At the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice, France, from 17th June to 25th September 2016.
I wasn’t particularly familiar with his work before this, and at first assumed that Lartigue (1894-1986) merited the exhibition here mainly because he was a local lad (he lived in and around Nice for most of his adult life). The content was seemingly quite lightweight: mainly upper class French folks at leisure in the first half of the 20th century.
However, the premise of the show, once I understood it, piqued my interest. The exhibition leaflet explains it as follows (my emphasis): “The exhibition brings together around 200 photographs on the theme of fleeting moments, the brevity of joy and the fragility of life itself“ (Florian Rodari, 2016).
Maybe this is a stereotypically philosophical French way of looking at a set of photographs! Even so, it made me look at the photos again, and see something a little deeper and more affecting in the images.
Lartigue was known as a painter for most of his career, though had been taking photograph since childhood. He was not recognised by the outside world for his photography until his late sixties. This means that, like Saul Leiter or maybe Vivian Maier, his work stayed true to himself without the unnecessary influence of peers, critics, buyers or gallery owners. He shot what he wanted to, and retrospectively much of it was accepted into the canon of photographic art.
Date unknown by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Renée, Biarritz, August 1930 by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Renée Perle, 1930 by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Given the course module I’m on right now, I was particularly interested in his portraiture. There’s an overriding sense of playfulness and curiosity in Lartigue’s work, and this often comes through in his portraits. He mostly shot the upper class at play, and so there’s a real sense of capturing carefree moments of fun and happiness. Most of his portraits are of women, mainly friends and family. This familiarity comes through in the informality – in some cases intimacy – of his images.
There’s one image in particular, above, that stayed with me. The sea, the swimsuit and the wet hair all denote summery leisure but it’s the mask that makes it. It draws attention to the eyes in a direct and unsubtle way, but once you look inside the mask you see that she’s not addressing the camera (/viewer) but looking off to the side to something out of shot. This use of eye-line to drive the viewer out of the frame has the effect of making you imagine what has distracted her, what other fun is being had just out of frame that is more interesting to the subject than looking at the photographer. The composition is exquisitely simple too, with the very slightly askew horizon conjuring up high jinx and the slender triangle of hillside pointing in the same direction of her off-camera gaze. With a portrait like this one can imagine life happening beyond the frame, and that is for me a mark of a great photo. It exudes interest, it’s more than the sum of its parts, it gives the viewer something to contribute to the resolving of the image. I love it.
What have I learned from looking at Lartigue’s work? To be honest, not a massive amount new that I hadn’t learned from other practitioners of the same era. He certainly had an eye for capturing fleeting moments of joy but I wouldn’t put him in the category of the ‘old masters’. He produced a handful of excellent portraits though, including the Marie Belewsky one above that has instantly jumped into my all-time favourite portrait list.
As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary portrait photographers that produce work to which I have some reaction (positive or otherwise). I’ve selected a few from the list suggested in the course notes and added a couple others I’ve found over my studies.
One more note before I start: I’ve looked at all of the photographers suggested but chose not to cover most of the ones who specialise in portraits of celebrities (using that terms in its widest else, meaning anyone that is known to the public). The reason for this is, and I have banged on about this in the past I admit, I find portraits of ‘known’ subjects to be inherently less interesting than images of strangers. Looking at an image of a known subject is an exercise in reassurance, of recognition – and I don’t personally find that very engaging. Of far more interest is a good portrait of an unfamiliar subject: to me the ‘magic’ of a really effective portrait is the illusion that the viewer can know something of the subject, even when they manifestly do not.
The exceptions to this are the photographers who find ways of shooting known subjects in particularly visually interesting ways. I will start with one of these.
Of all the ‘celebrity’ photographers in the list, McGorty at least makes an effort to vary his staging and composition to bring out something of the personality of the sitter. He moves between B&W and colour, between simple head-on poses and more candid moments without eye contact, between simple headshot and more sophisticated environmental portraits.
