Tag Archives: portrait

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)



Hardman’s chronotypes

Edward Chambré Hardman was a commercial studio photographer, who handily collected and indexed his work over a period of 40 years, and it has now been made available in digital form as an archival resource. As sitters often came back more than once for a photograph of themselves, this has allowed archival researchers to co-locate images of the same person, sitting in roughly the same position over a period of time, known as chronotypology. In his Lecture on Portraiture, he announced

To make fine portraits by photography, one must never lose sight of the ultimate aim, which is to produce a characteristic likeness or expression of the sitter’s personality.(From OCA coursebook, p31)

Given that each of his subjects sits against a plain background, without accessories, the only information the viewer is given in the face, clothing and demeanour, but using only these, Hardman was able to produce work which did give a clear sense of personality. Compare these with the annual school photos we are all used to seeing, and one can see that Hardman was is a different class (pun intended).


Ulrich Baer’s classification of archival studies indicates that there are three main ways of using it,

  1. fabricated or constructed work
  2. the archive of the unremembered
  3. the archive’s redemption as new life

Hardman’s work seems to fall roughly into the second category. We see the effects that time have wrought on his sitters, many of whom were soldiers who in the gap between sittings had experienced the realities of war. A modern interpretation of the same idea is Lalage Snow’s series We are Not The Dead, which takes a set of three photographs of soldiers, before, during and after their deployment to Afghanistan. (Oddly in these, most of the soldiers look most at peace during their deployment, rather than before or after).

Lalage Snow wearenot dead

Screenshot from:


I have the facility to produce a chronotype from my own family archive, so here are three images of my paternal grandmother in 1926, 1956 and 1993. The quality is not great, but one gets the idea.

Of course, I only recall her as she was in the last image.


Baer, Ulrich (2008). ‘Deep in the Archive’ In: Aperture 193, Winter 2008, p. 54-58 [Online]. Available at: http://issues.aperture.org/20080404#!/54 (Accessed 7 August, 2016)


Background as context

We are  asked to make a portrait of someone we know, making sure that the background says something about who they are. We should be very particular about posing the subject and what we include in the photograph. I decided to make an image of my partner in our study (we share), and hope that it will be clear what is his field of work. He is shown working on his iPad, with his phone on the table beside him. This pose is entirely natural and on most days he can be found in exactly the same position at some point. _1480833-Edit-Edit It was an interesting exercise for a number of reasons, which I have bullet-pointed below.

  • background in/out of focus? In, because the titles of the books are informative
  • Framing? How close to crop in order to keep unnecessary items out of sight.
  • What to include by way of props? The iPad and phone were a no-brainer here.
  • Angle of shoot? I decided to go for a 3/4 pose. The reasons for this include the available light from windows and rooflights as I used only natural light, and to indicate a casual, unaware pose. In reality, the subject was very aware of what I was doing and I had told him where and how to sit while I tested different camera angles. The background shelves and cupboards were a bit of a problem because the shot  was not straight on, which meant that distortion of the lines was somewhat difficult to correct.

Overall, I am happy that this is an honest and informative image of a person I know well.

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.