What is portrait photography?
Portrait photography is a genre of photography that primarily aims to capture the character, the personality, the identity of a person or a group of persons. However, in photography, portraiture is a constantly evolving genre. Its forms and applications feed into each other, constantly instigating renewed invention.
Some photography portraits cross categories and lend themselves to various purposes, while others convey the assurance of evidence, such as ID photos.
One need only review the career of the American photographer Richard Avedon to get a sense of that diversity. In Avedon’s work we find the muse of a famous couturier next to a victim of a Napalm attack during the battle of Saigon; a Texas farmer next to the British painter Francis Bacon; photo portraits of people going about their daily work in public spaces next to those taken in psychiatric institutions. Richard Avedon’s photographs—like those of his peers—embody the endless possibilities for representing a human face.
Writing a history of portrait photography amounts to writing a history of photography itself. The concept of the photo portrait is closely tied to the concept of personal identity; and photography itself arises from the possibility of identical reproduction, as it is taken for granted that the photograph will faithfully replicate reality. Thus, the term “portrait,” in photographic parlance, could apply to any subject.
For example, the American documentary photographer Walker Evans’s series on vernacular architecture of his country was called “portraits of houses,” since the buildings seemed to be “looking” straight at the camera. Similarly, one often hears about “portraits of a country” or “portraits of a region” in the context of photographic campaigns that aim to document a given territory and its cultural, topographic, etc., characteristics.
If we confine ourselves to the representation of the human face, the most relevant way of approaching portrait photography is to classify it in terms of the function we assign to it. From the most basic function (identification) to the most sensitive (recording emotion), to its ability to idealize the model or raise public awareness, photography portrait adapts to a wide range of forms and uses.
One thing is certain, however: in its own way, portrait photography tells the story of the modern subject since the invention of photography 180 years ago.
The science of the face: photography portraits in the service of identification
The primary function of the portrait is also the most obvious: identification. Identification means confirming an identity. However, in this sense identity is not a reference to the distinct personality of an individual, or cultural, social, or spiritual identification, but specifically to an administrative form of ID that depends on objective facts.
In terms of photography, identification is thus firmly rooted in rational sciences dominant in the late nineteenth century which aimed to establish unassailable laws derived from objectively measurable data. Photography quickly gained popularity by performing a mechanical reduction of reality in order to record it, proving that the human body could be reproduced by perfectly scaling down its proportions.
Starting in the 1880s, portrait photography was enlisted in the service of the police in an effort to standardize criminal records and make them more efficient. These changes were initiated by Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914), the father of anthropometry, or the study of the measurements of the human body, and forensic identification.
A law enforcement officer, Bertillon introduced photography of portraits as a way of identifying repeat offenders: until then, criminals had been able to provide a false identity and thwart the investigation. In contrast, a photograph does not lie. If the person brought to justice closely resembled the photograph stapled to a file, they must have had a prior record.
Bertillon developed a whole series of tools making it possible to standardize the production of identification photos: for example, a 90-degree rotating seat allowing for a profile mug shot and a fixed-distance camera enabling proportional measurements of a face based on the photographic portrait.
Gradually, the role of the human face as a reliable marker of identity became assured. This is the role, or purpose of portrait photography when taken in a state-approved photobooth: the face-as-document asserts the conformity established between the self and the image. In other words, the portrait proves our identity.
As an objective medium of information, the face has also become a subject of knowledge. Portrait photography was used in the nineteenth century by clinical science, sometimes with the support of dedicated services, such as the photographic iconography at the Salpêtrière psychiatric center in Paris.
Désiré-Magloire Bourneville (1840–1909) and Paul Régnard (1850–1927) thus assisted the famous professor Charcot in his research on hysteria, jointly producing portraits of patients convulsing in a crisis. These disturbing photo portraits represented people at the mercy of their illness, photographed because they were themselves a symptom.
Salpêtrière was also where Guillaume Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne (1806–1875), to whom Charcot referred as his “maître,” or teacher, conducted his experiments. Duchenne chose an elderly man whose face was paralyzed and subjected him to low-voltage electric shocks in order to understand the mechanism of facial expressions. The variety of expressions, juxtaposed with the faces carved into ancient busts, attested to the complexity of the human face and what it can reveal.
