1. Essay

Assigment 1 Essay
Defining the Portrait

briefsubmission – blog – feedback – essay

I&P Assignment 1 submitted 6th December, feedback received on 22nd. No visual reworking to be done on this assignment, but research to be done and essays / responses to be written.

The responses are on the feedback page, leaving one essay to be written in response to (my emphasis),

I was intrigued that you did not include the picture of John as (unfortunately, this might exclude John who does not like to look at the lens). This suggests that a portrait might only be considered if the subject is looking directly at the lens. An idea that could be considered within the broader question of what is a portrait? Perhaps the notion of the pose could be an area for future research. Again, I like the picture of John in the BHF shop.

Asg.1 feedback

I replied,

On the much wider question of what is a portrait, I will treat this as an essay assignment and aim for 500 words on the matter in due course.

Asg.1 feedback

And, when sending a link to my tutor on 30th December,

I am still writing my reply to ‘what is a portrait?’, currently closer to 2,000 words rather than the intended 500 promised in the attached notes. I will work on this for the rest of the course, adding matters arising from the remaining course material.

email to tutor 30 December

[27-29Dec] A portrait is, simplistically, a picture of one or a few people.
It is sometimes possible to add, ‘intended to show their appearance’ and / or ‘intended to show something about their character, circumstances or relationship(s)’

While … photographs can (and usually do) lie at least as much as they tell the truth, they nevertheless remain the most factual fictions, the most credible prevarications available within the parameters of graphic communication.

A.D. Coleman in Light Readings p.130, his introduction to First-Class Portraits by Robert Delford Brown

There are many approaches to, stylistic traits and sub-genres of photographic portraits and this essay is intended to describe some of those, while emphasising the attributes of and potential of what might be considered the ‘classical’ photo-portrait.

David Bate (2016 pp.82-6) defines three categories of portraiture: industrial (studio); society (celebrity); and bureaucratic (police, medical, identification). His book’s index does not include ‘vernacular’; his index entry for ‘snapshots’ does not include ‘portrait’ or any comparable term.

The classic portrait is a visual transaction between a subject (or a small group) and a photographer with the purpose of creating an image. Either party may initiate the transaction (the subject can engage the photographer, or the photographer can seek subjects) and both parties will collaborate on the portrayal.
This is not to say that the subject will necessarily be pleased with the outcome. Soutter (2013, p.21) writes that,

Some photographic portraiture feels voyeuristic because we get the impression that the sitters would not have wanted to be portrayed in the way they have been. For example Diane Arbus’s and Richard Avedon’s images can feel shockingly invasive and unkind, as if the photographers have been ruthless in imposing their own vision

Soutter, 2013, p.21

Where the subject has initiated and / or is paying for the portrait, they may reasonably expect to be consulted on the outcome, be that a formal studio portrait or a passport photograph. Where the photographer initiates the exercise, the subject will have less control (if any) and if the subject is being paid to model they will probably have no control over the outcome, other than refusing the contract.

Considerations of control apply to two further aspects of photo-portraiture. Where the photograph is for an official documentary purpose such as a passport, then specific aesthetic rules may apply (size, background, facial expression, hair, clothes, accessories and so on) that constrain both the subject and the photographer. At the extreme end of this control and satisfaction continuum is the police arrest ‘mugshot’ where the subject, often in a state of distress, has no control whatever and is unlikely to be pleased with the visual outcome.
Similarly, when the photograph of, say, a child, an employee or a school student is initiated by a third party, such portraits are subject to the standards and expectations of the paying customer so, for example, when photographing employees with the employer as customer, both the subject(s) and the photographer will be aware of and affected by their perception of constraints that would not be present in a direct two-party arrangement. Neither can express themselves as they might wish to.

