Portrait Photography Through the Years

Wow what a long introductory session to a new unit called Representation… tiring but so worth it!

This session involved all of us (over 50 students) researching photographers and finding images of their most well known portraits. We were all allocated two photographers to investigate – mine were André Kertész and Yinka Shonibare. We were asked to bring two A4 sheets of paper – one with details about the photographer including the dates of political, cultural and photographic developments and the other examples of their work.


Representation Timeline


A timeline was created from the 1840s to the present day and there was much discussion as to what makes a ‘portrait’ image or ‘portraiture’. From the Collins English Dictionary it is defined as ‘a painting, drawing, sculpture, photograph, or other likeness of an individual, esp of the face’. However, it soon became evident through the construction of the timeline that some photographers have pushed the boundary of what constitutes a representation of ‘likeness’ as many of the subjects were not even human let alone a face! I was taken aback by this discovery – I had always associated a portrait image to be that of people. So this new revelation set me thinking what type of portraitures could be seen on our timeline? I think it showed four fundamental styles/approaches:

  • a posed approach – this is where the subject (person or persons) is fully aware of the presence of the photographer and the photographer gives direction and interacts with the subject to construct a predefined theme and certain look of the portrait, for example to show the love between a mother and her baby or a glamour shot.
  • candid approach – a portrait taken without the subject’s (person or persons) knowledge. This style is used by photojournalists, documentary and street photography.
  • environmental approach – where the subject (person or persons) is photographed in the person’s natural environment such as the subject’s work place or home. The surroundings are used to emphasize their character. For example, a painter having their photograph taken in their art studio.
  • creative approach – non-human images are used to represent the likeness of person or tricks, special effects, pre and post-photography processing like digital manipulation are used to create the final image. Using this approach can create such images as abstract, surreal and conceptual portraits.

It was quite overwhelming the number of different styles of portraiture that can be seen on our timeline but it has definitely opened up my eyes. I am sure that armed with this new found knowledge it has given me an entry point for options and visual exploration to begin my own project. Thanks all!


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