His shot of Vincent Cassel is a example of a good McGorty portrait. It places him in a glamorous French Riviera context, surrounded by people but the focus is entirely on Cassel; the black suit not only signifies effortless continental style but visually makes for superb figure/ground contrast; the casual stroll and glance to the side oozes cool; everything in the frame draws you to Cassel’s face.
Though not all of his work is portraiture, it does feature strongly in his portfolio. There’s an underlying sense of gentle melancholy to much of his work; to use his own words, his images come about “through my melancholic observations”.
Of particular interest to me for my current assignment, he eschews studio portraiture and works in the environments of his subjects. The connection between the location and the sitter comes through as an important aspect of his best portraits.
This portrait of a Doctor Who fan works exceptionally well for me, not for the more obvious element of the mask but for the more subtle signifier of the narrowness of the room.
He works very much in a realist, unfussy documentary photography style. The risk with this is that some of his portraits are so subtle, so nuanced that at first sight they are unremarkable.
I found Lomas’ personal story to be more interesting than her photography (partly because I couldn’t find much of it; she’s wiped her portfolio site). After successfully shooting portraits, including being the youngest person to exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery, she gave it all up to become an A&E nurse. She had been shooting nurse portraits and decided “I wanted to become my subject”. That’s subject empathy to an extreme degree.
I did find some of her early work, To Feel Beautiful (2010), for which she won The Godfrey Argent Award. I found them interesting to look at and thought-provoking in the way they subverted the normal ‘happy’ presentation of young women in the media – but for me they are constructed scenes much more than they are portraits (despite being part of that year’s Taylor Wessing prize). A good portrait tells you something about the subject; these tell you something about a fictional character/amalgam created for the photo.
My first impression was of an Alec Soth type, affirmed by my reading that he uses a 4×5 camera for ‘slow photography’.
Like Soth he works in the space between art, portraiture, landscape and documentary photography, though his milieu is more gritty and urban.
His portrait work is part of larger social issue projects, such as Kensington Blues about Philadelphia drug addicts. He gets to know his subjects, gathering written and audio testimonies along with the photos.
One does get a sense of individual personalities behind the stereotypes, helped by his eye for posing his subjects in striking compositions.
Largely I wasn’t that enamoured with the list provided in the course notes, as I found little by way of originality and an over-emphasis on known subjects.
My own research has uncovered a couple of portraitists that are producing more interesting work.
Despite being annoyingly young ;-) Davison has impressed me in his brief career so far. He has a playful, experimental approach to portraiture that finds seemingly infinite ways of representing individuals and makes one wonder why so much portraiture is so similar.
He obscures the face partially or wholly in a variety of different ways, and as noted elsewhere that’s one of the aspects of portraiture that I find most intriguing. In the example above there are a number of visual elements that make it a striking image: the vantage point, looking down onto the face; the close crop; the closed eyes – but most of all the shadow pattern on the face: it places the subject in 3D space, with something between her and the light source. Does it tell you anything about the sitter? I think it does, or at least it implies something, gives the illusion of telling you something; it ‘tells’ me that she is a dreamer, a free thinker.
This experimental approach (however it manifests itself) makes the images worth a second look, it draws you into an photo because it both does and doesn’t resemble a portrait. In a 2015 BJP interview he talked about spontaneity being a big part of his work, and (rather oddly, or sweetly I thought) said that he hadn’t noticed his own preference for obscuring the face (BJP, December 2015). Maybe it’s all very subconscious…
Learyod’s distinctive approach is to use a room-sized camera obscura to create his pictures, which are mostly portraits and often of a recurring set of sitters. I’m not normally a fan of photography where the technical method is the point of interest as most of it is simply gimmickry without any real depth in the final results – but Learoyd is absolutely the exception to this.
I’ve seen Learoyd’s Dark Mirror exhibition at the V&A and there’s two aspects that really struck me: first, the portraits are the most unnervingly realistic I had never seen – you almost expect the subject to turn around and address you. This in itself makes the viewer believe (more than with a regular portrait) that you are in the presence of a true individual with their own life, quirks, character traits. And secondly, each photograph is a unique positive, and there are no negatives and so no ability to truly reproduce. Whilst normal for painting, this is highly unusual for a photograph, and in a strange way made me appreciate the images more than I normally would. The uniqueness of the image matches the uniqueness of the individual – the two concepts work hand-in-hand for me.
