Reading a portrait, according to Bate

I have been reading Bate’s thoughts on Looking at Portraits ( Bate, 2009, pp. 67-86) and to cement some of his theory in my mind, decided to make a reading of a portrait using his ideas. Here is the image I chose,  Albert Einstein, which was taken by society photographer Yousef Karch in 1948.

Albert Einstein (1948)

© Yousef Karch

Bate argues that a portrait consists of four elements – the face, the pose, clothing and location. Separately and together these act as a coding system to “read the image”, which is to say make a personal appraisal of what is going on, based on both society’s and one’s own personal assumptions about meaning.

The black and white image is a square portrait of the subject showing his face and arms. His face can be clearly seen, the lines which are emphasised by the side lighting, give the impression of and ageing, but not yet elderly person. Clearly, he is male and white. His hair is long and unkempt, denoting a lack of interest in personal appearance and he affects a handlebar moustache. I am not sure what this meant at that particular time, although Einstein wore a moustache for much of his adult life, so it was probably not a fashion device. Elsewhere his face is clean shaven, so the moustache is not simply a result of laziness. The main light in the image falls upon his eyes (and hands, which I will come back to later), and the expression I see within them is one of warmth of character (twinkly eyes) and contemplative interest, as if he is listening quietly to a conversation going on nearby. He looks slightly care-worn, content, yet very self-contained, but it is not possible to divine whether this was a look requested by the photographer or his natural inclination.

His pose is three quarters to the camera, with his right shoulder closest, so that one can see little of the rest of his body. One can guess that he is sitting, with his elbows leaning on a table, in a comfortable position, perhaps at a family dinner. Alternatively, one could interpret the pose as being religious, as his hands are clasped as if in prayer. The hands a given as much prominence as his face, and I am not entirely sure why, as clearly he was not a man whose work depended on his hands.

The clothes we see are limited to a woollen sweater, which seems serviceable but which looks somewhat out of keeping with what we know from other images of him – normally he is shown wearing a battered suit or coat and hat. The sweater and the pose give him something of the look of an ocean fisherman (heavy duty sweaters and scruffy appearance), which is strange as this persona could not be further from the truth. We cannot see what he is wearing apart from that, although no watch is apparent, indicating that day to day time is not important to him. Overall, there is nothing about the clothes that could place the sitter in any particular decade of the 20th century.

Finally, the location gives little away. He is inside, and one can see the faint line of a dado rail behind him, indicating an old building. The lighting is poor and seems to consist of a single light source to his back right. The camera has been focused directly on his face and front arm, and everything else quickly fades out of focus into the darkness behind him. Again, there are no clues linking him to any particular time or place.

Overall, it appears to be an affectionate and friendly portrait of an influential man nearing the end of his life. As it happens, the true story of the image is available here and my interpretation of how it came across was not far off the reality at all. At this point in his life, Einstein was being (wrongly) pilloried for supposedly being involved in the evolution of the nuclear bomb, and was finding life confusing and difficult. Karch’s image aimed to show a more positive, gentle side of the man who was often photographed making silly faces, and he seems to have succeeded, given that I did not read up about the image until I had written the description of its elements.

From the distance of 60 years later, we identify with the image as a known representation, i.e. we have seen enough images of Einstein to identify who he is, despite never having met him in real life.


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: the key concepts. Bloomsbury. (Chapter 4)


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