Portraiture is a genre of photography which has been around for centuries and is still a very broad genre today. It is thought to have originated during the cave years, as the cave paintings of Lascaux are estimated to be 20,000 years old. They were almost seen as ways of making their mark to be remembered and noticed by the future.
The camera obscura later followed this. This was the idea of projecting an image through a lense but it was only ever a one off and it couldn’t be saved. David Hockney researched into this and it led him to conclude that artists such as Caravaggio, Velázquez, da Vinci, and others actually used optics and lenses to create their images. It is believed that Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre were to creators of the negative image, which meant that images could be saved a printed many times.
The portrait in the 19th Century was the most photographed subject. This was due to the economic growth driven by the Industrial revolution. This later saw studios opened throughout Europe.
Felix Nadar was one of the most renowned portrait photographers of this time. His Parisian studio was a meeting place for intellectuals and artists of that time. Nadar photographed many celebrities including Charles Baudelaire and Jules Verne Sarah Bernhardt.
A more popular and affordable form of portrait photography became the Carte de Visite. This was a small photograph of only 2.5 x 4 inches in size and was usually existent within families. They represented a form of social status, and sometimes were used as business cards. The photographers would use braces to hold the model in place to give the upper class stance of the model.
Also in the 19th Century evolved the genre of Post Mortem photography. The practice of photographing a deceased loved one as a way of remembering them was common. More modernly, photographer Annie Leibovitz photographed almost a documentary of her life with girlfriend Susan Sontag, including her death from cancer and Susan’s body returning home.
There were many famous photographers during this era. Julia Margaret Cameron was known for her painterly portraits of people. Man Ray was also well recognised but was accused of objectifying women. This is arguably why he is so well known, as he caused controversy, particularly with images such as Le Violon d’Ingres, which was a woman photographed to look like a musical instrument.
According to Clarke, 1997, pp 101-2, ‘character revelation’ is the essence of good portraiture. Edward Steichen said “A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” He created an image of Fred Astaire, a famous dancer and musician during the 20th century. By transforming Astaire’s signature top hat into a recurring motif, Steichen was able to visually represent Astaire’s style, sophistication and personality to the audience.
Another famous portrait photographer was Yousuf Karsh 1908 – 2002. He said that “Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. “ One of his most famous images was of Winston Churchill which became a viral image. He captured the body language to show the strong powerful personality of the prime minister. He did this purely by accident by taking Churchill’s cigar, but this proves that photography is sometimes a case of pot luck and timing. Another famous image he photographed was of Helen Keller with Polly Thompson. Helen Keller was a blind and deaf lady from the age of 3 and Karsh was emotionally touched by the experience of photographing her and her companion.
Karsh introduced Herman Leonard to his photography career in 1947 when Leonard worked as his apprentice. Leonard is another renowned portrait photographer. Herman Leonard’s love of jazz started at an early age, when he borrowed a camera from his brother and started hanging out in the jazz clubs in New York City. It was in the clubs that Leonard perfected his backlit. Leonard has said his aim was “to create a visual diary of what he heard, to make people see the way the music sounded”. Leonard formed relationships with many of the musicians he photographed and remained lifelong friends with some. His famous quote about photography is that “you judge a photographer not by what he shot but by what he shows you”. At times he didn’t even photograph people, but photographed objects famously associated with that person to reveal their personality – a different turn on portraiture.
Irving Penn was another photographer who used lines within his portraiture to direct the audience to the subject.
Richard Avedon was fascinated by photography’s ability to suggest the personality and evoke the life of his subjects. He registered poses, attitudes, hairstyles, clothing and accessories as vital elements of an image to do this. He had complete confidence in the two-dimensional nature of photography – he stated that his photographs “don’t go below the surface”, as he believes surfaces are “full of clues.” Within the minimalism of his empty studio, Avedon’s subjects move freely, and it is this movement which makes his images different as the models are able to do what they wish to show their personality.
Queen Elizabeth is one of the most photographed people in the world however she is always depicted differently. Some people she has been photographed by include Dorothy Wilding, Annie Leibovitz, Cecil Beaton, Rankin, Rolf Harris, and David Bailey. Rankin said “It’s so hard to talk about the Queen because everyone has such preconceived notions of what she’s like as a person. The day I was at the palace to shoot her, I saw her walking down a really long corridor with a really tall footman. They were laughing and I thought that’s exactly what I wanted her to be like.” The image created by Rolf Harris is mysteriously unclaimed. Since the recent events of the life of Harris, this may be a factor why no one wishes to claim the art, however one day it could be worth big money. David Bailey most recently said “I’ve always been a huge fan of the Queen. She has very kind eyes with a mischievous glint. I’ve always liked strong women and she is a very strong woman.”
In the modern day celebrity portraiture is very popular as it is able to sell a lifestyle which people aspire to have of luxury and fame. Tom Oldham is a famous photographer who specialises in this area of photography.
However, portraiture isn’t always about selling a lifestyle that the audience aspires to have. Photographer Nan Goldin released a collection called Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a visual diary showing the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family, and lovers. She shoots with honesty – nothing in her photographs is ever arranged or moved to make a better composition, nor does she fabricate anything. She doesn’t shy away from any subject, even when it comes to herself. Some of her most famous and most graphic images are her self-portraits. She has taken photographs of herself in rehab, her self-inflicted cigarette burns, and her face after being beaten by her then-boyfriend, Brian. She shot her friends in hospices, at funerals, and in caskets. She also began taking photographs of children trying to celebrate the joy children have in just being alive. While her earlier work was about our desire to find closeness with someone else and the difficulties in relationships, the newer work became about people’s internal lives and real intimacy. Her work demonstrates the reality for most people and doesn’t strive to make the audience want more from their lives.“For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress… I think that you can actually give people access to their own soul.”