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HomeContentsThemes > Portrait photography

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From its earliest invention one of the primary purposes of photography has been the preservation of the human form as a physical object - and this memory aid continues to be the primary function of photography. From the early daguerreotypes, through ambrotypes, tintypes and 'carte-de-visite', patented in France by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854, at each stage the portrait has been the paramount theme. Frequently these were turned out by hacks of limited talent but they can still have considerable charm and a great many are still in existence.
André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819-1889)
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André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri
Prince Louis de Bourbon 
1873
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André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri
M. et Mme. Nicolopoulo 
1860 (ca)
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André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri
Mme. Sitsto and son 
1860
 
André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri became one of the most commercially successful photographers of the nineteenth century. He appreciated that by making numerous small portraits the purchaser could give them as gifts to their friends and colleagues - to do this he patented on 27 November 1854 a method for taking multiple small (101mm x 63mm) portraits. These became known as Carte-de-visite and were an immediate craze with people collecting them in albums. Photographs of famous people, actors, politicians and aristocrats sold in the tens of thousands and are still widely available.
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In the early photographs elaborate props, scenery and costumes were frequently used to link the resulting portrait to the artistic tradition of a painting. In 1866 the smaller 'carte-de-visite' was enhanced with the introduction in England of the 'cabinet card' this had a standard size of a 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch mount affixed with a 5 1/2 x 4 inch picture with the name of the studio and the photographer beneath or on the reverse of the card.
1.   Pictorialism and the portrait
In the pictoralism theme I discuss the links between photography and art in the early history of photography and it is to this that I return here. There was a strong desire amongst early photographers to demonstrate that photography was an art the equal of painting rather than just a technical skill that anybody could master. To promote the 'art' argument it was necessary to convince critics and the owners of art galleries and museums that the work had not only novelty but real lasting artistic quality.
 
Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs 
  
Julian Cox; Colin Ford; & Philippa Wright (Contributor)
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Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (In Focus) 
  
Julia Margaret Pattle Cameron; J Paul Getty Museum; & Julian Cox (Commentary)
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Victorian genre portraits
 
David Wilkie Wynfield
Princes of Victorian Bohemia 
  
Juliet Hacking; David Wilkie Wynfield (Photographer); & National Portrait Gallery
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Lewis Carroll
Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll 
  
Douglas R. Nickel; Lewis Carroll; & San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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The question of how exactly a photographic portrait could be included in the 'fine art' tradition in the 19th century Western European mindset was to link it to the biblical, classical or literary subjects that were common in salon paintings. These themes, which are now frequently seen as trite, were the staples of intellectuals in the late nineteenth century. A book by Juliet Hacking ('Princes of Victorian Bohemia', 2000) deals with David Wilkie Wynfield (1837-87) who photographed Millais, Lord Leighton, Holman Hunt, Manet, and Burne-Jones and influenced the style of Julia Margaret Cameron.
 
Julia Margaret Cameron, in a short photographic exuberance, produced an astounding body of work selecting Shakespearean characters, King Arthur, Lord Tennyson's poems, Biblical characters (angels and the Madonna) as her subjects and dressed her models accordingly. In addition to these art subjects she photographed the leading men of Victorian society - Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Sir John Frederick William Herschel and William Holman Hunt. As she wrote:
 
"When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man. The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer." (Julia Margaret Cameron)
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)
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Julia Margaret Cameron
Ellen Terry, At the age of sixteen 
[Camera Work, 41] 
1913
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Julia Margaret Cameron
Carlyle 
[Camera Work, 41] 
1913
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Julia Margaret Cameron
Herschel 
[Camera Work, 41] 
1913
 
Julia Margaret Cameron was born in 1815 at Calcutta in India to James Pattle, an official with the East India Company, and Adeline de l'Etang, a French aristocrat. She took up photography after she was given a camera in the early 1860's and mastered it quickly. She took soft focused portraits of the famous English Victorians that were in her social circle and these included the astronomer Herschel, the author Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Lord Tenneson and Charles Darwin.
 
[Note that the dates on some of the photographs above are from the dates the image was printed rather than the year the portrait was taken.]
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2.   Following on from pictorialism
As pictorialism waned in influence in America and Western Europe with the First World War and the influential 'Camera Work' ceasing publication in 1917 there was a trend towards a different style of portrait photography. This led to two distinct approaches:
  • Face on confrontation with the camera
     
    This is best characterized by the catalogue of the German people created by August Sander - the photographs showed people as they really are with no retouching or hired in costumes. It is perhaps not surprising that his work did not find favor in the Germany of the 1930's and 40's. Martin Chambi at the same period was creating a remarkable body of work in the Andes where the subject accepts the formal pose required by the photographer.
August Sander (1876-1964)
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August Sander
Member of Parliament and First Deputy of the Democratic Party (Johannes Scheerer) 
1928
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August Sander
Police Officer 
1925
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August Sander
Master Mason 
1926-1932
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August Sander
Village Schoolteacher 
1921
August Sander is known for his monumental work ‘Citizens of the Twentieth Century‘ (‘Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts‘) which consists of face on portraits of all classes of German society during the first half of the nineteenth century. The portraits are highly detailed and show people in their working or everyday clothes sometimes accompanied by the tools or symbols of their trade.
 
