Tag Archives: women in portraits

Three books

Three photo books have been delivered by the postie in the last week. (thank you, AbeBooks and the Book Depository. They are all on portraits but are very different and each is inspiring in its own way.

The first is Gregory Heisler’s 50 portraits: stories and techniques from a photographer’s photographer. This is a sumptuous hardback, which looks at how he made fifty images of famous people. The styles of the images vary hugely and for each one, he has described the back ground to the shoot and the process of how he decided on the technique for the final image. It is a fascinating read and will be on my bedside table for the next few weeks.

Heisler 50 portraits

The second is Dan Winters’ Road to Seeing. It is quite similar in subject to Heisler’s and describes how he went about choosing subjects, locations and settings for his images. The book is a joy to hold – beautifully bound and a solid 2″ thick. Both of these will be useful source books for ideas on portraits for this module.

Dan Winters

Finally, I managed to get a copy of Nobuyoshi Araki’s Self : Life : Death. Araki is a prolific Japanese photographer who mostly produces his images from the his local environment. He is known for his sexual images, which often feature young girls in bondage situations, but his oeuvre  is in fact much wider and covers family and macro photography too. His work is a wonderful (and slightly deranged) mishmash of different genres, and the book is inspirational in a bizarre, almost psychedelic way. What particularly appeals to me are his colour images, which have a delicacy, despite their often difficult subject matter. As a general rule, I am not keen to support anything promoting female bondage, but his subjects don’t appear to be suffering in any way, and tend to have a remote, uninterested look on their faces. The colours are what attracts me most – they are deep and vibrant and have a tonality that we do not normally use in the West.

Araki 3

All three of these are full of different ways of taking portraits, and I am looking forward to thumbing through them to see how I can apply some of their ideas to my own work.



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.