The History of Photography – Art History Research Paper(300 Level Course)
What is a portrait? This is a difficult question to answer in photography. John Gere defined a portrait as “’an image which the artist is engaged with the personality of his sitter and is preoccupied with his or her characterization as an individual’” (Campbell 1). The common perception of a portrait is the representation of the subject’s likeness, however, this statement is comprehensive with deception.
In this essay I will explore the meaning of the portrait in order to understand what a portrait is in photography.
What constitutes a portrait? In order to understand the meaning of a portrait, we must define what makes a portrait. The dictionary defines the portrait from a historical perspective: “por’trait, the likeness of a person painted or described from life” (Highroads Dictionary 382). Similarly, I always believed a portrait is a picture of a person. Simple as it may appear to be, it is not true, it is far too complex. There may be a person in the picture but it is not necessarily a portrait of that person. The portrait is not restricted to facial features and could embody the essence of an individual through bodily gestures. The image may appear to be a portrait but lacks the essence of the individual.
A portrait is a deliberate attempt to capture something of that human being (Sliwinski). As long as there is an essence the person is emitting from the photograph, it may be referred to as a portrait. If there is an absence of characterization from the person, the portrait of that person does not exist. Typically the face coincides with the portrait because “the head, and especially the face, are of paramount importance in recognition, and the eyes, nose and mouth are particular interest” (Campbell 10). The face is what defines us from each other and allows us to easily show expression by externalizing the internal. A portrait is a “mirror-image – not as we see ourselves, but as others see us” (Clarke 103). This is a difficult concept to accept because humans want to be in control in how others view them. A portrait, therefore, is a portrayal of our essence through our physical beings.
The aim of a portrait is to capture a true representation of a person without personal interference from the artist or the sitter. This is an idealistic goal. It is unlikely that the sitter will not portray his or her own desired perception of himself for the camera nor is it likely that the artist will not unconsciously portray an image of themselves unto the subject. Everyone has an image of how they view themselves that contradicts how they are seen by the world. The camera conflicts with this personal battle of revealing. In Campbell’s article questioning what a portrait is, she notes that a person adjusts their features prior to viewing their own reflection which denotes a poor indication of their appearance. She continues this analogy to “someone facing a camera will normally assume an artificial expression, a ‘camera face’, and the degree of success with which he does so will determine whether or not he may be called photogenic” (8). We have all encountered the ‘photogenic’ term and the connotations that are attached to this loose definition of the ability to fool the camera. Either you are photogenic or you envy those who are photogenic. People often personify the camera in comments such as ‘the camera doesn’t like me’ or ‘the camera lies’ if they fear that the camera will not satisfy how they want to see themselves. In doing this, they are manifesting their own frustration for not being able to fool the camera into showing them how they want to look and not as they
look. Photogenic people are too being fooled because it is not necessarily how they are seen by others. In viewing their beautiful portrayal of themselves, they are encouraged to believe that is how they are at every moment. The camera lies indeed. It is difficult to say one has captured the true likeness of someone once they have taken their photograph.
