1c Historic Portrait

I&P Exercise 1.1

Do some research into historic photographic portraiture.

Select one portrait to really study in depth. Write a maximum of 500 words about this portrait, but don’t merely ‘describe’ what you see. The idea behind this exercise is to encourage you to be more reflective in your written work (see Introduction), which means trying to elaborate upon the feelings and emotions generated whilst viewing an image.

The portrait can be any of your choice, but try to choose a historic practitioner of note. This will make your research much easier, as the practitioner’s works will have been collected internationally by galleries and museums and written about extensively.

Read what has already been written about your chosen practitioner’s archive, paying particular attention to what historians and other academics have highlighted in their texts.

Post your thought in your learning log or blog.

OCA, Photography 3: Identity & Place p. 24

Sarah, Lawrence High School, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 2005
© Dawoud Bey

Subject’s statement,

I may be different, but I take silent comfort in my difference. My looks do not define who I am. I know that I am separate from the rest of my school because I look the way I do, not “normal”. What is normal anyways? And who decides what is normal? My soul is not dark. I have dealt with pain and misfortunes. I have also had wonderful people and experiences in my life. Everything I go through, the good and the bad, makes me a better person, not just a better person but stronger too. My experiences define who I am. I’ll tell you what I see when I look at myself. I see a young woman owning her individuality, being her own leader, not following the crowd, and I see a young woman who learns from everything around her. Now do I seem so strange?


The photograph to be examined is Dawoud Bey’s Sarah, Lawrence High School, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 2005,  part of his Class Pictures project featuring students in school. These were made as part of a series of residences with various institutions across the US. While not historic in chronological terms, Bey’s output as a photographer has been overwhelmingly classical portraiture in terms of its purpose and setting.

The photograph depicts a young woman, dressed in black with heavy eye make-up, black nail varnish, a prominent silver-coloured necklace, bracelet and belt and large boots, that last included in the image because of the way she crosses her legs. Her wrists have fabric bracelets in blue and red that match her eye make-up.
The background is out of focus but discernible (given the series title) as a classroom wall. The colour of some of the wall decoration corresponds to the subject’s make-up and accessories. It is known that this correspondence is intentional because Bey describes that decision in his book (2019, p.87).

The photograph’s title gives the setting and the subjects’ statements were shown in the exhibition and published in the book of the project (Bey & Reynolds, 2007). Sarah’s statement, reveals that she regards herself as different from and excluded in some ways by her fellow students and the school community. She regards this separation as a source of strength.

In aesthetic terms, Bey’s portraits tend to be classic three-quarter length with contextual background detail, although he notes (Bey,  2019 p.58) that he makes full-length portraits where the subjects merit that treatment and to provide variety.

My schooling took place in a different era and continent from Sarah’s, nevertheless, she is around the same age as my son and so I will express my view in that context. Sarah’s text can be categorised as a relay in Barthes’ terms, where the text and image enhance each other. That said, the text seems at odds with the image. Sarah states that she is and looks different, separate from her fellows but her appearance, though sad, is not particularly unusual.  Her clothing and accessories and her makeup constitute a fashion statement: make-up, certainly of that distinction, would not have been allowed at my son’s school, but presumably was permitted at Lawrence High School, albeit Sarah’s might have been at the extreme end of the spectrum. My High School and my son’s were uniformed.

Sarah’s statement seems full of the bravura of youth, determined to make a stand and live by her own values. My attitude in the late 1960s was similar, eager to change the world, confident that it could be done, but that surface confidence was spread fairly thinly over a youth’s almost inevitable core of inexperience and uncertainty.
I would like to know what happened to her and how her life turned out.

André Wheeler (2020) refers to Bey’s ‘explorations of marginalized and misunderstood communities’ and, on Class Pictures, of giving ‘teenagers control over how viewers see them – preventing us from throwing preconceived notions and ideas on to them’. Bey has described his initial intention, ‘to challenge stereotypical representations of black urban subjects’ (Wolf, 2019, p.18), and this was later extended to other minorities.
Bey has done more than, perhaps, any other contemporary US photographer to portray individuals from under-represented minorities sympathetically, especially his own African American community.

word count 552

Bey, D. (2019) on Photographing People and Communities. NY: Aperture

Bey, D. & Reynolds, J.(2007) Class Pictures. New York, Aperture.

MoCP (n.d.) Bey, Dawoud [online]. mocp.org. Available from https://www.mocp.org/detail.php?type=related&kv=6893&t=people [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Shakur, F. (2018) Dawoud Bey: 40 Years of Photos Affirming the ‘Lives of Ordinary Black People’ [online]. nytimes.com. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/24/lens/dawoud-bey-seeing-deeply.html [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Warner, M. (2018) Dawoud Bey, Places in History [online]. bjp-online.com. Available from https://www.bjp-online.com/2018/12/dawoud-bey-places-in-history/ [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Wheeler, A. (2020) ‘Blackness is not a straitjacket on the imagination’: the photography of Dawoud Bey [online]. theguardian.com. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/feb/17/dawoud-bey-photographer-sf-moma [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Wolf, S. (2019) Photo Work: forty photographers on process and practice. New York: Aperture Foundation