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A History of Portrait Photography, Part II

In this second part of our lesson on the history of portrait photography, the historian Guillaume Blanc continues his exploration of the genre by theme, starting with the social question. Read the first part of the course here if needed.

Looking at suffering: The portrait as a mean for raising awareness

From the late nineteenth the century to the Second World War, the United States was a center for new developments in photography. Photography took on a social, engaged role, which had previously found only timid expression, and spawned a veritable documentary “tradition.” Any treatment of the role of portraiture in raising public awareness and instigating social reforms must start with the photographer Jacob Riis (1849–1914). A native of Denmark, he organized photographic programs in the 1880s to document the most treacherous sections of New York. By profiling these neighborhoods, Riis sought to show “how the other half lives” (which would become the title of one of his books): the unseen and the faceless men and women who make the bourgeois population, huddled in the wealthier districts, anxious. Claiming that the living conditions of the impoverished force them into criminal behavior, Riis sought to raise awareness and elicit reactions in the form of public policies. By publicizing his portraits, which were either taken on the fly, using magnesium flash powder for dramatic results, or posed in the dilapidated homes of the poor compensated for their time, Riis hoped to incite his audience to action. The texts written to accompany the images offered contextual information, anecdotes, and objective data such as the locations of the photographs. Rather than seek to articulate individual identity, the portrait sought instead to embody a type, or a group of people, whom society should take care of and protect. 

The Church Street Station Lodging-room, in which I was robbed, ca. 1890 
© Jacob Riis

The different strategies of social engagement which were adopted by the American photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (1874–1940) offer important lessons. Trained as a sociologist, Hine incorporated the camera into his survey practice as early as 1904 in order to photograph immigrants landing at Ellis Island, where they would be quarantined before being allowed into the United States. Hine appealed to popular emotions, in particular by borrowing the iconographic codes from the history of Western art. Thus a female migrant from Italy is represented as a Madonna with child, bathed in what seems like heavenly light, all the while placed in her context, against the backdrop of the harsh conditions of the detention center. As a sociologist, Hine coupled this visual strategy with textual elements, which not only provide “objective” information (such as identity and age, as a police file would), but a also aim to raise public awareness.

An anaemic little spinner in a New England cotton mill, August 1910 
© Lewis Wickes Hine

The image literally becomes a pretext to the text; it is a starting point for a commentary on the social situation. Hines developed this practice further when, in 1908, he began documenting illegal child labor. He would gain access to mills and workhouses discreetly and hurriedly, photographing children at work in a much more direct style, seeking to emphasize the labor conditions of the children he portrayed. His goal was not so much to pull the viewers’ heart strings, but rather to provide documentary evidence that in a given place and at a given time specific children were being forced to work. Therefore, it did not matter whether these images were well composed or whether the shooting conditions were optimal: what mattered was that these portraits embodied the terrible condition of working children through a specific face in a specific place. Two decades later, Hine again reformulated his approach to famously document American workers, whether laborers at a factory or construction workers at the Empire State Building. Hine sought to bring into the public eye those who put their bodies in the service of the economic machine. In a series of heroic portraits, taken from impressive vantage points, the photographer restored the value of the workers’ labor, acknowledging their role in the economic transformation of their country. 

The next two decades saw an intense development of documentary photography. This was particularly due to work of the Farm Security Administration established in 1935. Roy Stryker, the director of the FSA’s photography division, succeeded in recruiting artists who quickly established themselves as important documentary photographers. The program aimed to document the lives of American farmers who bore the brunt of the Great Depression. Two of the commissioned photographers stand out for the impact of their projects and the critical depth generated by their images. 

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936
© Dorothea Lange

The first artist, Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) was the author of the iconic portrait Migrant Mother. Part of a series, it represents Florence Owens Thompson who, like many in her community, was trying to find housing and work following the frost that ruined her crops. Alongside her photographs Lange recorded contextual information, a practice she had learned in her early days as a photographer and through her association with her husband, the sociologist Paul Taylor. The portrait of this woman with weathered features and anxious gaze, her children huddled around her, compels the viewer to inquire about the causes behind the dispossession of the farmers. The portrait speaks to the deprivation and the uncertain future they must cope with. Lange’s strategy was successful, insofar as this image became one of the most instantly recognizable in the history of photography and a symbol of American farmers’ struggle during the Great Depression.

Although the second photographer associated with the Farm Security Administration, Walker Evans (1903–1975), also used portraiture in his documentary practice, his intellectual framework was different. Evans was headstrong: he was often reluctant to hand over his negatives and, far from presenting himself as a sociologist, took advantage of the FSA project to reflect on documentary photography as such. In the summer of 1936, he produced a series of portraits of a family of tenant farmers, including the wife Allie Mae Burroughs and the husband Floyd Burroughs. Evans did not seek biographical objectivity, nor did he attempt to tell a personal story. On the contrary, these portraits served to set the scene for a story written by the writer James Agee. The portraits were published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a fictional narrative depicting the living conditions of impoverished tenant farmers in America. Inserted as plates at the beginning of the book, without any caption, the Burroughs family portraits embodied a social condition which was experienced by thousands of other farmers. Thus, the gaze of the models—albeit individual—opens the reader’s eyes to a shared social history rather than a personal narrative.