Portrait photography as a medium of knowledge also had a vibrant career—for better and for worse—in the field of ethnology. For better: the work of Martin Gusinde (1886–1969), recently rediscovered on the occasion of an exhibition. The author of rare documentation of the native peoples of Tierra del Fuego, Gusinde produced captivating and respectful photography portraits in which the proximity between the photographer and his model is palpable.
For the worst: the excesses committed by such practices as physiognomy, which aimed to determine a person’s “character” based on their facial features, or phrenology which assessed human types based on the shape of the skull.
According to these pseudo-disciplines, the criminal and the idiot became facial types. The British anthropologist Francis Galton (1822–1911) explored a different strategy with the hope of pinpointing facial types. An enthusiast of the “composite portrait” obtained through the superposition of several faces of criminals, Galton thought he could determine the type of face that would signal criminal character. Time has shown that his quest was meaningless.
It is understandable that these two interrelated functions of the portrait—identifying and knowing—were co-opted by two types of power: democratic systems as well as the worst authoritarian regimes and racist ideologies.
This is why a number of contemporary artists have worked on deconstructing the functions and subvert the usages of portraiture. Between the wars, the Surrealists played with the codes and norms of the Photobooth in order to turn it away from accepted uses. By privileging grimaces over serious countenance in the Photobooth, they carried out an artistic project: reinjecting mystery into the homogenized daily life.
Yves Tanguy (1900–1955), for example, engaged in this practice on a regular basis, exchanging petty change for images of his contorted face. Several decades later, Thomas Ruff (1958–), associated with the Düsseldorf School, made passport photos of his family and friends, but with the intention of exhibiting them in a monumental format on museum walls.
He thus highlighted the derealization produced by the standardization of the ID photo format which turns the face into a pure surface, without any psychological depth. With his photography portraits, Thomas Ruff seems to be abolishing the connection between the representation of the individual and the real person.
In social circles, the format of the photo portrait which reinforced the notion that it was a means of self-identification the carte-de-visite. Launched around 1860 by the Parisian photographer Eugène Disdéri (1819–1889), the carte-de-visite, as its name implies, enabled the association between a photographic representation of the self and one’s business card.
These miniature images rapidly gave rise to another function of the portrait: communication, which allowed the portrait to carry a message using a shared convention.
My beautiful face: photography portraits as a means of sublimation
Portrait photography also works as a system of signs. In other words, it can constitute a veritable language modulated by “rhetoric,” as emphasized Barthes. The official portrait of President Emmanuel Macron, for example, can help us understand this idea of photographic language.
On the one hand, this portrait photography brings together a series of symbols easily associated with ideas, concepts, and institutions, such as the flags, but also two smartphones stacked on top of each other symbolize a young, tech-savvy statesman. On the other hand, visual elements, such as the artificial light, the president’s pose, his hands gripping the edge of the desk, tend to convey the impression of a pragmatic man ready for action.
By deploying certain visual symbols, portrait photography thus becomes the medium of a message transmitted from a sender to a recipient. Wielded by photographers, and everyone involved in the production and reception of the image, the communicative capacity of the portrait photography has been exploited in domains where the image becomes a commercial medium, whether deployed on behalf of a company selling a product or of an individual engaged in self-promotion.
Disdéri pioneered the introduction of this rhetorical feature into his carte-de-visite (CDV) portraits. Active at a time when the bourgeoisie was a rising class craving power and recognition, Disdéri seems to have perfectly grasped the spirit of his time.
He first established a system that allowed him to streamline portrait production and lower its costs; he also stamped his name and the address of his studio on the back of the cards, something few photographers did at the time.
Up to 8 or 10 portraits were exposed on the same photographic plate, and each was then pasted onto a small piece of cardboard that the customer could distribute at will. The carte-de-visite was one of the first inventions that democratized the access to representation, which instigated a series of consequences.
In the first place, CDV photography portraits were a forerunner of social networks in place today: it was fashionable in the 1860s to collect the photographic calling cards of friends and family, as well as celebrities, who frequented Disdéri’s studio. For example, the portraits of Napoleon III made all of Paris flock to the photographer.
It was all the rage in private salons to show off one’s collection of CDVs and trade them. Democratization, however, goes hand in hand with the proliferation of portrait formats: everyone wants to subvert the existing codes in order to appropriate the experience of the portrait and modulate how they are seen.