Analyse Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC by Nan Goldin.
A side-ramble first…
My first thought was that unlike the course author I wouldn’t have naturally included Goldin in a section on portraiture, but I try to be open-minded so I got out the copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) that I’d bought a few months ago. I confess that up until now I hadn’t quite seen it as the work of genius that many claim it to be.
It’s funny how revisiting something with a different point of view in mind can transform your opinion of it. Until now I’d mentally filed Goldin away under ‘gritty personal documentary’, but today, revisiting the book I see that it’s essentially a series of highly intimate portraits.
Goldin took pictures of her ‘tribe’, her “recreated family, without the traditional roles” (Goldin 1986), and while they weren’t portraits in the traditional posed sense, they were extraordinarily vivid candid portraits, of people that she knew very well and one presumes she could discern when to press the shutter to capture a good representation of them.
I’ve gone on about this before, but the most fascinating area of portraiture for me is pictures of people that I don’t know, have no preconceptions about and only have the photograph to work with. It’s a true skill to imbue a photograph with enough ‘information’ to fool the viewer into believing they know more about the subject than they do. Why should one care about a subject that one doesn’t know? A good ‘unfamiliar’ portrait creates an illusion of knowing. This isn’t the case for all of Goldin’s portraits, for sure, but there are a handful of her recurrent subjects that really come through to the viewer.
To the image in question: though later than The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, it continues the same personal visual diary style.
Face: Misty: defiant, challenging, returns the camera’s gaze; Jimmy: more hesitant but still very direct; both heavily made-up (notions of identity, masks etc…)
Pose/gesture: again, defiant
Clothes: edgy, transgressive, a major part of their external personae as drag queens; Jimmy’s bra falling down in a parody of feminine sexuality
Lighting: looks like flash: quite harsh, exposes details of their skin, revealing flaws
Background: heads framed by the taxi window and with the view outside it places them in New York city; they’re on their way out, there’s a sense of anticipation
Meaning: ‘we’re hitting the town, don’t mess with us tonight’
Goldin, N. (2014) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. United States: Aperture.
This image is called Candy Cigarette. Does that influence your interpretation of the image?
This was a highly controversial image in 1989 when it was produced. What do you think the reaction would be to it today?
Using the portrait checklist first before a more freeform analysis:
Face: intense gaze, defiant expression – captures the seriousness with which the adolescent takes their confusing transition – or is she attempting to look ‘seductive’?
Pose/gesture: self-conscious; trying to look more grown-up by the way she holds the cigarette but also protecting herself with her other arm; the tousled hair carries a message of rebellion
Clothes: white dress, symbolising innocence
Props: the candy cigarette to enact adulthood and/or connote rebellion (of which more below)
Lighting: focused on central subject
Background: unfocused; path bending into distance, maybe connoting the journey between childhood and adulthood; child on stilts, maybe connoting a different way of enacting being ‘grown-up’
Meaning: ‘childhood lost’
This is the essence of adolescence in a photograph; acting older, trying on ‘grown-up’ poses; cigarette to connote rebellion – from the point of view of the mother taking it, I read it as a sorrow at how quickly children grow up, or want to grow up
Taking a wider view of the image: the dynamic of the three children together is significant, I think. The other two are facing the other way (down a ‘different path’) and adopt more obviously child-like poses, and so the central figure is positioning herself in opposition to them by both where she faces and how she stands. She is in sharp focus (the here and now) while they are to different degrees unfocused, dreamlike (the past).
The watch on her right wrist stands out to me as incongruous for someone of her age; it speaks of being conscious of passing time.
The title of Candy Cigarette does significantly change the reading. Without that the viewer’s assumption is of a real cigarette, and that leads to a darker interpretation of real rebellion, and/or of irresponsible parenting. With a real cigarette the viewer invests into the picture an imagined past and future, making it much more shocking – especially as the photographer is her mother; it would represent a dereliction of maternal care to not only photograph it but to publish it.
