Assignment 5: image decisions

I believe I’ve finalised the content of my oral presentation Portrait Not Portrait after an intensive few days pulling it together. I’ve done the slides themselves, written a script per slide and done a few runs through.

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I just need to do the voiceover and it should be ready for upload and comment.

This post is to talk a little about how and why I chose the example images. Apologies, it’s quite long. I used a lot of images!

Overall principles

I looked at the key points I was trying to make per section, and at the examples I had selected and tried to map how I was representing each topic:

  • Eras of time covered in the ‘history’ section
    • In an early version I had too much from the 1930s/40s
  • Colour palette
    • As black and white historically tended to dominate documentary photography
    • In the end it was just about tipped (16:15) in favour of colour
  • Nationalities of photographer
    • As I’m conscious of bias to US/UK in a lot of academic sources
    • In the end it was almost but not quite evenly split between US, UK and the rest of the world
  • Gender
    • There’s been a clear gender bias throughout history, so aiming for 50:50 would have been unrealistic and unrepresentative
    • It was 80% male, 20% female for quite a while, but I ended up taking Dorothea Lange out (sorry, Dorothea) and ended up with 84% to 16%

In the end I’m happy with the edit and the flow. I’m sure I could have built many different versions. I’m sure I’ve excluded some important people and examples.

General images

I sought images for certain pages that didn’t necessarily need to support particular voiceover points but rather could just exist as simple visual punctuation.

The opening and closing slides were chosen for their composition – full-length  body shots – as I needed to overlay text blocks and this would not have worked with closer compositions, with the risk of obscuring facial features. Additionally, as full-screen images they needed to be in landscape ratio, not the norm for portraiture.

The Alec Soth image on the title slide is a great example of both the documentary and portraiture genres as it evokes the aesthetic most closely associated with the former and the single-subject focus of the latter. Getting specific at a graphic level, the horizontal pipe in the background perfectly dissected the image  and gave me space for the text block.

The David Chancellor image is visually useful in the same way, with its strong horizontal delineation that accommodates the text block. The colours and the punctum of the bloodied face are what makes this a striking closing image. As an aside, this is one of the slides where I picked a key colour from the photograph to use as the title text colour – a tiny point but one that I feel subtly helps the image and text work together coherently.

The contents page and the ‘What’ section title also needed images that made no specific point but gave examples of the breadth of the genre. I was drawn to both the composition and the muted palette of the Phil Borges image, as both differed sufficiently from all the other examples to get across my intended diversity . The face paint is later echoed by the Chancellor image, though I only noticed after the event. There’s a tiny punctum in the Borges photo that makes it successful: the biro cap on the necklace. There’s a story there, and seeing the image makes me want to know more.

The Mimi Mollica image is more in the traditional documentary photography tradition as seen by both the mono palette and the setting. It’s the thin, scarred face that makes this image so striking; again it begs for a narrative explanation.

For the brief comparison of portraiture vs documentary I wanted images that typified the genres. I love the Julian Germain image – it has the direct, consensual focus on one person that I wanted to get across, and possesses a warmth and humanity that’s helped by the colour palette and lighting.

The Mary Ellen Mark example is stereotypical documentary. Black and white, gritty subject matter, urban setting, subjects not addressing the camera. This all helped serve my point that documentary photography is about a wider reality over individual subjects.

For the other context slide where I talk about how a traditional portrait is different to a documentary portrait I wanted to make a simple point about the subject focus being the differentiator. The Christoph Soeder image is one I’ve done a visual analysis of already, but in short I felt it illustrated my point about a ‘pure’ portrait being both of and about the individual.

The photo by Brent Stirton uses props and a background that make it clear that the human subject is but one part of a bigger story. I was happy here to invert a couple of the genre norms: the colour palette is one and the gaze to camera (or  not) is the other. I wanted to show that the norms that I had established were not set in stone.


It felt appropriate to open the historical section with an August Sander, and I felt that one of his most famous images would work best.

Starting with the typology section: the John Lamprey diptych was chosen above similar examples by other photographers for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the use of frontal and profile views in one image, particularly against the grid background, really emphasised my point about treating people as specimens. Secondly, the only nudes in the presentation are, in an inversion of the general photographic norm, male rather than female.

For the specific Sander examples I wanted multiple images to emphasise the posing similarities. I chose three with differences in contrast: the first in shades of grey and the latter two with strong figure-to-ground contrast. My intent here was to show that though poses can be standardised, Sander did find ways of providing visual diversity. For me this set of three images is an exercise in first of all spotting the similarities, then the differences.

The Daniel Meadows images were chosen as I wanted to break the run of adult males in this section, so I selected a child and a woman. I found the boy’s face in particular very striking. [UPDATE: on advice from my tutor I will replace this image as it doesn’t align closely enough with my voiceover point about the images being non-judgemental; it could be interpreted that the boy was ill-at-ease and potentially had learning difficulties, and could therefore have been exploited.]

