portrait photography essay

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As part of a project at A2 on identiy I explored the aspects of portrait photography & how it has been interpreted by various photographers.


  • Introduction A set of characteristics by which something can be recognised or known is called its identity. We recognise a table by the fact is has a surface and is supported by legs, however we are adaptable to this identity, for instance there may only be one leg but that does not stop it from being identified as a table. When you start to talk about humans, this basic idea of identity tends to become a lot more complex. But does that mean that we cannot identify different people? Of course not, it just means that we have to be aware that identity runs deeper than the bare facts, especially when it comes to people. There are two main aspects to the concept of human identity; the first is that of the identity we carve out for ourselves. We would like to be seen in a certain way, whether thats to fit in or to stand out is down to the individuals themselves. The second aspect, and perhaps the least clear, is that of the identity given to us by others. Everyone has their own perceptions of certain types of people and makes their own judgements about other individuals based on these perceptions, however limited. This conflict between how we discover and present our own identity and how others interpret it is what makes human and personal identity so complex. The contradiction we may find between the identities I something that photography has the ability to unify and present to a viewer as art. As well as showing us the subjects themselves, a portrait can present us with something that pushes us to feel a certain way about them, because of the photographers viewpoint. This combines all aspects of personality for the viewer in a way that just seeing them would not. It can also show the subject certain things about themselves that they possibly didnt know. Within a portrait, all these different layers can be manipulated to produce a three-dimensional aesthetic, which is otherwise unavailable in other media.

  • Lila with Nintendo DS, from the Coming to A Screen Near You series by Evan Baden

  • Old vs New In the modern world identity is something very different to what it once was. With the introduction of the Internet and more and more technology we find ourselves conducting a lot of our communication from behind a computer or phone. This leaves a lot of room for identity to be altered more by the individual and to have more control over the person they choose to be. So even though we all begin with certain values, cultural and moral from our parents and families, its easier now to find influence from other sources like literature and the media, as they are just so readily available. Identity has changed a lot over the last few thousand years, however religions continue to differ on the identity of which they choose to see their Gods. Christians believe in God being in their own image, ie, human. As quoted from the bible:

    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; Male and female he created them (Genisis 1:27)

    Muslims believe that Allah cannot be compared to anything worldly or human, even though they may be similar this does not mean that they are the same. This allows Allah to exist above the assumptions of human form and identity as a higher being:

    There is nothing like Him; and He is the Hearer, the Seer (Ash-Shura:11)

    This need of Christians to put a face to their God, and not only a face but in their own image, perhaps suggests why Christianity can be said to be a much more Western religion than Islam. This picture of painting the highest being, the one to look up to, as a human being allows worshippers to see themselves as direct descendents from God, therefore giving them ownership over their religion and their aspirations for what they can achieve. To see man as the highest being allows us to think that we as men are closer to that divinity than others. Identity has long been the muse of the literary and creative, with the poet Robert Burns writing To see oursels as ithers see us!3 even back in 1786, pondering the idea of personal identity from anothers point of view and the lack of control we have on that. Modern authors such as Douglas Coupland continue to explore the nature of modern identity in relation to technology, based around the computer industries with characters struggling between true-life identity and that of a synthetic one they are able to create.4

    The photographer Evan Baden created a collection of work entitled Coming to A Screen Near You5 where he photographed children and teenagers lit only by the screens that dictate their lives. This representation of how much of our lives are not spent looking at a computer screen or a mobile phone, communicating through that and carving out any identity that we so choose, raises massive questions about modern identity and what this means for the generation whos only identity appears on a website. Whether they are able to cope with the conflict between real life perceptions and who they say they are is yet to be seen.

  • Kevin Cater, 1993

    Nick Ut, 1972

  • Portraiture A portrait is defined as a likeness of a person, especially of the face, as a painting, drawing or photograph.7 This presents it as a straightforward way of capturing someone on film or through art; into pictorial form but when you look at a portrait photograph its never that simplistic. The viewer, the photographer and the subject all have their own agendas. Within each of these areas there are different factors, which add up to give more depth to the end photograph as a whole. A story that highlights the role of the photographer is that of Kevin Carter. In 1993 the New York Times published a picture he took of an emaciated Sudanese child crouching on the ground next to a vulture. It later won him the Pulitzer Prize, however tortured by the turmoil of repeatedly having to answer that he didnt entirely know what happened to the girl later the photo was taken; Carter committed suicide just one year later.8 Although the photograph brought Sudan to huge public attention the fact that he has seemingly taken something from the child without helping her, became an issue he himself could not get over. Another story though, is that of Phan Th Kim Phc, the girl photographed running naked from a bomb in Vietnam. It is the iconic image of the Vietnam war and is enforced by the fact that she is still alive today thanks to the man who took the photograph, Nick Ut. After capturing the image, him and the people he was with then poured water on the burns of Phc and the others from her village then took them to the nearest hospital. Ut then continued to visit Phc until he was exiled three years later.9 These examples show just how much responsibility the photographer has toward the subjects. Although the photographer plays a huge part in making the subject feel at ease a portrait can still put them in a very vulnerable position. Looking straight down a lens that you know can see everything that you may not want it to see is an intimidating situation to be in. Some people as a result of this will put on a front, change their posture to be more defensive for example, or pay attention to the way they dress especially for the shoot. This introduces an element of deceptiveness into portraiture whereby although the photographer may try and capture what he or she sees in front of them, the subject may already have decided to present an edited version of their self.

  • Martin Parr, Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, 1985

    Martin Parr, How the Other Half Lives, 2008

  • In my photographs I wanted to create a situation I hoped would take away this ability of the subject to show themselves as what they want to be seen and not what they are. By using something to provoke a natural reaction I think this element of self-consciousness will be taken away, if not at least made minimal. This ability to provoke a reaction from a photograph brings the final aspect of portrait photography into action, that of the viewer. In the same way as people project their own perceptions onto people they meet everyday, they also do when looking at a portrait photograph. Martin Parr is a photographer who is popularly acclaimed if not always understood for his photographs of the working class. His latest work however, turns its eye on the filthy rich, producing images of excess and contradiction that coerce the viewer into thinking certain things about these people. The way Parr frames the ladies in too tight dresses at Ascot,12 presents an image of people trying to present themselves in a certain way and not succeeding. So although helped along by the composition the viewer projects their own prejudices onto them as well. All these aspects work together within a portrait to create an overall effect that becomes the portrait itself. As well as the subject helped by the photographer; projecting an image out to the viewer they are also projecting their own ideas pack. This constant change in opinion and context make it very difficult to pin down the thoughts within an image without looking at the aspects individually. That is, however, the beauty of a portrait photograph and how it so links with the topic of identity, as you can never see the whole picture wherever you view it from.

  • Steve Klein for W Magazine, Domestic Bliss, 2005

    Tim Walker for Italian Vogue, Oh-oh! 2002

  • Male Gaze Laura Mulvey first coined the term Male Gaze in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, published in 1975.13 In terms of cinema, the male gaze can be seen when the viewer is placed in the role of a heterosexual male. This appears on screen as perhaps a stereotyped female character or with lingering shots focusing on a womans curves, for example. This type of objectivity from a specifically male orientated vie