A portrait is the physical manifestation of vanity. People want to be seen at their very best even if it goes beyond who they truly are. If it is not in their physical appearance, it is in their possessions, in their occupation, in their social status, or in their wealth. This was apparent in portraitures of the past. Only those of great wealth, status, or close association to the artist had their portrait painted. Their idea of themselves consumed the painting and distorted the likeness of the individual. People were painted to show power, beauty, and status. Any aspect they despised of themselves, or they wished upon themselves, were altered for their satisfaction often to the point where they were unrecognizable. Graham Clarke wrote: “’at virtually every level, and within every context the portrait photograph is fraught with ambiguity’” (Clarke 101). The truthfulness of photography is further challenged in portraiture where even the subject is deceptive to the truth. We pose whenever the camera appears assuming to be something we are not (Sliwinski). The desire to control how one is seen is continuously a part of human nature. We want to be seen at our best at all times, so we camouflage our flaws and hide our weaknesses. We, as humans, do not want to be perceived as anything less than we think of ourselves. It is in human nature to be sensitive to the judgements of others and vanity allows us to guard ourselves against ridicule from ourselves. Not only are we conscious of how we look physically, we are conscious of how we are represented: “just as sitters may be idealized to make them look more beautiful than they really are, so they may be falsely characterized as more successful, discriminating, heroic, intelligent or virtuous than they may in fact be”
Everyone wants to be perceived by others as the ideological image they have of themselves. It is this desire that causes us to sit tall in front of the camera, pull back our shoulders, suck in our stomachs, open our eyes wider, or countless other techniques to wilfully control the outcome of the camera’s eye. We are all guilty of trying to fool the camera from capturing us as we are, whether it would be fixing our hair or tugging at our clothes to get that perfect image. We are vain creatures who are fully aware of the camera.
Digital photography is an improvement to the portrait. People are now able to control how they are seen and remembered by others. They can delete and alter their images until they have collected the perfect depiction of how they want to see themselves. In other words, digital photography is a tool for vanity discretely disguised as a tool for photography available for everyone. I too am guilty of deleting the “bad” pictures of myself that did not meet the expectations I have for seeing myself. Digital photography has made it possible to eliminate or retouch photographs to elude perfection. It poses a greater risk of likeness distortion in the future because the ever-so-perfect
captions of the self has been through a screening process and does not resemble the true likeness of the self. The way we will be remembered is not how we were but how we wanted to be remembered, a false likeness of ourselves.
Photographs of people presented by the media are not portraits. They may fulfil the requirements of a portrait but the essence of the person is absent. In fashion photography, the personal self is empty because the public expectations of how this person is desired to look overrides and destroys the essence of the subject. Celebrity portraits are an offspring of fashion photography: the portrait becomes how we want to view this person from an idealized perspective, not how they are viewed. Campbell emphasizes that “images of beautiful people continually present problems of classification” (Campbell 2). The reason for this is that the beauty of the person is idealized to the point of surrealism and “these can become difficult to distinguish from true portraits” (Campbell 2). The problems that arise from this are that people become easily fooled as to what beauty is and try to conform themselves into that depiction of beauty. This causes them be conscientious of their appearance at all times and robs their essence from being imprinted into their own portraits. They are both deceiving themselves from their true likeness and deceiving others into believing that it is their own likeness. In portraits “it is difficult to know exactly what one looks like or to judge a likeness of oneself” (Campbell 8) because there is a false presentation of oneself. There is an awkward relationship between the viewer and the subject in the photograph when looking at portraits without a sense of the internal. There is an invisible barrier
established when the subject is aware of the camera and distorts his or her physical appearance to resemble the likeness of themselves in their mind, not the likeness they actually are. One would “need to probe the images for any hint of an internal, and private self” (Clarke 114). If the viewer needs to hunt for the sense of self from the individual, the artist has not done their job. It is the job of the photographer to capture a piece of the person that defines a part of their true self. Inge Morath underlines the purpose of a photographic portrait and the role of the photographer: a good portrait “catches a moment of stillness within the daily flows of things, when the inside of a person has a chance to come through” (Clarke 101). It is one of the most difficult things to do because people do not trust the camera to reveal themselves in a flattering manner they wish to be portrayed. It takes great skill both artistically and socially to produce a portrait that satisfies all definitions of what a portrait is in photography.
What is a portrait? A portrait is a moment of time where the true essence of a person can be revealed without distortion from the subject or artist.
Campbell, Lorne: ‘Portraiture’, The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, (Oxford University Press).
Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. New York: The Oxford University Press, 1997.
Sliwinski, Sharon. “The Portrait in Photography” Portraits. Ontario College of Art and Design. October 14, 2004.
Highroads Dictionary: Pronouncing and Etymologogical. Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons ltd, 1951. ed. 1960.