I felt that the social documentary section would work well opening with a Lewis Hine child labour portrait, and settled on this one for the unsettling gaze of the subject, and the diminishing perspective behind. The separation of subject and background seems to me to emphasise that she doesn’t belong there.

I wanted to include at least one iconic FSA-era image and at one point had both this Walker Evans picture and Lange’s Migrant Mother, but the later got cut. As noted in the voice-over, the visual style of this is very distinctive, with lens compression pushing the subject so close to the wall that she looks pinned, which could be a signifier.

The Chris Killip images as a contrast to the previous two head-on portraits to show how documentary portraiture had evolved by the 1970s. I find the graphical form of the first image very arresting – bunched up in an almost foetal position; the despair is tangible. The second image is one that is analysed in an excellent book The Documentary Impulse (2016) by Stuart Franklin, where it is used as an example of ambiguity in documentary photography. This pair of images made my point about a portrait not needing to clearly show a person’s face, and how this can heighten a metaphorical message. I also like the pleasing symmetry of the two subjects both sitting on walls. The distinctive brickwork places the tightly-cropped subjects in a specific urban environment with minimal detail.

Once I move onto self-expressive documentary it seemed obvious (perhaps too obvious?) to cover Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. With hindsight these two make largely the same point about the autobiographical nature of some documentary portraiture. In both I was drawn to the piercing, challenging gaze.

Richard Billingham‘s Ray’s A Laugh project came to mind while researching this assignment, and I looked for images that most resembled portraiture – most of the images are wider scenes. I think it’s the masks in the background that make this image. It may not be an intended reading but masks always signify identity to me, and I read the overall project as a kind of examination of family roles and identities.


I open the contemporary section with an image by Chris de Bode, whose work I also discuss within the section. I find this opening image visually striking mostly because of the strong gaze.

The Charles Fréger set that opens the typology slide is intended to be a counterpart to the Sander trio from earlier, to draw out the differences in approach. This project and these portraits in particular appealed to me because, as well as getting over my point about diversity of subject, they just look so young and ill-at-ease that I find them fascinating.

Wherever possible I wanted to introduce sufficient contrast to make my points, so moved from Fréger’s deadpan colour poses to Zed Nelson‘s characterful black and white squares. As well as the strong mono contrasts, it’s the expressions that bring these alive, particularly on the chap on the right.

The contemporary social documentary slide is where I talk about Chris de Bode, though I’d used what I consider his best image as the section opener so looked for his second best. Like the earlier shot it combines a great facial expression with good background context.

The Lee Jeffries project I researched produced many strong images but this was most visually striking. It’s the combination of glassy eyes (cataracts?), the deeply aged skin and the running nose. This stood out as the best example of what Jeffries called the ‘heavy emotions’ he encounters in his subjects.

Boris Mikhailov is used as an counterpoint to the previous two examples that social documentary is more ethical now than before, and in some cases it’s the opposite. This particular image was chosen, to be honest, because most of the others were a little too extreme and would have been more jarring in the presentation context.

Finally in this section, I wanted to bring in photographers that push the boundaries of ‘documentary’ and how their portraits can overlap into fine art. Tom Hunter and his Vermeer homage sprang to mind immediately. It’s a good example of an identifiable art style being adopted, and so is a nice gentle introduction to the notion of hybrid genres before getting more conceptual with the next example.

The Aida Silvestri work is something I saw at The Photographers Gallery a couple of years ago and it stayed in my mind. It’s an amazing blend of documentary, fine art and portraiture, and it completely subverts the portraiture norm of showing the face. Obscured face portraits is something of an interest of mine.

Moving from something so conceptual to the straight photography style of Alex Soth might seem like a odd move, but I wanted to close with a style more like my own before I segue into my own practice. Soth is an art-documentarian in a much more subtle way than the others, in as much as his work is shot in a very naturalistic way, yet has an elegiac, melancholy feel to it that is difficult to articulate.


Putting together this last section was almost the inverse of the first parts – rather than structuring a line of argument and then sourcing images that support the theory, for this part I needed to collate a cross-section of my own work for the last few years and retrospectively find common threads, then apply these to the points raised in my analysis of the work of others.

Without going overboard on the self-analysis here, I found examples of:

  • Typologies
  • Archetypes (metonyms)
  • Narrative devices
  • Metaphor
  • Portrait subject as key part of story

One consequence of this assignment is that I’m realising that the most valuable part hasn’t been demonstrating my knowledge of the subject, but examining my own work.

The whole last section has been a revelation to me. I got a lot out of retrospectively identifying what I was doing and why – and more importantly I felt that I got a lot out of articulating what I will do with this knowledge in future.

The cutting room floor

Just FYI, here are some images I considered as part of my research but ultimately excluded:


4 thoughts on “Assignment 5: image decisions

  1. Holly Woodward 10 November 2016 / 20:18

    It sounds fascinating, Rob. I’m looking forward to seeing the final edit.


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