What is Portraiture?

Notes from Lecture:

It is important to see images as ‘windows and mirrors’: although we see the same things, in the most literal sense, we all perceive the world through the way we see. This may be physical: our eyes adjust differently to light and colour, and some eyes are not as strong as others; on the other hand, our cultural background and pyschological state has a profound effect on our perceptions. 

Photography is indexical: it captures one moment in time. 

In portraiture, the use of semiotics (visual signs) helps communicate a message, an emotion. August Sander, for example, used semiotics in portraiture: here is a photograph of a pastry chef in pre-Nazi Germany. The image is portrait, black and white and has a large, bald, middle aged man in centre frame wearing a white cooking coat. The sitter is looking straight into the camera and is holding a mixing bowl and a spoon in a kitchen. The environment conveys that this man is a chef; however, this honesty in photography and portraiture was dangerous in the Nazi rise to power with the Aryan racial divide. Germans were to be strong, blonde hair, blue eyes, heroic and conservative; as a result, much of Sanders’s work was destroyed. 

Another photographer, Richard Avedon, used portraiture as a tool for social documentary: however he focused more on the subject by isolating them from the world using backdrops. This image to the right is part of his collection on the American West. This image is portrait, black and white and bordered; the two gaps in the black border indicate that this image was created with a large format camera. Therefore, one can confirm that Avedon pre-visualised this shot and took careful consideration of how it was to be captured in terms of its exposure and composition. The border is important because it really emphasises that this frame is important, this is consolidated by the use of a sheer white backdrop. Furthermore, the use of the white, separates the sitter from the world, like a museum piece, which invites the viewer to ask ‘what is the significance?’ or ‘why is this significant?’.

Nicholas Nixon every year photographed his wife and her sisters in a series called ‘The Brown Sisters’. In every photograph, the sisters are in the same compositional order; however, is one is to view the collection, there is a kind of relationship between himself and his wife to the extent that one can identify which sister is his partner. This highlights the idea of windows and mirrors: he continues to take portraits of sisters, but a relationship and connection is created between one of them. 

Shomei Tomatsu, as mentioned in Homage to a Precious Object, has nothing but a watch face of his father’s: this is his portrait. Precious objects have personal values and emotions that using the photography are mirrored: a photographer captures the object as a significant part of their life. Tomatsu contextualises his photograph in order for the viewer to understand that it is not simply an artifact, but his father. 



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