With the information that the cigarette is fake the reading becomes more melancholic than shocking; it’s a sorrow felt on how children feel the need to grow up so quickly, the rush to adulthood overtaking the enjoyment of childhood.
Would it be any more controversial in 2016 than in 1989? I don’t know; sometimes it feels like society is getting more progressive and understanding of nuances of meaning, and other times it feels like we swing back to over-protection and puritanism. Reading about Sally Mann and how she took images of her children throughout their childhood, and got accused of sexually exploiting them by photographing them naked, I sense that an adolescent appearing to smoke a cigarette is the least of her ‘transgressions’ of good taste…
“Find three images from each of the photographers mentioned above [Donovan, Duffy, Parkinson, McBean, French, Beaton, Avedon]. Carefully analyse at least one image by each photographer. What makes the image work – or not? What is the image saying about the subject? Compare and contrast the different portrait styles of the various photographers.”
Celia Hammond by Terence Donovan
Twiggy by Terence Donovan
Terence Stamp by Terence Donovan
Along with Bailey and Duffy, Donovan was considered one of the ‘Black Trinity’ (as christened by Norman Parkinson) of archetypal Swinging Sixties photographers. His main output was fashion photography rather than portraiture per se – something I expand on for John French below.
His style was more varied than Bailey’s, and he could be more visually experimental. The Celia Hammond picture above is a good example:
Pose/gesture: relaxed, mostly out of frame
Clothes: nude (so it’s not a ‘fashion’ photograph) but framed just at the point of decency
Lighting: shadows under nose imply high butterfly lighting
Background: the negative space is unusual for the era, and almost implies that the camera tilted backwards to point too far up, or the model slipped down, to disrupt the shot that the viewer ‘really wanted to see’
Meaning: this image seems to be self-consciously referring to the act of photography, which is more common now but wasn’t mainstream in the 1960s (I’m not sure, however, what it says about the sitter)
The third member of the so-called Black Trinity, having in common with Bailey and Duffy the ‘new guard’ desire to move past the stiffly posed portraits of the 1940s/50s into much more informal and inventive compositions.
Jane Birkin by Brian Duffy
Michael Caine by Brian Duffy
Jean Shrimpton by Brian Duffy
He inevitably shot many of the same people as Bailey (and others) but found different things to do with them – and therefore say about them. The Caine and Shrimpton portraits above strayed from the standard formula both by getting close and by having them looking out of the frame. The Birkin shot was the one I found most interesting:
Face: blank, almost stereotypical ‘uninterested model face’
Pose/gesture: graceful, balletic, with movement frozen in time
Clothes: presumably these were the subject of the fashion shoot; bonnet makes her look younger than reality
Lighting: above and to the right as implied by the fairly hard shadows
Background: even more than the Hammond picture above it reveals itself knowingly as a photograph, by showing the edges of the backdrop
Meaning: as with the Hammond shot, this comes across as being quite ‘meta’ and revealing the workings of the photographic enterprise
I found the inclusion of Parkinson (and others to follow) a little odd given that this section is about the ‘swinging sixties’, as he was one of the ‘old guard’ that Bailey et al were notable for superseding. Parkinson had been working since the 1930s and his 1960s work seems to me to have been a continuation of his (admittedly imaginative) portrait approach, rather than something particular to the 1960s zeitgeist.
Anthony Caro by Norman Parkinson
Yes Saint Laurent by Norman Parkinson
Seamus Heaney by Norman Parkinson
What he did do that links him to the 1960s was photograph a lot of the key cultural figures of the time, and not just in movies, fashion and pop music like some of his peers. His portrait of the sculptor Anthony Caro is by far the most interesting work I found of Parkinson’s:
Pose/gesture: prone, submissive, as though his sculpture has ‘killed him’
Clothes: torn, implying struggle
Props: it’s dominated by his Sculpture 4 with Caro himself as a secondary point of focus
Lighting: outdoor, presumably natural
Background: the sculpture mainly, with sky and ground clues to the outdoor location (relevant as this sculpture was produced for the South Bank and is pictured on location)
Meaning: to me it’s about the relationship between the artist and the art, how the artist is subservient, almost ‘defeated’ by the art – very imaginative for its time
Even more than Parkinson, I think McBean’s inclusion here is down to a few key images of 1960s icons, most notably in his case The Beatles. To focus on his 1960s work is to do him a disservice, as he’d had a successful career since the 1930s and was known for a distinctive surrealist portraiture style.
