What is a Portrait?

Chapter 1 of The Photographic Portrait David & Charles, May 2004

Towards a Definition

Chambers dictionary tells us (economically) that it is 'a likeness of a real person'. Like many dictionary definitions this doesn't get us very far, and here I would like to attempt a personal definition and to identify the special characteristics of the photographic portrait.

Can we distinguish between a mere photographic record of a person that simply records the topography of the face, such as a passport picture, and an image that gives us more meaningful information about an individual or the photographer's attitude to that person? I would argue that there is a difference between a 'likeness' and a portrait. The American photographer Richard Avedon has said that a portrait is a picture of someone who 'knows they are being photographed'. In other words there is a relationship (however fleeting) between the photographer and the subject, with the implication that in the process, the photographer will exercise control, make some sort of analysis or take a stance. One might also add that in the course of making this 'contractual' portrait the sitter may also take some control over their own representation. This is dealt with in more depth in the next chapter.

But the candid picture may also fulfill our new criteria for the portrait, if it provides us with some analysis of the subject and the photographer's point of view. When the artist Peter Howson painted Madonna, there was no sitting, and she had never met Howson. But we would still probably consider it a portrait.

We think of the face as an essential element in a portrait. It's through faces that we know each other; that we are given our identity. But can a picture of part of the body, be a portrait? If it provides an indicator to some aspect of that person that seems important, or tells some sort of story, then the answer would have to be yes.

What then, if the subject doesn't appear in the picture at all? The conceptual and minimal artist Sol LeWitt made a work in 1980 entitled 'Autobiography'. It is a book with no text and over 1200 simply made B&W photographs of objects in his house: books, pots, pictures, kitchen utensils, and so on – the detritus of everyday life. Is this perhaps a more evocative, informative and eloquent portrait than a picture of his face? The pictures are not very interesting individually, but cumulatively they make a powerful portrait. They are the very antithesis of the single image that pretends to be a profound analysis.

So lets keep an open mind about just what constitutes a portrait, and consider the possibility that any picture that enriches, enlivens or elucidates our understanding of an individual, or their relationship with the artist, may be termed a portrait – whether it presents a 'likeness' or not.

The Trace

There are other, more esoteric qualities inherently in a photograph of a person, besides supplying us with information – qualities that the painted portrait for example, cannot have. It is evidence of someone's existence. Having even the most fuzzy 'trace' image is like having something of that person because the photograph is created by light reflected off the actual subject and forming an image. There is an important causal connection here. Think of the Turin Shroud, thought to be the trace image of Christ, and how valuable that seems to be (but only if it is genuine), even though we can't really make out what he looked like. People often carry a snapshot of a loved one in their wallets implying their presence at all times, close to them. It becomes iconic. A man may take a photograph from his wallet and say "this is my wife", not "this is a photograph of my wife". The painted portrait does not seem to provide us with that same emotional bond. The photograph's unique relationship with reality then, is significant.

Memory and Mortality

We photograph as a means of possessing something of a person, but also to remember.
Photography has always had a close relationship with memory, both distant and recent. In the former we treasure photographs as a remembrance of people and often as a reminder of past events. While these can never equal the original experience with all the multisensory stimuli involved they do prompt our memory as a representation. The photograph's relationship with time then, is also important. Most of the pictures in this book are captioned with name of subject, location and date. You should be scrupulous about filing this information with prints and negatives. For posterity. The photograph becomes more valuable with the passing of time – the picture that you took of a close relative may not seem important now but will do in a few years.

If photography is in part concerned with memory, connected to that is the notion that all pictures of people also inherently involve aspects of mortality. Many writers have contemplated the connection between photography and death. Through its relationship with reality and accurate representation, photography fulfills a need to preserve its subject. The photographic portrait will survive after the sitter's demise, and its capacity for immortalisation can be a reminder of the subject's and viewer's mortality. A photograph, which captures or freezes a moment, may even be seen to prefigure death. But it promises survival. The American photographer Nicholas Nixon began a remarkable series of photographs in 1975. He has photographed his wife (to be) and her three sisters once a year since then. Always with a large format camera and always with the women in the same position left to right. 'The Brown Sisters' has become a powerful essay on the passage of time, capturing the slow, incremental changes of the aging process, while at the same time commenting on the singular nature of photography itself. And the longer the series continues the more fascinating it becomes.

