What is a portrait?

In today’s lecture, we were focusing on the key question, ‘What is a portrait?’. We began by answering some questions as a starting point.

What do you think a portrait is?

  • A representation of a person through imagery
  • An image of someone
  • An image of someone which identifies them

Where are portraits found?

  • Adverts
  • Social Networking Sites
  • Internet
  • Galleries
  • Family Albums
  • Passports
  • Albums

Who commissions them and why?

  • The subject
  • Family Member
  • Magazine
  • Galleries
  • The Photographer

What can be included in a portrait?

  • A person
  • A story
  • Personality
  • Essence of someone
  • Photographers judgement

A portrait for a passport photo and a portrait for a social networking site for example will both be very different so will include/exclude different things

Portraits have been used for many years for many different reasons. One particular reason for portraits being used were to track criminals. Francis Galton believed that criminals had a different look to them. This also worked for keeping an identity to a person.
The following photographers all use portraiture in different ways. All their images have intentions of depicting different things.

Irving Penn

Irving Penn was a photographer from New York who focused a lot on Fashion and other kinds of portraiture. His work was very formal and was known internationally.

August Sander

August Sander was a German documentary photographer. He would capture the lives of the German race and all different types of working people.

Diane Arbus

This portrait is taken by Diane Arbus and is my favourite photograph of hers. Arbus was well known for her black and white portraits of people with differences. For example, circus acts, twin, dwarfs, transgenders, nudists.

Richard Avedon

This is one of Richard Avedon’s well known portraits of Twiggy. Avedon was a fashion photographer and The New York Times said “his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.”

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark is an American photographer known for her portraiture also. She also work a lot on photojournalism and advertising. The image above is very striking as it shows something which can be quite shocking to an audience.

Nicholas Nixon

The work of Nicholas Nixon is one of my favourites. The series above was titled ‘The Brown Sisters’. Here he photographs his wife and her 3 sisters every year since 1975. They are always standing in the same order and throughout the series of images, you can see the change within the people.

Steve Pyke

Steve Pyke did a lot of publication work for NME and The Face but now works for The New Yorker. He also worked on a series where he photographed a group of Philosophers. The portrait above is from this series. His portraits really stand out and have such intense lighting.

Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth is a German photographer who shot a lot of family portraits. His is one of the most widely exhibited artists in Germany.

Tina Barney

Tina Barney’s work was mainly of families and close friends. Barney shot on Large Format to allow a large scale print. Barney was born in New York, however, her work has been exhibited internationally.

Some of  my favourite portrait photographers include;

Richard Avedon, Nicholas Nixon, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn

I then set out to take a portrait of someone which showed some sort of representation to themself. I began by asking Olly Wood what kind of things he liked. His hobbies, music taste etc. This gave me a starting point on what I could photograph Olly doing and where I could do this. I decided to take the photo at Olly’s flat as this adds a more personal feel to the image.


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