec Soth
Adelyn © Alec Soth
  • Face: expression is wistful, thinking about something rather than looking at something out of shot; eyes look like they’re focused upwards – towards heaven?
  • Pose/gesture: tilted head emphasises the thoughtful ‘in her own world’ impression
  • Clothes: colourful, like her hair; halter neck showing bare shoulders seems incongruous with religious overtones – confounds expectations
  • Props: (if skin markings can be props) the ash on the forehead is what makes this picture; as a secondary point of interest the tattoos also seem incongruous with religious overtones and subvert stereotypes
  • Lighting: seems to come in from left and high up – adds to effect of her looking towards the heavens
  • Background: railings subtly imply a church; skewed angle implies a slight ‘quirkiness’
  • Meaning: a devoted Catholic lost in rapture

This was the photograph that helped me cement my theory that a successful unfamiliar portrait is one that makes you think you know more about the subject than you possibly could from the image alone. It implies character. I find myself projecting a personality onto her, without any real basis other than the visual cues presented. There isn’t really an accepted cliché of ‘redhead Southern Catholic’ (is there?!) and yet I feel like if there was, it would look like Adelyn.

Two visual elements make me really like this: the positioning of the head (and who knows how natural or stage-directed this was) and the colours of the hair, the clothes and the tattoo.

That’s enough research for today. I’m exhausted.


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University.

Charles Fréger (accessed 16/06/2016)

Julian Germain (accessed 16/06/2016)

Christoph Soeder (accessed 16/06/2016)

Sissel Thastum (accessed 16/06/2016)

Alec Soth (accessed 16/06/2016)


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