Category Archives: Project 1 – Historic photographic portraiture

Historic portraiture


The portrait is a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity. (Tagg, 1988, p37)

Unpacking this statement, it is easy to understand the description of an individual, and I take it to mean what they physically look like. The inscription of social identity is a bit more complex, so I consulted Google and came up with this explanatory article. It seems that social identity is our perception of how we fit into society, at the group, cultural and even national level. Tagg is arguing that the act of making a portrait is a way of making public where the sitter fits into society, often through the background trappings and the clothes the sitter wears. Historically, the information we gleaned from the setting of a painted portrait and how the sitter was placed in relation to that was important information about  his (usually) status and place in society. Only the rich could afford to have their portraits made, and to own one was something of a status symbol in its own right.

For interest, below are two photographic portraits which illustrate Tagg’s statement quite clearly.

The advent of photography continued this symbolism, as in its early days, again only the rich could afford it. However, as time has move forward, photography has become available to more and more people, it is easy to assume that the social identity element is disappearing. Far from it! Smartphone cameras, available to all, have made that inscription available to all, while the “selfie” allows the photographer complete control to inscribe the social identity they wish to display. This may, or may not have anything to do with reality. An excellent example of this is Amalia Ulman’s constructed life, which turned out to be entirely fictitious, and which I looked at here. Nowadays, we can all be who we want to be online, rather than revealing the truth about our dull, unremarkable lives.

A second point from this section of the coursework is to note that history is not a firm construct. When one begins to break it down, there is the past, where things happened, and there is history, or historiography, which is how the events were/are interpreted, and even whether they are recalled at all. It is important that we realise that most of what we understand about history has been filtered through a white, male, rich European sieve, which failed to recognise the lives and achievements of anyone who did not fit into that group. Where are the stories of women, of the poor, and of ethnic minorities?


Tagg, J. (1988) The burden of representation: essays on photographies and histories. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press


Study on a historic photographic portrait

Deciding what image to write about has proved tricky for me. I am beset by confusion as to when “historical” photography became contemporary portraiture. There’s a reason for this concern, as early photographic portraiture was very similar to painted portraiture, and when they began to diverge, photographic portraiture went through various styles, a process which continues up to the present. This Wiki article is a good starting point for further research on the evolution of styles.

I therefore decided I had to pick a period or a photographer and discuss the work within the context that was prevalent at the time it was made. The image I have selected is Paul Strand’s Jeune Garçon, Charente, 1951.


© Paul Strand, 1951

The image depicts a teenage boy, dressed in overalls, with a knitted vest underneath. He is shown head and shoulders, against a background of wooden panelling, maybe a wooden fence or wall. The boy, who is unnamed, stares straight into the camera lens, with an expression which looks  implacable, almost angry and at the same time, somewhat bemused. One can imagine him being annoyed to be asked for his photograph, but grudgingly agreeing. Both his face and his clothes are scrupulously clean and new, which gives the image an air of being a fashion portrait. Indeed, its style has been copied by later fashion photographers, for example Peter Lindbergh’s 1994 portrait of Kate Moss in overalls shown below.

Lindbergh kate moss

© Paul Lindbergh, 1994

Strand was American, and a protégé of Alfred Steiglitz between the wars. His work has often been overlooked as he was interested in photographing everything and had no particularly recognisable style. Sadly I did not get to see his recent exhibition at the V&A, but I am drawn to his later images of the Outer Hebrides, rural France  and other remote locations. In these images, he mixes landscapes with portraits of the people who inhabit them. The images are arresting – beautiful, very tonal and with an overwhelming sense of place. They have an authenticity which indicates an in-depth understanding of the communities he photographed. An excellent video clip accompanying the V&A exhibition explains that he took his time about making his images, and worked collaboratively with poets and writes to produce works which are initially unassuming but which repay some time given to slowly work through and appreciate them.

I intend to come back to Strand’s work as I progress with the course, as I find it very moving.  I’m also pleased to read that his book on the Outer Hebrides is being reprinted this year, and look forward to receiving a copy when it is published.



Note on a historic painted portrait

Recently, I was wandering around the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, and a particular portrait caught my eye. It is an oil painting by the American artist, John Singer Sargent, and is called Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.


What struck me about this image is the expression on the woman’s face. In my perambulations round art galleries throughout the years, I’ve been very disappointed with how women’s faces are portrayed. Many of them lack detail and frequently all the women in a painting look the same. It seems obvious to me that painters concentrated their efforts on the faces of the men, and the women were an afterthought.

John Singer Sargent seems to be someone who bucked this trend, and a quick look through some of his portraits on Google shows that, if anything, his depictions of women were more detailed than those of men. This painting was commissioned in 1892 and shows Lady Gertrude Agnew, apparently while she was recovering from a bout of influenza. She is seated in an ornate armchair, with a background of draped fabric and an air of exaggerated languor. The sitter is dressed in plain pale mauve.

Lady Agnew is looking directly at the audience, in a way which seems much too modern for her era, in which gentlewomen were supposed to be modest, shy and retiring. Her expression is bold, slightly challenging, and there is a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth. With her arm draped casually over the arm of the chair, my reading of the image is there is a strong attraction between the sitter and the artist, and she is overtly flirting with him. I don’t think I have ever seen such an obviously sexual painting posing under the guise of a commissioned portrait, and wonder what her husband thought of it.

I’m a bit of a Philistine when it comes to painted art, and the only other painting that I have seen that struck such a chord of appreciation is The Execution of Lady Jane Grey  by Paul Delaroche at the National Gallery. It seems too that my enthusiasm is shared by some others too. Phil Jupitus, in the blog post and video here is just as enchanted by it.