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What is a Portrait?

Many discussions of photography revolve around portraiture. A good portrait is said to reveal the essence of the person. I don't find this argument persuasive.

Originally, before photography, portraits were paintings. The purpose was to capture the appearance of the person. This way they could be remembered in the future as they were. In many cases they were dressed in special clothes which reflected their social standing or position and were surrounded with objects of symbolic importance.

Francisco de Goya.
Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zunica

Many times miniatures were made of people that could be kept as remembrances or sent to prospective suitors. The person was defined by their social position and class and the portrait was supposed to illustrate this. There was seldom any attempt to portray the person's character.

The advent of photography allowed almost everyone to have portraits made. Many kept to the style of painting, that is a formal portrait. Since this was a mass produced product the symbols were not unique to the person, but were more generic. Pillars, historic seats and painted backgrounds were typical. In many cases the clothes belonged to the studio, allowing the subjects to look better dressed than they could actually afford.

Daguerreotype portrait studio

The arrival of instantaneous photography and the ability to use highly mobile equipment led to the "environmental photograph". The subject can be shown in their own home or work place, thus adding context to the photograph. This was used to good advantage during the depression by the Farm Service Administration to highlight the plight of poor farmers and get support for new government relief programs.

Boy with phonograph

By the middle of the 20th Century a number of portrait photographers had arisen who were, in many cases, more famous than their subjects. They concentrated on pictures of the famous and those who wanted to be associated with them. Joseph Karsh, Irving Penn and Arnold Newman are all good examples. Since many of their subject were well known viewers could read into the picture a series of thoughts which they already had about the subject. A skillful photographer could use their knowledge of the viewer's expectations to reinforce their experience. Good examples are the Karsh photograph of Winston Churchill and the Newman photograph of Alfried Krupp. In the first case Karsh caught him with a stern expression which reinforced his bull dog persona. In the second, Newman lit him from below to emphasize his reputation as a harsh Nazi industrialist.

Many photographers now take people pictures in many settings, especially in foreign locales. One constantly hears about how these pictures reveal so much about their subjects. But do they? Let's say a typical picture shows a wrinkled old woman sitting in a doorway someplace. What do we really know? We know she is old. Do we know if she is kindly or mean, or if she is happy or sad, does she have five kids and a husband or is she a childless widow? Did she live a life of contentment or distress?

All we know are appearances. Everything else is what we project upon the image from our own experiences. Many times photographers realize this and try to correct for the deficiency by adding a caption or description. That may help place the person in a certain context, but the picture itself still tells us nothing.

Photography, and especially a portrait, shows what things look like, it tells us nothing.

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© 2006 Robert D Feinman