Portrait photography or portraiture is photography of a person or group of people that captures the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses. No genre flourished in the medium of photography quite like the portrait. Both photography’s questioned status as an art form and the portrait’s low place on academic painting’s hierarchical scale allowed the portrait photograph to garner tremendous popular appeal. And despite all the innovations that have developed since its inception, photography has continued to be associated with representing people. In ‘‘A Short History of Photography’’ (1931) Walter Benjamin writes, ‘‘the renunciation of the human image is the most difficult of all things for photography.’’ Given this affinity for portraying people, it perhaps is not a coincidence that photography became associated with democratic ideals. It has become a truism in the history of photography that its invention was coincident with and a part of the lower and middle classes’ rise to cultural and political visibility. Photography aroused and satisfied the desire for portraits that were relatively inexpensive and quickly produced, but still could evoke aristocratic prestige.
Portrait of a girl in costume in the natural environment of a gothic festival.
Portrait photographs are so central to and em- bedded in contemporary visual culture they often go unnoticed. Portrait photographs provide the visual structure upon which the narrative of identity is constructed. Yearbook photos, identity cards, and wedding pictures—these are just a few of the images that frame the individual in the portrait’s frame of recognition.
The portrait had a long history as a painted representation before the advent of photography. Forms of portraiture existed in antiquity, but the image many would recognize as a portrait—a life- like depiction of a person frontally posed to display the individual’s distinct facial features and distinct expression—is an inheritance from the European Renaissance, which celebrated the exemplary individual and perfected the depiction of three-dimensional perspective. Portraiture was assumed to be a mimetic art form based on physical resemblance, but this did not impede it from becoming a crucial part of the symbolism that announced and legitimized the European aristocracy. Though the portrait photograph clearly borrowed from the painted portrait’s image repertoire, it also developed its own visual discourses as photographers experimented with and discovered the particular qualities of the photographic medium and rapid technological improvements made it an accessible and then unquestioned part of daily life.
Historians and theorists of photography in the late twentieth century have questioned the assumption that the portrait photograph offered unqualified access to a democratic public sphere. In his essay ‘‘The Body and the Archive’’ (1986), Allan Sekula acknowledges that photography expanded the portrait’s ‘‘ceremonial presentation of the bourgeois self’’ but he also reads the portrait photograph dialectically, arguing that it operated both ‘‘honorifically and repressively.’’ While portrait photography constructed a social archive that reinforced the importance of possessing and presenting an ‘‘honorable’’ self, it defined itself against a shadow archive, which included ‘‘the poor, the diseased, the insane, the criminal, the nonwhite, the female, and all embodiments of the unworthy.’’ In his study The Burden of Representation, historian John Tagg aligns photography with institutions developed for observing, disciplining, and producing the modern subject: schools and factories, hospitals and prisons. Both Tagg and Sekula rightly argue that one cannot fully understand the phenomenon of the portrait photograph as it developed in the nineteenth century without considering its close ties to physiognomy and phrenology, which deduced moral character from physical features.