Looking now at sub-genres of portraiture beyond two-party transactions and third party commissions, these include:
• Group portraits such as gatherings of school pupils, work colleagues, sporting and other teams, families, wedding attendees and many others. At some point, the number of subjects will reach a level at which the image becomes a record of attendance and while it might capture a collective mood, it is arguably is no longer a portrait.
• The term ‘candid portrait’ is applied to images where the subject is not aware of being photographed. This includes a significant proportion of ‘street photography’. Clearly, the subject can have no direct control over their portrayal (other than how they are presenting themselves to the public at large) and so the responsibility lies wholly with the photographer.
• Some fashion photography might appear to be identical to portrait imagery but its purpose is to draw attention to the clothing rather than the wearer and so is distanced from intentional portrait imagery. Jason Evans’ 1991 Strictly series shown in the course material (Boothroyd, & Roberts, 2019, p.28) and, more recently, Tariq Zaidi’s (2020) Sapeurs: Ladies & Gentlemen of the Congo suggest a bridge between the two approaches.
• Self-portraiture, brings a separate set of considerations. The Context and Narrative course (Boothroyd,  2017) identified three current trends as Autobiographical, photographing oneself; Masquerade, photographing oneself as another; Self-absented portraiture, photographing personal associations.
• Pet portraits are not uncommon, but are outside the scope of this essay, other than to note Elliott Erwitt‘s use of dogs as contextual accessories to human portraits and the fact that many of William Wegman’s photographs of his dogs manifest a wit and creativity that few human portraits can match.

Vernacular photography on mobile ‘phones accounts for the majority of digital photographs taken [note 1]. Personal anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant proportion of those will be portraits and self-portraits. Quantitatively, then, this informal portraiture will significantly outweigh any other activity in the field. As noted in Exercise 1.4, Geoffrey Batchen, writing in 2001, the beginning of the digital revolution [note 2], deplored the absence of vernacular imagery from the academic histories of the medium. Given the rapid increase in popular photography in the last two decades, this absence is now even more pronounced if only in proportional terms. No relevant analysis has been found of the preponderance or the qualities of mobile ‘phone portraiture and so no informed comment can be made.

Turning to what is depicted in a photo-portrait, the first matter to consider is the issue that gave rise to this essay: is it a prerequisite that ‘the subject is looking directly at the lens’ (tutor feedback)? The answer is a simple ‘no’, although the head and probably the face must be included. Explicit statements to this effect are difficult to find : Bate (2016, p.90) writes, ‘[t]he expression on a face in portraiture is crucial’;
The titles of some of the course reading list are indicative: Kozloff’s Theatre of the Face (2007) ; Ewing’s Face: the new photographic portrait (2006).
• all the images in Bey’s on Photographing People and Communities (2019) include faces (and, incidentally, 26 have one subject, 19 have two, 4 have three and only two have more);
• of the portraits from more than a hundred artists shown by Ewing (2006), only two have no face (first an eye and nose represented by two hair clips by Chema Madoz and a face-like geographical feature of Mars photographed by the Viking 1 Orbiter in 1976) albeit many are fragmentary and many obscured and in the cases on Ron Haviv and John Baldessari obliterated.

It may be concluded that the face, then, at some angle, perhaps partial or obscured should probably appear in order to satisfy the base requirements of a portrait. In terms of scale, portraits are common in all eras showing full-face, head and shoulders, waist-up, three-quarters or full length [note 3]. Beyond that, in Newman’s iconic 1946 portrait of Stravinsky, the face is dwarfed by a grand piano, and so the contextual accessories may be allowed to dominate the composition.

The submission text for Assignment 1 touched upon portrait trends in the earlier 20th century summarised by Max Kozloff (1994, pp.12-13). Initially ‘both formal and vernacular portraiture (the wedding, the graduation, the passport) were so stilted, uniform (in several senses) and formulaic as to overwhelm any personality exhibited by the subject. Then, in some later portraiture approaches, the subject is de-emphasised by concentrating on their surroundings or environment (for example Bill Brandt and Chauncey Hare) or subsumed in the photographer’s style or voice (Richard Avedon). Kozloff favoured the then-current tendency towards informal portraiture, photographing the subject going about their everyday tasks, thus allowing them to be more relaxed (he cites the then-recently published books of portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander and Inge Morath)’ (assignment submission text). This summary is brought up-to-date by Soutter (p.28),

The traditional portrait is a humanist enterprise, wrapped up in the project of reading, understanding and reinforcing what we know about human subjectivity. While many photographers still work with this model, some of the most successful contemporary art photographers … draw on a variety of genres and the radical gestures of twentieth-century art to produce a new kind of portraiture. Like a hybrid plant, it retains characteristics of its precedents, while bearing very different fruit … [an] art discourse [that] thrives on works which are to some extent illogical, uncertain and riddled with elements of contradiction, fiction and fantasy.