In 1929 60 of his portraits were published in the book 'Face of Our Time' ('Antlitz der Zeit') but the honesty of the portraits conflicted against the propaganda myths of the Aryan super race that the Nazi party was seeking to promote. In 1934 they seized copies of the book and destroyed the photographic plates.
 
The work of August Sander is now regarded as one of the key projects in photographic portrait history and his style has been widely copied.
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Face on…
 
August Sander
August Sander: 1876-1964 
  
August Sander; Susanne Lange; & Manfred Heiting (Editor)
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Martin Chambi
Martin Chambi 
  
Amanda Hopkinson; & Martin Chambi
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  • Tension in the shot
     
    With other photographers the camera angle selected created a tension in the shot that was unsettling and powerful. This style is perhaps best demonstrated by the portraits of Alexander Rodchenko or the photographs Leni Riefenstahl took of the athletes for the infamous Berlin Olympics.
Tension…
 
Alexander Rodchenko
Alexander Rodchenko: Photography 1924-1954 
  
Alexander Lavrentiev; Alexsandr Lavrentiev; & Francis Nethercott (Translator)
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Leni Riefenstahl
Olympia 
  
Leni Riefenstahl
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With so many portrait photographers now working the market has changed and is fragmented into an impossibly wide variety of styles, techniques and subjects.  
  
3.   The Family of Man Exhibition 1955
The photojournalists who take images of the unknown people use their everyday surroundings to tell us about the hardships of daily existence. Lewis W. Hine did this with portraits of men, women and children in the industrial hell holes of 19th century and early 20th century New York. Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans showed the poverty and dignity of depression era share croppers. Eugene Smith did this in his photo essay for 'Life' magazine on the 'Country doctor' and Sebastião Salgado does it in his works on workers and migrants. The great portrait puts a person in context so that we understand who they really are.
 
This theme is best demonstrated by the 'Family of Man' exhibition of 1955 organized by Edward Steichen that was the most popular photographic exhibition upto that point. In his introduction Edward Steichen explains the rationale:
 
"It was conceived as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life - as a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world." (Steichen, Edward 1955 The Family of Man - Published for the Museum of Modern Art by Simon and Schuster).
 
It was first shown in New York City but later toured to widespread acclaim.
The Family of Man Exhibition
 
Edward Steichen
Family of Man 
  
Edward Steichen
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Edward Steichen, a remarkable photographer with a well attuned eye, with the editors selected 503 works by 273 photographers from 68 countries. But out of the over two million images that the editors had to cut their way through there are many well known photographers and a great many classic images provided by photographers from Life magazine and the extremely talented Magnum group.
 
The Family of Man Exhibition
1955
Example photographers
The Family of Man exhibition raised public interest in portraiture and photography but at the same time it led to a number of projects in the years that followed that could not match its high standards. In 1965 the world renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead worked with the photographer Ken Heyman to produce 'Family' - he took seven years to take the photographs and visited 45 countries in the process. 'The Family of Children' came out in 1977 and 'The Family of Woman' in 1979 both edited by Jerry Mason who had been the editor for the original 'Family of Man' volume and although they contain many excellent images they don't work as well.
 
There has been a trend to produce books of heart warming photographs for ever smaller groups - this can yield coffee table books that are short term gifts with a 'oh' factor that lasts until the book has been gone through once. The books deal with single groups, women, men, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandfathers and grandsons, sisters, brothers, gay couples etc. Some of these books include meaningful autobiographical pieces or appropriate poetry or quotations. Most of them, and there are a great many, would have been better if kept to an idea and they will have little longevity in serious photography.  
  
4.   Photographers who photograph representations of people
Another approach in portraiture is to photograph two dimensional or three dimensional representations of individuals. For example one might take a negative or digital copy of a source image and then manipulate it with the selection of lenses, light, filters etc into a different form and change it chemically or digitally into a totally new creation. Andy Warhol used this approach to create a blend of photography and painting.
 
The Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, for his 'Portraits' series commissioned by Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, placed the wax figures of Madame Tussaud against a black background to create high contrast black and white images of major personalities of Western history such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. This intriguing work questions the nature of history and what a portrait is.
Representations of people
 
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Sugimoto: Portraits 
  
Hiroshi Sugimoto; Nancy Spector; Tracey Bashkoff; & Tracey Bashkoff
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Roman Portraits
Roman Portraits 
  
Ilse Schneider-Lengyel (Photographer); & Ludwig Goldscheider (Text)
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5.   Conclusions
One of the best ways of keeping up with current trends in portrait photography is to examine the international awards that are presented each year for individual portraits or for books by photographers. Also examine the websites of museum and galleries that have permanent collections of portrait photographs or that hold exhibitions to monitor changing styles.
 
  
 
  
 
  
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