Mathew Brady and Nadar, two nineteenth century figures who pioneered portrait photography in America and France, respectively, created bodies of work that suggest that portrait photography lends itself to the creation of cultural archives, thus per- forming a documentary purpose not envisioned by the photographer while making his pictures. This tendency is exemplified by the work of German photographer August Sander. A professional portrait photographer, for Sander photographic portraiture became a tool for seeing, studying, and documenting how the individual is shaped by and placed within culture and history. In his portrait archives Anlitz der Zeit (The Feature of Time, 1929) and Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century)—which was not completed due to the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich—Sander sought to delineate the visual outline of Weimar Germany’s social order. If Tagg’s claim that ‘‘[t]he portrait is a sign whose purpose is both the description of the individual and the inscription of social identity’’ is true, we would have to say that Sander’s austere portraits depict individuals, but their individuality is secondary to Sander’s attention to social identity and type. Withholding his portrait subjects’ names, Sander instead titled his photographs according to the social type or occupation the subjects represent. Young Woman, Revolutionaries, Working Student, The Painter, Communist, Young Mother, Middle Class. Each portrait is distinct, but Sander’s archives work by the logic of comparison, as the mechanisms of social hierarchies become evident in the differences and similarities between the images, especially in the clothing, posture, and placement of the subjects. Graham Clarke compares People of the Twentieth Century to a ‘‘social map’’ for identifying ‘‘a hierarchy of social position and status within the dominant culture.’’ Confiscated by the Nazis and commended by Benjamin as a training manual for understanding imminent social codes, it is tempting to read subversion within Sander’s stoic, incisively detailed portraits. However, it is more accurate to claim that this work substantiates Sekula’s contention that the portrait photograph operates both ‘‘honorifically and repressively’’ as Sander’s portraits rely on a latent physiognomic logic and fix individuals into social types—tenets of Nazi racism—while they also delineate the actuality to class structure and oppression and place the working classes in the frame of cultural visibility.
Modernist visual art’s splitting of the sign from its referent challenged the mimetic premise of the portrait photograph, which relies on securing the relationship between physical and actual ‘‘appearance’’ of the individual and the portrait’s visual representation. In ‘‘Residual Resemblance: Three Notes on the Ends of Portraiture’’ (1994), Buchloch explains that ‘‘[i]n portraiture, a seemingly natural and guaranteed nexus between object and representation had appeared particularly evident: in fact, mimetic resemblance had been one of the category’s founding conditions.’’ It is the painting movement Cubism that dismantles the portrait’s mimetic foundation, as Pablo Picasso’s Cubist ‘‘portraits’’—and particularly the depictions of his dealers from 1910—only include representations of their facial features to suggest their vanishing significance. The portrait photograph, however, remained a frequent, if not dominant part of modernist projects. For self-consciously modern and avant gardeartists, portraiture was a way to imagine and simulate familial relations among peers and document the inter-subjective dimensions of collaborations. In Alfred Stieglitz’s circles, photographers made portraits of each other to build an image of collective pursuit and affinity. The twilight grays and crafted tones of Pictorialist portraits were well suited to the artistry Stieglitz and Edward Steichen hoped to bring to the photograph. Even figures associated with highly experimental forms in the 1920s and 1930s such as Man Ray, Florence Henri, Maurice Tabard, and Jaromir Funke made numerous portraits. Man Ray photographed key figures in the European avant garde as though seeking to test the portrait’s expressive range. A statement written by André Breton encapsulates Ray’s approach: ‘‘The portrait of a loved one should not be only an image at which one smiles but also an oracle one questions.’’ The most famous of Man Ray’s portraits are those of Marcel Duchamp performing as his feminine alter ego Rrose Sélavy (1923–1924). In these portraits, Duchamp looks like a fashion model; (s)he wears a hat decorated with a black-and-white geometric pattern, and his graceful hands and ringed fingers are elegantly poised around a fur collar to draw attention to his made-up lips and eyes. Similar in spirit to the self-portraits of the surrealist Claude Cahun, Ray’s portraits of Du- champ reveal the self to be a malleable surface receptive to performance, resistant to a fixed gender identity, and capable of continual change, an arena that was to be thoroughly explored in the late decades of the twentieth century.
Twentieth century American portrait photography was less explicitly experimental, more likely to be rooted at least in the idea of depicting actualities. Jacob Riis, who began as a police beat photographer, depicted immigrants living in New York tenements with the express aim of changing conditions and enacting more progressive social policies. A generation later, Lewis Hine began his work as a social photographer when he photographed immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. In 1908, Hine went to work for the National Labor Committee and documented children working in dangerous, exploitative conditions. Both Riis and Hine created photo- graphs of people that reveal their place within social, historical, and economic circumstances, and ideas of both human singularity and shared collectivity—embedded in the history and concept of the portrait—informed their work. As would Sander in Europe, Riis and Hine expanded the literal and figurative frame of the portrait to include the subject’s surroundings, often with the idea of soliciting the public’s sympathetic gaze.