Very rapidly, these modifications became standardized, while some gestures and sartorial conventions became more popular than others. The following set of guidelines given by a nineteenth-century photography portrait studio speak volumes:
“– Tail-coat and white necktie, serious expression, casual attitude: a simple courtesy call.
– Full dress, formal bearing, offering a bag of sweets: a birthday visit.
– Graceful, with a bouquet of flowers: attending a party.
– Smiling, hand on the heart: congratulating a happy event.
– Dressed in black, mournful face: a sympathy visit.
– A toothpick between teeth: postprandial visit.
– Dressed as a tourist, a travel satchel slung over a shoulder: a goodbye visit before taking leave.”
Clearly, portrait photography functioned as an extension of the ceremonies and rituals of daily life. Self-representation was now a major aspect of social life, because it could pave the way to obtaining a place of honor.
Fashion houses and the world of advertisement were quick to pick up on the fact: a face can communicate, convince, or in any case establish a correspondence between the viewer and the image. The image of the face crystallized desires and emotions which guided consumer behavior—whether one was led to purchase the product being sold by the face, or to become a consumer of the face itself, as in the case of celebrity photo portraits.
In fashion photography the model is supposed to embody the brand and become the brand image, the brand ambassador. There are any number of ways to set the tone and create the identity of the represented corporation. We might compare the recent advertising campaign designed by David LaChapelle (1963–) for Kenzo, which poses ludic models in chimerical settings bursting with color, with Richard Avedon’s (1923–2004) black-and-white images created for Dior.
In the first case, the multicolored, dynamic atmosphere of the Kenzo campaign evokes boundless freedom of expression, while the backdrop in which the outdoors blends with the interior celebrates identity based on (external) appearance. In the Dior campaign, by contrast, Avedon seems to be foregrounding the image of a woman whose elegance confronts its surroundings and resists contextualization.
Irving Penn (1917–2009), who had a long career with Vogue and who photographed only in studio conditions, worked with sober, minimalist images, prioritizing neutral backgrounds and eliminating any decorative feature. This allowed him to achieve a formal equilibrium that stemmed from the abstract nature of the black and white and the sense of strangeness this lends to the model: as a result, the brand was given a timeless, imperturbable face.
As can be seen in the case of fashion photography, portrait photography seeks to communicate, but often only in the best light. The portrait thus takes on a sublimating function that presents the face as a medium of seduction and an object of desire. This guiding principle generally informs the studio portrait, available to anyone at a reasonable price.
With the help of flawless lighting, against an often-neutral background, a professional portrait photographer will seek to enhance the face of the model in order to make it as pleasing to the eye as possible.
Some studios have even developed a signature style in the composition of their photography portraits: the famous Studio Harcourt founded in 1934, for example, specializes in black-and-white portrait photography which offers a wide array of greys, coupled with half-light that evokes the atmosphere of films noirs, and framed just below the shoulder, in three quarter view, taken at a low angle.
As noted, this is a trademark style, since it has found favor among cultural elites, and a visit to Harcourt for a photography portrait is a tradition among those in the film industry. One takes away a portrait which, displayed in the home, is instantly identifiable as a product of the famous Parisian studio.
Portrait photography thus becomes a social symptom and, through its capacity to transform the model’s appearance, guarantees their acceptance in a given social milieu. The photo portrait can create an image of an individual that best approximates that person’s ideal vision of themselves.
This is also how social networks, such as Instagram, function. Most users who post selfies try to present an ideal image of themselves—even when it is meant to be funny, even ridiculous, like the images associated with the hashtag #wokeuplikethis. In addition, they might also collect the faces of others and adopt their modes of representation, thus generating new fashions that can often be traced back to celebrities.
With the rise of social networks, we again encounter the system put in place by the CDV photography portrait in which self-representation, always subject to idealization, is available to any member of society. Portrait photography has helped redesign the social landscape at the time of the rise of democracy.
This is because it allows us to look our best while presenting the edited image as a faithful reflection of reality. Whether we hire a photographer to document our wedding, or go to a hairdresser before a portrait session for the company photo gallery, or add a filter to a selfie posted on Instagram to mask any imperfections, we consider the portrait as a means of presenting a better version of ourselves.
The idealization of the model is one of the demands that runs through the whole history of portraiture, including painting. However, it is a demand which portrait photography can fulfill with greater ease.
