Assignment 3: research

This is the third post I’ve done recently looking at specific portrait photographers who might be useful to my studies, with the other two linked below for reference:

This post is about photographers that I’ve looked at specifically for Assignment 3. Most were recommended by my tutor Helen and at the end I’ve added someone that I had in mind all the way through based on my memory of seeing his work a couple of years ago.

Rineke Dijkstra

hilton-head-island-s-c-usa-june-24-1992-webWhilst the name was new to me, I recognised some of her work once I started researching her, particularly the new mothers in hospital and the young bathers. The Tate website puts it best when it describes her as “capturing her subjects in moments that are both self-conscious and unwittingly revealing“.

Lots of her work is outdoors, which ties in with my assignment. Despite the outside settings, the portraits are very formally set up, lit, posed and shot. It’s as though she builds an invisible studio around her subjects. Influences from art history are evident in much of her work., such as this portrait that brings to mind Botticelli’s Venus.

I find more to admire than to like in Dijkstra’s work. It’s technically excellent, and the vulnerability that she manages to capture in the subjects is notable – but something about the repetition of the deadpan, formal poses leaves me slightly cold. The subjects often look so ill-at-ease that it makes for uncomfortable viewing – it feels almost exploitative. Interesting from a study point of view, but it’s not a style that I’d like to emulate.

Alec Soth (Broken Manual)

This was Soth’s ‘running away from it all’ project looking at modern American hermits. Of the Soth projects that I saw as part of the Gathering Leaves show in 2015 I think Broken Manual was the one that made least impression on me, so it’s interesting to revisit it from a portraiture context.

S., Alabama from Broken Manual by Alec Soth

Almost all of Soth’s hermit portraits present their subject in the context of the landscape. The above image in particular, presented as an example by my tutor, is a key influence on my assignment plans in terms of presenting my subjects as small elements in a broader environment, albeit for different reasons than Soth. My interpretation of Soth’s decision to place the subject small in the frame is to emphasise their isolation. Visually I find this one in particular interesting because of the echo of the man’s tall, skinny frame with the high, spindly trees behind. He’s isolated as a human, yet (visually) blends in with the neighbouring woodland.

As an aside, I heard Soth talking about the project at Photo London a couple of months ago, and while he didn’t say as much, it struck me that the title might be a subtle play on words, as one can find the phrase Broken Man in Broken Manual. Soth has previously written on the importance of titles and how much thought he has put into them.

John Angerson

Although a lot of his work is commercial and/or studio-based celebrity portraits (and sometimes understandably unremarkable), some of his environmental portraits are much more interesting.

Like Soth in his Broken Manual work, Angerson is good at placing the person in the environment to make the connection between the two. So again, this is providing some inspiration for my own attempts.

Sarah Carp

Probably the artist I’ve been most impressed by in this batch of research. Her projects, which tend to combine portraiture with landscapes, are all incredibly beautiful but with an edge of mystery and melancholy that really drew me in.

As noted elsewhere, I’m fascinated by portraits that exclude or obscure the face, and Carp employs this approach a lot. Through the combination of excluding the face and placing the subject in a particular environment, it emphasises the connection between the person and the place. It also makes the subject seem more contemplative, as though they are looking off into the distance, in the same direction as the viewer, yet not addressing them – almost ignoring them. And this draws me in even more.

I had in mind early on that I wanted one photo in each of the portrait sets for the assignment to have the face obscured, so it was really encouraging and interesting to see that others have employed this technique successfully. I confess I only really had a proper look at Carp’s work after I’d already started shooting for the assignment so her work has become kind of a retrospective, reinforcing inspiration rather than a direct one.

Laura Pannack

from Glass by Laura Pannack
from Glass by Laura Pannack

From her website: “Her art focuses on social documentary and portraiture, and seeks to explore the complex relationship between subject and photographer.

This subject-photographer relationship comes through particularly strongly in her series Glass, which is more staged and conceptual than much of her subsequent work. In this she placed a sheet of glass between her and her subjects and asked them to close their eyes, and the effect of this is to exaggerate the existing unease that many people have when having their portrait taken.

Most of her work is less tightly constructed and more organic. Like the others mentioned in this post, she excels at depicting people in a particular ‘real’ environment, and many of her portraits have an unforced, informal quality to the posing that makes them lean towards documentary in style. Others do look more deliberately posed and are more visually striking for it.

Whether informally captured or specifically directed, her use of unusual poses is what jumps out at me in the photos of hers that I am drawn to. There’s so much more to do with portraiture than capture shots of people standing up straight…

Brian Griffin

One aspect of my assignment that might not be immediately obvious is that I am aiming to capture portraits of what is, in a sense, a set of ‘workmates’ – albeit they are engaged in voluntary rather than paid work. For this reason, one source of inspiration was the business portrait work of Brian Griffin.

A couple of years ago I bought a box of pamphlets from the inaugural Foto/Industria biennale in Bologna, a set of exhibitions celebrating the often-overlooked genre of business/industrial photography. Griffin’s exhibition/pamphlet was entitled Annual Report 1974-2013, and collected some of his commission work for businesses.

These images and others by Griffin stuck in my mind, and taught me that there are so many variants on portrait posing that can be employed – to add more visual interest and/or to communicate something particular about the sitter. The Johnnie Turpin one in particular is striking: the use of the deep black shade creates an odd shape yet it is immediately recognisable as a sitting position – giving the impression that this man is confident and relaxed. The expression, looking over his own perched foot and disguising his mouth (that other indicator of mood, after the eyes) makes him appear very superior and aloof. It’s a great image, but I wouldn’t want him as my boss…


Rineke Dijkstra (accessed 06/07/2016)

Broken Manual (accessed 06/07/2016) (accessed 14/10/2015)

John Angerson (accessed 06/07/2016)

Sarah Carp (accessed 11/07/2016)

Laura Pannack (accessed 11/07/2016)

Brian Griffin (accessed 11/07/2016)

Griffin, B. (2013) Annual Report 1974-2013 [part of Foto/Industria box set]. Bologna: Contrasto


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