Influenced by Hine’s social conscience and Stieglitz’s romantic modernism, the work of Paul Strand is best known as a fulfillment of ‘‘straight photography,’’ with its austere attention to abstract forms. But Strand created some of the century’s most compelling and well-known portraits, Blind (1916), featuring a blind beggar woman, and Portrait, Washington Square Park (1916), depicting a wizened, introspective, well-dressed woman. Strand’s clear, scrutinizing focus and narrow framing seem to detach these portrayals from the world of human interaction.
Because there was in the early years of the century (which continues today) the need to depict the actuality of human suffering, portraiture was an important but implicit part of the documentary projects commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936), Walker Evans managed to create images of the farmer families that are revealing but not exploitative. In another of the century’s most famous portraits, Annie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936, Evans created a subtle but compelling design as the shapes and lines of her eyes, mouth, hair, collarbones, and clothing seem to reverberate from the pattern of wood she is posed against. These design elements are secondary, however, to the photograph’s focus on the complexity of Burrough’s expression, which is fragile and stoic at the same time.
Evans had a talent for creating photographs that comment upon the portrait’s place within cultural imaginaries and narratives. Faces, Pennsylvania Town, 1936 places the profiles and inquiring looks of two young rural men in contradistinction to a barely focused crowd behind them. His iconic image Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936, packed with small head-and-shoulder studio portraits, reveals how standardized and commodified the twentieth- century self had become and comments upon the portrait’s role in standardizing the visual form in which that commodification appears.
Imogen Cunningham, Subway, New York, 1956, gelatin silver print, 22.6 19.5 cm, Museum Purchase.
[Photograph courtesy of George Eastman House, Reprinted by permission of The Imogen Cunningham Trust]
Though not often identified as such, portrait photography is a prevalent aspect of contemporary art photography, particularly when the politics of racial, sexual, and class identities are under scrutiny. In the 1980s, artists placed the portrait in a cultural and psychic field bordered by two intentions: high- lighting the various social forces that impinge upon identity construction and enacting the subversive possibilities of performance. Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) is an extended group portrait of the lower East Side’s sexual underground, and the self portrayed in the photographs’ thick velvet colors is masked, bruised, and tragically posed in the search for emotional and sexual fulfillment. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cindy Sher- man continued her investigation of self-portraiture by photographing herself within the poses and garish costumes of Old Masters’ paintings. With prosthetic noses and breasts, wigs, and thick, obvious makeup, Sherman does not disappear within these images but excavates and highlights the gendered physicality repressed by their ‘‘old master’’ status.
Many contemporary photographers draw on the portrait to confront the predictability of viewers’ perceptions. The early work of Lorna Simpson refutes the portrait’s expected focus on the face by photographing African-American women with their backs turned or their faces covered with words and phrases of uncertain meaning. These ‘‘anti-portraits’’ suggests that the perceptual apparatus for seeing and naming African-American women is perpetually inadequate. Nikki S. Lee and Tomoko Sawada reproduce the self’s ability to stage itself within the theatres and factories of identity, implicitly critiquing both the assumed malleability and invisibility of Asian-American women. At another pole of intention, the German photographer Thomas Ruff creates bare and grand, larger-than-life portrait photographs, hyper-real with detail that seem to re- duce place, history, and culture to the particularities of the individual face. But whether or not contemporary artists self-consciously critique the portrait and the discourses, institutions, and histories it participates reinforces, the continued—and surprising— appearance of this conservative genre in contemporary art expresses anxiety about the loss of a generalized frame in which the particular, self-determining individual can be recognized.
Cahun, Claude; Evans, Walker; Funke, Jaromir; Hine, Lewis; Man Ray; Riis, Jacob; Sander, August; Sekula, Allan; Steichen, Edward; Stieglitz, Alfred; Tabard, Maurice
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