What does the portrait convey of what we really are, beyond appearances? If photography is limited to transcribing the surface of things, can it show the inner life of the model? Is it possible to literally photograph a person’s soul?
The appearance of emotions: Intimate, psychological portraits
Numerous photographers have sought to explore the possibility of conveying their model’s emotions. This goal is already at work in the idealized portrait which presents the model as confident in, or fully satisfied with, the image they project. But the idea that the photography portrait can translate emotions in the visible realm extends this project into all moods and all feelings.
It was thanks to his close ties with the romantic bohemians that Nadar (1820–1910) was able to devote himself to this exercise. Unlike Disdéri, who was in some way his adversary, Nadar did not aim at a pompous interpretation of the individual, but rather sought to represent the nature of the soul.
It is hard to imagine a photo portrait of Baudelaire—who, as it happens, disparaged photography—as a man confident in his success, sporting a top-hat and a monocle and propped on his elbow in front of a rustic backdrop.
Instead, Nadar’s lens shows us the tormented countenance, drooping lips, and wary gaze of the poet leaning nonchalantly against a wall as if he were about to flee the scene. The lighting is expressive and the image slightly blurred, which lends it an unworldly quality (“anywhere out of the world,” according to the title of one of his poems) characteristic of a genius.
The romantic tradition of portrait photography experienced a surge of popularity in Great Britain, as well, in the work of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879). An amateur photographer who quickly became the most celebrated portrait photographer of her time, Cameron privileged shots which tightly framed the face, using soft focus and twilight illumination which left the model partly in the shadows. Seeking to capture the personality of her subjects, she composed deeply felt portraits.
In the work of both Nadar and Cameron we can sense a form of closeness between the photographer and the subject. It seems that some intimacy is necessary in order to engage in a portrait that depicts the emotional life of the model. It is when they portray their friends, lovers, and family that the photographers are best able to capture the psyche of the individual.
This is true of the portraits of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe by her lover, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1964–1946): frequent and numerous, they seem to document the ups and downs in their relationship. More than just his wife’s moods, Stieglitz shows the emotional life of the couple. Getting to know one’s model intimately, and one’s own capacity to represent them, is a life-long endeavor.
The intimate space—whether in love, friendship, or family—was explored by Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894–1986), an amateur photographer whose work was brought to the public eye in the 1960s. A child of an extremely wealthy French family, Lartigue was obsessed by the passage of time and the perishable character of memories. Armed with his camera, from a young age he obstinately held on to every shred of happiness life had to offer.
By taking multiple photography portraits of the dearest members of his family, like his cousin Zissou, he slowly built an enchanting narrative of his family life. The particular aspect of the Lartigue family was that their daily life was full of fun and surprises. The photography portraits taken by the young Jacques-Henri inevitably took on an air of fantasy.
This was the result of a subconscious mise-en-scène: the subjects acted out before the camera and a stage-set was constructed in view of representation, even when the shots seem taken “in the heat of the action.”
In the work of Duane Michals (1932–), who reprises the codes of the family album privileged by Lartigue, the mise-en-scène is deliberate: the photographer no longer captures the fleeting moment, but rather a scene constructed explicitly for the portrait. Starting with intimate relations, Michals elaborates small surrealist fictions, reinforced by the sequential nature of the photographs and the accompanying text.
The shift which inspired new approaches to intimate portrait is also present in the work of Nan Goldin (1953–). The American photographer is known for her sensitive and deeply personal portrait photography. Through her images she builds a photographic autobiography, adopting the risky, chance aspects of amateur snapshot photography.
Her images, however, often bear witness to pain, for example when she photographs friends suffering and dying from AIDS, or when she turns the camera on herself to testify to her own condition as a battered woman.
The example of Nan Goldin—as well as Larry Clark, Peter Hujar and Carrie Mae Weems—shows the face as a locus of feelings that lends itself to the construction of a commentary on the tragic aspects of life’s experiences. Human contact is always first established through the face, and a whole emotional language comes into play with facial movements, distortions, reactions.
It is precisely this propensity of the face to awaken feelings that is the basis for a whole field in photography, portrait photography, aimed at fostering political and social engagement.
By Guillaume Blanc
Guillaume Blanc is a doctoral student in history of photography at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, also teaching at the Catholic University of the West (Angers) and at the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée. His recent work includes publications for Transbordeur and Image & Narrative.