The Beatles by Angus McBean
Spike Milligan by Angus McBean
Audrey Hepburn by Angus McBean
If anything, a lot of the 1960s work lacked his surreal touches and veered towards the popular style of the time. His Beatles portraits are interchangeable with the work of other photographers of the era. The Hepburn shot above, from the 1950s, is a better example of his style than the 1960s celebrity work:
Face: neutral expression, staring ahead but above, not directly at the viewer’s eyeline
Pose/gesture: rising out of the ground
Clothes: nude, but not in an erotic way – signifies comparisons to classical notions of beauty
Props: she is surrounded by sand, rubble and classical pillars – all adding up to give the effect of comparing Hepburn’s classical beauty to ancient statues
Lighting: high up loop lighting, illuminating most of the face barring her right cheek
Background: more classical architecture allusions
Meaning: Hepburn = classical beauty (in this respect I’d say it tells you more about the publicperception of Hepburn than her individual character)
Another ‘old guard’ photographer perhaps, but one that can claim a more direct connection to the icons Sixties Photographer cliché – Bailey and Donovan both started out as assistants to French.
The Rolling Stones and Patti Boyd by John French
Patti Boyd and Celia Hammond by John French
Jean Shrimpton by John French
My issue with French in this context is that he was predominantly a fashion photographer not a portraitist; the subject was the clothes not the person; some of the models subsequently became famous in their own right, but the pictures were mainly shot for fashion spreads, not as portraits (to be fair, this is the case, to some degree, with all of these photographers, as fashion led the photographic revolution in the sixties). With this in mind, it’s hard to make a case that these images gave any insight into the subjects. The one image above that I think is worth mentioning is the Jean Shrimpton:
Face: profile view, looking out of frame
Pose/gesture: elegant but facing away from the camera
Clothes: classy evening wear
Props: the rose tucked into the back of the dress is the most obvious point of interest
Lighting: high and to the side
Meaning: not sure about this one actually… something obvious about Shrimpton being an ‘English rose’ springs to mind? The facing away from the camera might be significant, a comment on the fashion industry and/or how much a model must be photographed? In any case, it’s an interesting compositional choice that perhaps demonstrates the bridge between the old guard and the iconic swinging sixties trinity
Like some the others above, Beaton had a successful career already by the time the sixties came around, in his case dating back to the late 1920s. He had a reputation for fashion and society portraiture, with a necessary diversion into war photography, and in particular was known as a royal family photographer.
David Hockney by Cecil Beaton
David Bailey by Cecil Beaton
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton
He had an acknowledged influence on the new wave of sixties photographers, notably Bailey, which led to something of a resurgence in interest in Beaton. His sixties portraits are mostly of interest for their archetypal 1960s subjects, but the one I found most interesting was this portrait of the Queen:
Face: slight smile, tilted head, looking off camera
Pose/gesture: looks quite relaxed
Clothes: strange mix of quite slight summer dress and royal regalia
Props: sash, crown, necklace – denoting royal responsibility
Lighting: more even and less contrasty than most 1960s photography
Background: plain; the negative space above her head emphasises her youth I think
Meaning: the Queen is human too (it has a candid, informal feel that is an indication of the changing norms of photography compared to the highly traditional, formal royal photography of the preceding decades)
The course notes describe Avedon as one of the ‘new photographers on the block’ in the context of the sixties, yet some of his iconic portrait work goes back to the 1950s (?). He shares with Bailey a preference for the plain white backdrop, but a key difference is that he seems better at catching unguarded moments.
