Portrait photography – initial explorations

This Gesture&Meaning-induced exploration into Portrait photography is fascinating, so far. I thought it was the genre I understood the best and the one that is, in some ways, the most straightforward but I am finding this is not so.

There is in fact an endless mystery around portraiture: why do some images have impact and others less so? How do we reveal the truth about someone? Does it matter if we don’t? If portrait photography is not just about capturing someone’s likeness, what is it about? Why should the relationship between the photographer and the sitter be important when some street ‘portraits’ can be so powerful?  What can we learn about someone from what we cannot see?

Clarke asks: “in what sense can a literal image express the inner world and being of an individual before the camera?” [1] My early attempts at self-portraiture have revealed how problematic this area is, not least because of the perplexing nature of identity and subjectivity and our public and private personae.

We are guided for analysis purposes to consider the various elements of a portrait:

  • Is the subject known, familiar (ie a public figure) or unknown
  • Pose/gesture
  • Clothes
  • Props
  • Background/location
  • Lighting
  • Exposure
  • Meaning

The interpretation will be subjective and can change.

My personal tastes attract me to a ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic. I don’t think this is nostalgia as I have no love for sepia but the collodion process, with its tremendous tonal range, appeals very much. These images by Michael Schaaf are good examples.

Schaaf, incidentally, killed himself in 2016. Even though he was a professional photographer, running workshops for the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock, the local newspaper headline announced “Tourist found hanged at beauty spot” which seems like a terrible reduction of his existence.

Could we see that Schaaf was suicidal from his portrait?


Diane Arbus was convinced suicide could be seen on the faces of Monroe and Hemmingway.  Geoff Dyer: “Arbus’s belief in the prophetic power of photography was derived in part from Bill Brandt who, in turn, derived it from André Breton. Commenting on the ‘sadness’ in the eyes of the actress Josephine Smart (whom he photographed in 1948) Brandt felt that ‘the photographer’s aims should be a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject’s entire future.’ But while Arbus believe that there were ‘things which no one else would see unless I photographed them’, Brandt put the emphasis not on what he could see but on what his wooden Kodak camera could see; ‘instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing’.” [2] Dyer goes on to explain that Brandt bought his camera in a second-hand shop and later learned that it had been used by Scotland Yard for police records.

I probably should dig out some snaps of the people I have known who have taken their own lives to see what I – or someone else – can see.


For my own work, I am keen to explore less literal representations of my subjects and I wonder where are those boundaries? I am thinking of O’Keeffe’s ‘indirect portraits’ of Stieglitz showing just glimpses of the red lining of his coat, perhaps inspired by Gertrude Stein’s ‘word portraits’ and attempts at verbal cubism. At what point does an image become – or cease to become – a portrait?


Self-portrait by me, in the eye of a stray cat, snapped on my phone on the way to the shops…

Tagg says: “Heads and shoulders, as if those parts of our bodies were our truth.” [3]

In the early stages of this part of the course, I have been keeping an open mind and looking at as many portraits as possible. Here are a few that have particularly stood out for me.


Bjork by Laurence Passera, 2004.  On one level, the pose is almost sculptural with the curved neck and wistful look evoking classic renaissance beauty. No clothes are revealed but the braids symbolise a chaste and timeless femininity. The lighting is bright and soft with little contrast giving smooth and impossible skin tones. The subject is perfect, goddess-like, perhaps slightly haughty and unattainable. But the distortion changes everything of course. Not only is the beauty broken up and undermined but we see the suggestion of layers or a mask. This person is multi-faceted, unpredictable, unique. She is a visionary artist.


John Kerry by Alex Majoli, 2016. The pose is contemplative, humble, perhaps a bit weary but dignified. His clothes are smart but not flashy; well-tailored, conservative but with some rebellion – certainly not sombre. The lighting is subtle and feels quite natural. The subject is backlit as if he’s being driven forward by his responsibilities. He quietly walks the halls of government, surrounded by history and protocol. The men in the paintings seem to watch him go and smile. The overlap of the wall (or pillar) on the left hand painting creates a slight claustrophobia, accentuating the narrowness of the space, as if the work is never-ending and inescapable.This is a man of power and of action. He has stamina, dedication; he represents his office and his duties well. He will take his place in history.


Army veteran Jose Martinez by Balazs Gardi, 2016 (from an article in TIME about marijuana use to cope with PTSD and pain).  The pose is strong, almost rigid – he is smoking with purpose. Our view is drawn to where the hand and mouth meet and the vertical lines of the left arm are echoed but distorted in the nearside T-shirt sleeve, accentuating the stump. We glimpse the left knee, slightly raised and then become aware of the absence of a right leg. The clothes are casual and simple but evoke an active, almost macho, existence, albeit aspirational now.  For props, we can just discern a prosthetic leg nearby.  A large, prominent tattoo like his would be common in the military but also feels slightly threatening here. This should be a comfortable space but the black leather and dark wallpaper is quite sinister. Black and blue and smoky. The lighting is natural and bright around the window but diffused through the blinds. This accentuates the depth and complexity of the scene. The subject seems to be sinking into his plush sofa but he is not relaxed. This is no casual pothead. He is living a difficult existence, disconnected from the outside world – stuck inside with no view and restricted movement, surrounded by deep, dark shadows.

Mark Rylance photographed in New York on March 21, 2016.

Mark Rylance by Peter Hapak, 2016. The pose is alert and confident but gentle and warm. His clothes reveal an artistic soul, not afraid to be decorative – even a bit feminine – and stand out from the crowd. The lighting and creamy cast is decorative too; whilst not too harsh, it is hard enough to show the character in the subject’s face and the evidence of a life richly lived. We can tell this is a very unusual, charismatic person – perhaps a muse or an inspiration to some. He is relaxed in his own skin but active and focussed.



  1. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press (p 101)
  2. Dyer, G. (2012) The ongoing moment: A book about photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate Books. (p60-61)
  3. Tagg, J. (1988) The burden of representation: Essays on photographies and histories. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Education (p35)


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One Response to Portrait photography – initial explorations

  1. Catherine says:

    Just thinking – how much does it depend on whether we have already seen the person, even f only only through photographs. For example, the photograph of Bjork is wonderful but would she say that it represents an aspect of her? On the other hand, Mark Rylance comes alive in front of me. They are both actors though so what does that mean about what we see.

    Liked by 1 person

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