Ambiguity, Context and Truth

The portrait photograph is an arena filled with doubt, paradox, enigma and ambiguity. The photograph describes everything but does not necessarily explain anything. Meaning is elusive and changeable. The photograph always requires to be provided with a context because without that, it has no inherent meaning. We would read a picture as editorial content in a magazine differently from one on the wall in an art gallery. They have different functions and therefore different meanings – even if it's the same picture. If we are shown a painting in any context we understand that it is meant to be viewed as art. The photograph is an ' anxious object' in that respect (to borrow a phrase from the critic Harold Rosenberg), and even if it is hanging in a gallery there is still the debate after 160 years, over whether it is art or not (lets be clear – any medium can be art if used by an artist).

There is often the additional problem of ambiguous meaning in any context. How can we know what the photographer’s intention was? (You could argue that the photographer's intention is less important than what the picture means to you, but as photographers we would wish to make our intention clear). One of the fascinations of photography is that it can be about more than one thing at the same time; both metaphor and document; subjective and realist. It’s a chameleon medium. The most important signpost to reading a photograph is the caption. It is that, that can distinguish a portrait from a fashion picture or a social document or a metaphorical work of self reflection.

If we can now agree a reasonable working definition for the portrait and understand the problems of communicating our intended meaning, what evaluation can we make of our portraits? We attempt some sort of truth – not an objective truth but a personal one – where we try to make sense of humanity. Much of art has been concerned to describe the world and in so doing to strive to increase our comprehension of it. How elusive that is. The human face, for example, can say so much but reveal so little, and it would be arrogant of the artist to suggest that they have exposed the soul of the sitter from the 'bundle of perceptions' (as the philosopher David Hume called it), that is the self. In that sense portraits can only ever fail – just as the philosopher can only attempt to explain the meaning of life or the alchemist turn base metal into gold. What we attempt more realistically is an attitude to our subject, beyond recording their physical appearance. We select what it is we want to reveal.

Some of the best portraits imply a narrative: they are pictures about which a writer could create a story. In the same way that the radio play provides us with the narrative and we fill in the images with our imagination, the articulate portrait expects exactly the opposite. There are several examples of pictures of the same person in this book, all telling different stories – which are truthful? All of them – or none of them?

The Self Portrait

In a sense all portraits – indeed all photographs – are self portraits and this raises an important ethical question. The photographer Paul Strand referred to the ‘impertinence’ of visiting another culture and imposing one’s subjective opinions on it . There is an arrogance in making a personal assessment of the subject and of sometimes transferring ones own persona onto it. In his important exhibition and accompanying book ‘Mirrors and Windows’ (Museum of Modern Art ,1978) John Szarkowski proposes the idea that all photographs fall on a continuum between mirror of oneself and window on the world. I constantly struggle with the ethics of producing a reflection of myself in something as personalised, specific and realistic as the photographic portrait. It has occasionally happened that I have produced a portrait that I have felt pleased with but where the subject has been disturbed by it , and I have realised that I have been transferring my persona on to them – not an analysis of them, or even a subjective response to them, but an expression purely of myself. To some extent, many of my portraits probably say more about me than about my subject.

One may make a photograph of oneself through sheer narcissism and self regard, or more interestingly through a desire to attempt an understanding of our selves and our lives. In the self portrait the artist is the perceiver and the perceived and this seems to distill the enigma of the self – to grope our way to self revelation by self description.

Some use photography as one might a diary, as a private means of recording our circumstances and clarifying our condition; to put abstract feelings and emotions into the sort of tangible data that we can begin to make sense of, and to be retrieved at a later date to remind us of how we were.

The self portrait is a means of introducing yourself to thinking and working analytically and expressively – to producing portraits with meaning.
Selected Writing