Mia Farrow by Richard Avedon
Jackie and John F Kennedy by Richard Avedon
Ringo Starr by Richard Avedon
His Mia Farrow portrait is interesting, if creepy:
Face: barely visible, just the eyelashes and the counters of her face
Lighting: brightest on back of her neck and shoulder
Meaning: the pose and hairstyle emphasise her youth and vulnerability; the visible contours of the spine make her look not just young but undernourished; the earring and the lashes try make her look glamorous, but the overall effect is of a girl being asked to look/act like a woman but being too shy to turn around – it’s more than a little predatory
There are definitely elements that these photographers have in common, understandable when they were working across the same period, with in many cases the same subjects. Some stylistic tropes stand out: plain, often white, backgrounds; square format; high contrast B&W; an informality and dynamism to posing, as though freed from decades of strictly formal portrait composition (partly cultural, partly technological limitations).
I do however see the most commonality between the archetypal ‘Swinging Sixties’ trio of Bailey, Duffy and Donovan; they all seemed to be pushing away the old ways of working at about the same time, as friends but with a healthy tension of youthful competitiveness.
The others rode the wave but in the end still seemed to belong to a different era. McBean got less surreal and less interesting in the 1960s. Beaton loosened up. Of all of them, I’m most pleased to have found out more about Parkinson, as he surprised me with his imaginative approach to portraiture, and avoided the swinging sixties clichés for the most part. And he shot interesting characters, not just celebrities.
I confess I am not a huge fan of David Bailey’s ‘signature’ work. In 2014 I saw Bailey’s Stardust, a comprehensive retrospective of his career, and seeing dozens of his celebrity portraits together made me realise that I find his style a little too shallow and bombastic. To me a good portrait photograph (especially of famous people) can show you a side of the sitter that you don’t normally see – it’s revealing. Bailey, by comparison, comes across to me as doing something quite different – he identifies and amplifies what you already know about them, he maximises the recognition factor. It’s almost caricature more than portraiture.
By way of balance, almost half of the Stardust exhibition was work that was not in his iconic style, and some of this was revelatory – one got a glimpse into alternative versions of Bailey’s career.
One of my favourite photographs by anyone – I have a framed print above my desk as a type – is the Look image used as part of the Stardust publicity. It’s just such a great shot, not typical Bailey at all but full of visual sparkle – the horizontal stripes on the wall, the vertical stripes on the waistcoat, the shapes, the text, the high contrast, the figure-to-ground of the head and shoulders positioned perfectly on the white arrow, the facial expression, the cheeky eyes looking in the opposite direction to the arrow, the jacket just being pulled down off the shoulders – it’s just perfect.
Bailey has photographed Nicholson several times over the decades, and although it’s not dated in the course notes, I estimate this may be from the 1990s or maybe 2000s.
I did wonder why this particular shot rather than the much more well-known 1984 shot pictured to the right, but OCA course notes move in mysterious ways.
Analysing it using the (slightly amended) checklist:
Face: mischievous – glint in eyes, arched eyebrows, broad grin; slightly unkempt hair – hint of wildness
Pose/gesture: solid, confident
Clothes: smart but leaning to informal (no tie), masculine; deep black to contrast against white background
Lighting: strong light on right side, throwing left into deep shadow; emphasises texture of face (pores, wrinkles, light stubble); blown highlights on shirt collar
Background: plain and unobtrusive
Meaning: ‘Lock up your granddaughters, I’m still Jack the Lad’
As per my caricature theory noted above, it doesn’t tell you anything new about Jack Nicholson – it shows you a reassuringly Jack-Nicholsonesque Jack Nicholson, the Jack you know and love, doing that Jack Nicholson thing that Jack does, being Jack…
The mood it conveys is therefore something along the lines of ‘cheeky sexual predator‘ (or more harshly: ‘dirty old man‘). Is Jack Nicholson really like this? Who knows. Possibly. Probably. It’s certainly his public image.
In many ways it’s a classic Bailey shot. He tends to shoot men in quite strong directional lighting to exaggerate the ruggedness of their features. He also has a tendency to under-expose and/or really crank up the contrast to the point that detail its lost to pure black. To be fair, this is more noticeable on the earlier portrait included as the thumbnail above than in the main image under discussion.
