Tag Archives: history

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