Floyd Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936 
© Walker Evans

In Europe, the social commitment of photographers was most evident in print. Affiliated with the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) sought in the 1930s to defend the international workers’ cause through photography. He produced one photo essay after another for the communist press. During his travels in Mexico and the United States, he portrayed the faces of poverty, photographed in the street, while in France he documented the activities of the labor movement, celebrating the joy of community life

It was in the postwar period that a psychological relationship came to figure more boldly in the social portrait. In the 1950s, working mainly in France, the Dutchman Ed van der Elsken (1925–1990) developed a very personal approach to documentary photography by focusing less on specific social issues than on systemic conflicts. Rather than produce stories on a given topic, van der Elsken created long-term documentation on neglected social groups. Interested mainly in street activity, night life, and marginalized populations, he developed a lyrical style deeply engaged with the person as a social individual. His portraits explicitly name the models to give them the humanity they are denied and sublimate their reckless beauty through close-ups, or capture unusual elements for a tender effect. Most of his models were his friends and a part of his life; by restoring their visibility, Ed van der Elsken shared their existence and helped them gain recognition in the dominant bourgeois world.

Vali Myers, Parijs (1950-1954) 
© Ed van der Elsken, Nederlands Fotomuseum

The decades from the 1960s to the 1990s were marked by a defense of underrepresented groups. In the United States, Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015) produced countless reports documenting the lives of marginalized members of the society. Working mostly with a wide-angle lens, she aimed to contextualize her subject while creating an impression of intimacy, as in this double portrait that invites the viewer to contemplate the boredom infecting marginal areas like Harlem. Mary Ellen Mark tried to reveal the social space of her subjects, while simultaneously focusing on the individual. 

Harlem Street Life, Manhattan, New York 1966-69
© Mary Ellen Mark 

In summary, such portraits invite us to put the margin back at the center and thus to remap the sociopolitical configuration signaled by the image. In The Kitchen Table Series of very personal and intimate portraits, Carrie Mae Weems (1953–) addresses the condition of African Americans. Always taken in a family setting around the dining table, the images reflect the issues that the artist confronted on a daily basis: racism, sexism, loss of identity, and poor standards of living. She responds to these concerns through self-portraits, thus taking control of her self-representation. 

Untitled (Man Smoking), 1990 ​​​​​
© Carrie Mae Weems
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The self-portrait has also been decisive in the struggle for the recognition of homosexuals and for addressing AIDS as an international health crisis. Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), a major figure in the gay and lesbian artistic scene in New York in the 1980s, embarked on an erotically charged project which he himself described as “pornographic.” Mostly black and white, meticulously lit and composed, his portraits celebrate the milieu. Mapplethorpe’s bold representations of male bodies in the tradition of the nude were meant to shock the audience and build awareness. The same is true of the work of photographer Larry Clark (1943–), who documented the lives of young people from the 1970s onwards, with a particular interest in the devastating effects of drug abuse. He approached his subjects with empathy, appealing to the humanity of the viewer who feels compelled to inquire into the sources and the wider consequences of the problem. By foregrounding his close relationship with the subjects, Clark puts the viewer in a position of tolerance. 

The visual forms of the socially engaged portrait have varied, depending on the photographer’s project and the strategies for publication of the images. However, the intended function of the portrait has always been to focus on the individual human being and their experiences in order to elicit the viewers’ emotions and mobilize them to action. In the field of documentary photography, the portrait carries an emotional charge which facilitates social reform. 

A community of individuals: A portrait of society

By taking society as the object of study and representation, photography has also contributed to the development of the documentary genre. As John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the New York MoMA, pointed out on the occasion of a 1967 exhibition entitled New Documents, some photographers seek not to “reform” society but to get to “know it.” 

This is true of the photographic oeuvre assembled by Eugène Atget (1857–1927) over the course of thirty years. In an attempt to create a nearly exhaustive documentation of Paris, Atget focused on “small trades.” The procedure was always the same: the subject was portrayed in full length against the background of a Parisian street. The albums compiled by the photographer were populated by rag-pickers, basket merchants, and flower sellers, representing the humanity one would often find in nineteenth-century urban spaces.

People of the 20th Century
© August Sander

In a similar vein, although with a different intention, the German photographer August Sander (1876–1964), set out to preserve a portrait of his contemporary society. Unlike Atget who also documented places and ornaments, Sander focused exclusively on people. He produced countless half- and full-length portraits, and always photographed his subjects with the attributes of their class or profession. He would then arrange them into albums which seemed to reproduce the social order he sought to represent.