I think Bailey’s intention was to shoot an image that reinforced the existing public perception of Nicholson, reassure viewers that he’s ‘still got it’.
Bailey, D. (2014) Bailey Exposed. London: National Portait Publications
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:
… and one proposed by Bate (2009: 73):
Face (the point missing from the above list)
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.
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.
Face: neutral, blank
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
If you have access to the relevant equipment, imagine that you have been asked by a client to take a fairly formal portrait photograph – for example a graduation portrait. (Commercial photographers take hundreds of these in a day at graduation ceremonies.)
The main point of this exercise is to get to grips with studio lighting so experiment with your lighting effects and make notes in your learning log or blog.
As per my previous post, I had already spent some time getting used to working with off-camera flash and trying out different placements of one flash. Now to try it out on a live subject…
I’ll start with what I believe was my best attempt.
This was lit from the front and slightly above the model’s head – almost but not quite butterfly lighting (slightly too low).
I tried some shots with Rembrandt-style lighting – 45º above and 45º to the side. The lighting effect on the main part of the face is what I was seeking, but unfortunately there was an effect on the skin on the forehead and neck where unsightly red patches appeared in a pattern caused by the lighting, I think (they weren’t any blemishes on the skin itself).
I learned lots of things doing this exercise:
I should have set the white balance manually for consistency
A little make-up might have reduced the highlights reflected off the skin
Moving the model away from the backdrop really helped in reducing unwanted shadows
I need to watch out for lighting causing patches of discolouration – check images straight away and adjust as necessary
A couple of informal portraits
While I had the temporary home studio set up, Ann asked me if I could take some photos of her with the dogs :-)
As mentioned earlier, I avoided using photographic lighting for years as I had an irrational fear of how complicated it would be. I was one of those who would say “I’m a natural light shooter…” when really I meant that I just didn’t know how to use photographic lighting.
So I decided to bite the bullet and get to grips with off-camera flash.
I already had two books on lighting: one that lots of people recommend, Light, Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver & Fuqua (2012) and one that I presume I just picked up in a bookshop on a whim, Photographic Lighting by Harrington (2013). The former talks about the science a lot and the latter talks about the gear a lot… I re-read both these as a refresher, but still felt that I had only skimmed the surface and unless I actually got some kit and tried out the techniques then the knowledge would evaporate as quickly as it had before.
I asked other students for sources of help and one website kept coming up: Strobist. I’d heard of the site and am a Twitter follower of David Hobby who runs it – but had never actually got stuck into any of the content.
The Strobist Lighting 101 starts by telling you what kit you need – and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t very much, and it wasn’t very expensive. Two of my fears about off-camera flash had been put to rest straight away. I already had a hotshoe flash so was just missing:
A light stand
A swivel head
A shoot-through umbrella
A radio trigger
I ordered these (total: £32.18) and did more reading while I awaited the delivery. I also borrowed a Girl’s World to act as a model to save bothering my wife too much :-)
Once I had all the kit set up I started following the examples given in the Strobist tutorial, first with flash only, then mixing flash with ambient light. And the breakthrough came… this stuff is MUCH simpler than I’d thought!
I should also credit an excellent video tutorial from The Slanted Lens that covered five basic lighting styles achievable with a single off-camera flash:
I tried some of these and could see the difference effects they achieved.
The breakthrough I achieved through this reading and practice gave me the confidence to then tackle the ‘A studio portrait‘ exercise.
Hunter, F., Biver, S. and Fuqua, P. (2015) Light, Science and Magic: An introduction to photographic lighting. 4th ed. Waltham, MA: Taylor & Francis.
Harrington, R. (2013) Photographic Lighting. UK: Ammonite Press.
Produce two sets of portraits without people. If you can, use some of your own family members for the first set of images. If that’s not feasible, use members of another family you know well (e.g. neighbours) – or some close friends. Your second set of images should explore a group of people that you know less well – work colleagues, for example.
If you can’t get hold of two different groups of people for this exercise, don’t worry – simply do the best you can. For example, you could do a set of images reflecting your subjects’ personal and family characteristics and a set reflecting their more ‘public’ side – their job, hobbies, etc.