Soutter, 2013, p.28

The final major consideration is what can a portrait achieve? Soutter’s comments on contemporary practice should be borne in mind as the following applies more to what Bright (2011, p.20) refers to as the ‘codes and rituals’ of traditional, representational portraiture than the more recent inclination to deliberate obscurantism.

The course material suggests that ‘photography can … be used to explore identity beneath the surface of physical attributes’ (Boothroyd & Roberts, 2019, p.22) but that is questionable.

Dawoud Bey (2019, p.15) paraphrases Richard Avedon as saying,

you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface.

Sobieszek (1984, pp.8, 58) quotes Arnold Newman,

any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense, to an extent. We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man reveals; the inner man is seldom revealed to anyone

and, as already noted, Newman’s approach is often to contextualise the sitter with some relevant apparatus, such as Stravinsky’s piano (1946) or Mondrian’s easel (1942).

The writer’s view is that, at best, a portrait can only show a fleeting glimpse of one of the many parts that each person plays every day and, if the subject is aware of the portrait, the part that they choose to present to the camera.

In conclusion, a photo-portrait is a deliberate transactional image-making process, normally between two (or slightly more) [note 4] participating actors, one on either side of a camera. One or both will be aware of the intention. It involves a degree of performance by at least one of the parties and probably results in the depiction, however obscurely, of at least part of a face.

This essay began with a quote from A.D. Coleman on the veracity of photographs from the opening of a 1979 review of a book of portraits by Robert Delford Brown. To close, this is Coleman’s definition of portraiture from the end of that pre-digital piece,

the basic definition of photographic portrait: they are all records on light-sensitive material of the presence of their subjects and their interactions with the camera and the artist.

A.D. Coleman, Light Readings p.134


1. Businessinsider.com reported in 2017 estimates from InfoTrends and Statista that 1.2 trillion photographs would be taken that year, 85% of those on mobile ‘phones’ (Cakebread). 

2. The Nikon D1 had been launched in June 2009 (Fixation, 2017).

3. In an analysis of the August Sander portraits in his book Face of Our Time (1929, reprinted 2003), for Exercise 1.2, it was noted that ‘four … are head and shoulders; two … are waist-up; 31 are three-quarter length; and 23 are full-length’. Looking at Dawoud Bey’s 2019 on Photographing People and Communities, the breakdown is 15 head-and-shoulders; 17 waist-up; 15 three-quarter; 11 full-length and zero head shots. There would have been some technical limitations on facial close-ups in the very early days of photography, but not on Sander or Bey.

4. The analysis could be extended to cover three parties: subject, photographer and viewer but the viewing transaction is another, entirely separate, process: the two parties may be influenced in their transaction by their perceptions of the intended or potential audience, but that is only supposition on their parts.


Batchen, G. (2001) Each wild idea. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Bate, D. (2016) Photography, the key concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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

Bloomfield, R (2017) Expressing your vision. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and narrative. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place . Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Bright, S. (2011) Art photography now. (Revised and expanded ed) London: Thames & Hudson.

Cakebread, C. (2017) People will take 1.2 trillion digital photos this year — thanks to smartphones [online]. businessinsider.com. Available from https://www.businessinsider.com/12-trillion-photos-to-be-taken-in-2017-thanks-to-smartphones-chart-2017-8?r=US&IR=T [Accessed 28 December 2020].

Coleman, A.D. (1979) Light readings: a photography critic’s writings 1968-1978. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ewing WA, (2006) Face: the new photographic portrait. London: Thames & Hudson.

Fixation (2017) Cameras that changed everything – The Nikon D1 [online]. fixationuk.com. Available from https://www.fixationuk.com/cameras-that-changed-everything-the-nikon-d1/ [Accessed 28 December 2020].

Kozloff, M (1994) Lone visions, crowded frames. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Sander, A (2003) August Sander, Face of Our Time. Köln: Schirmer.

Soutter, L. (2013) Why art photography? London: Routledge.

Zaidi, T. (2020) The Sapeurs of Brazzaville [online]. lensculture.com. Available from https://www.lensculture.com/articles/tariq-zaidi-the-sapeurs-of-brazzaville [Accessed 15 September 2020].