Robert Frank (1924–2019), a Swiss photographer, takes a much more free approach in his book The Americans (1958), which offers a social portrait of the United States. The book marked a revolutionary breakthrough in the photographic representation of society. Favoring subjective shots and taking advantage of the constant activity in his visual field, Frank indiscriminately showed the full spectrum of American society. The subjects are busy at work and/or lost in thought, occasionally making eye contact with the camera in the act of capturing them. Frank’s portraits are often multifaceted and tend to express the nature of social relations in a society that is beginning to enjoy leisure time and where public space is becoming a stage. 

Charleston, South Carolina, 1955
© Robert Frank, Courtesy Pace/MacGill

Trained at the New School for Social Research in New York, Diane Arbus (1923–1971), one of the artists featured in the New Documents exhibition at MoMA in 1967, was interested in a completely different kind of scene. From 1962, the square, 6×6 format and an intense flash, used both at night and in daytime, became a part of her signature style. Diane Arbus created compassionate portraits of extraordinary characters, often residing at the fringes of society. In her series, giants, midgets, bandits, transvestites, twins, and the mentally ill are all granted the representation they are usually denied in society.

Working contemporaneously, the great genius of color photography, William Eggleston (1939–), also began to paint a social portrait of the United States. Seeking to capture the essence of democracy, he created, in addition to still lifes and landscapes, a series of eloquent portraits. Often taken on the fly, sometimes posed, they depict people in a relatively calm and empty environment. Eggleston portrays a social landscape where citizens seem to always have to contend with limited opportunities and settle for the meager pleasures of American suburbs.  

In a completely different register, Martin Parr (1952–), a British photographer, is interested in the working classes, particularly in what they have become after several decades of profound social transformation in the wake of the Second World War. Focusing in particular on tourism and low-cost leisure activities, Parr delivers a funny yet uncompromising portrait of Britain’s masses: excessive suntans, colorful outfits, and melting ice-cream figure prominently in these portraits, which nevertheless emanate tenderness towards their subject. Rather than proposing a critique of the social order, Parr seems to praise the inventiveness, freedom, and joy of those who have the least. 

This model stands in contrast, for example, to the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia (1951–), who paints a picture of solitude in the city. With the help of a powerful flash and a telephoto lens, he plucks his model from the flow of passersby while maintaining his distance. The flash helps him focus the light only on the selected model, while the telephoto lens allows him to capture his subject without being discovered. This project contrasts with diCorcia’s usual work which consists in posing the model in their own environment, sometimes for a fee. In any case, diCorcia always represents his subjects as actors in micro-fictions that comment on contemporary urban life and its vicissitudes.

The thousand faces of the portrait

As we have seen, portrait photography is undergoing constant renewal based upon the function we assign to it. From one use to the next, its forms circulate, change, and repeat themselves. However, the portrait invariably questions the thing it represents, namely the human figure. Offered up as an enigma, always leaving us in doubt as to what we see or what can be seen, the representation of humanity raises many questions. In the field of contemporary photography, the portrait genre has inspired a rich body of artistic research which attempts to uncover its mechanisms, ideological implications, and the cultural codes it utilizes. To understand the latter, ORLAN’s work (1947–) is important: the artist’s life-long project on the body and the pressures to which it is subjected challenges the canons of Western beauty. Playing with the possibilities of photography, especially in terms of retouching, ORLAN has created a series of self-portraits which distort her appearance to reveal a hybrid being, which challenges the assumptions of a stable referent. These images run counter to the traditional portrait: rather than representing a given identity, they distort the real identity in order to create a new one.

Untitled #414, 2003
© Cindy Sherman
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

This is also the theme which the artist Cindy Sherman (1954–) takes up in her work. Using evocative disguises and effects, she has continually revived her persona endowing it with an ever-new identity in each self-portrait. However, rather than simply embodying new characters, she exaggerates her features through makeup to create a grotesque, horrifying vision of self-representation in contemporary civilization. More than a mere self-portrait, Sherman’s practice involves a change of identity. Patrick Tosani (1954–), in turn, sets aside the visual dimension of identity altogether. In a series of portraits dating to 1985, the models’ appearance is completely obscured by heavy blur while their identity, presented in the form of raised Braille dots, is not legible to all.

Portrait n°13, 1985
© Patrick Tosani, ADAGP

Since the 1970s, many artists have questioned the forms and uses of portraiture, testifying to its richness and the problems it raises. At least one aspect of the portrait is certain, however: its potential is infinite, because there are as many possible portraits as there are individuals, and every individual can have a thousand faces. Thus, the portrait is renewed every time a face is photographed.

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.

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