For your first set of images (the group that you know best), shoot the Weingarten or the Leibovitz way.
For the second set, talk to the people you’ve chosen about what’s important to them. How do you see them? How do they see themselves? What can you use to represent them? Think about the best technique to use. You can use the Weingarten or Leibovitz technique or another one altogether but make some notes explaining your decision.
Place the images in your learning log or blog along with a short account of your experience. Is it possible to produce a meaningful portrait of someone without actually including the subject?
I have had to interpret the brief slightly loosely; as I am childless (and live far away from my parents and siblings) and unemployed I have neither a family nor colleagues to bring into this exercise! I have therefore taken the variant suggested in the brief of depicting the same people in terms of their public persona and their private persona. I have chosen my wife Ann and my best friend Mike.
1. Public persona
I have used something like the Weingarten style for these two images. As an aside, I find Weingarten’s style to be absolutely hideous – but that’s not going to stop me trying it out for an exercise ;-)
Ann’s public persona is, in shorthand, ‘high-flying businesswoman‘. She’s a CEO, she travels a lot, and she’s a bit of a power-dresser… hence the skyscraper backdrop, the high speed trains, the communication devices and the multitude of high-heeled shoes.
Mike’s public persona could be summarised as ‘sociable mountain biking enthusiast‘. The montage is dominated by cycling imagery as he’s a professional mountain bike guide / instructor, and I’ve added in a few other references: he’s a keen Facebook user but also highly sociable in real life (hence the pint glass), and he runs a B&B (hence the fry-up).
2. Private persona
I decided on different styles for these two, as explained below.
Here I chose a still life approach, collecting a few objects that typify her interests and priorities in life. A dog lover (we have two); a keen gardener; likes spending weekends walking around the county; loves spending holidays at our apartment in Nice; is interested in history and currently spending a lot of spare time researching her family tree. The blue background is significant – she loves the summer and lives for sunny days with clear blue skies.
This was trickier to get a handle on, as my overriding sense of Mike’s ‘home’ persona is that he’s a real family man, devoted to his wife and kids – and I struggled with how to depict that in a Weingarten, Leibowitz or still life approach. In the end I realised that the best physical manifestation of Mike’s family priorities is the number of photos he takes of them. So this is a digital montage of images that he has taken of his family.
First of all, I must say that none of these are really in a style that I like working in (possible exception of the still life). My distaste for the form may be reflected in the quality of the outcomes.
The brief asks: “Is it possible to produce a meaningful portrait of someone without actually including the subject?”
My response: no, but neither is it really possible to produce a meaningful portrait of someone that does include them!
In a sense, each of these absented portraits is simply a visual version of a bullet point biography; a compilation of facts about a person, visually presented.
In one way therefore, this could actually give a more “meaningful” portrait than a traditional portrait of the subject. A regular portrait can capture facial expression, pose, environment, clothing, status and so on, but what indication could it give as to the subject’s personality, interests, priorities, motivations, principles, relationships, life…? Props might actually be able to communicate this better. A combination approach may work best?
I’ve mused on this subject before, but in short I find it difficult to agree with those who believe that photography has some magical ability to ‘capture’ a person’s character. A photograph can only capture one ‘version’ of someone at one moment in time, and it may be who they chose to show to the camera.
One aspect of doing the exercise this way (same people, two ‘versions’) reminded me of the explanation of the two ingredients of identity covered in Kath Woodward’s Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2004):
Structure: external, social identity – confirms to socially understood roles
Agency: internal, personal identity – self-definition, control, individuality
The public persona set uses structural stereotypes more obviously than the private persona set; however, to some extent even the private set is housed within accepted social roles (‘dog person’, ‘homebody’, ‘family man’ etc) rather than really digging into what makes a person a unique, distinctive personality.
So that’s my long answer to the brief’s question. The short version is: neither a traditional portrait nor an absented portrait can really provide a “meaningful” depiction of a person; the former is usually more interesting to look at, the latter is harder to pull off.
The question of how one can overcome this inherent limitation of portraiture is one that I keep coming back to – I’m considering covering it as part of the critical review.
Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University.