The long-standing tradition of portraiture was forever changed by the introduction of photography in the mid-nineteenth century. Previously an exclusive method of self-depiction reserved for the affluent classes, which often took the form of time-consuming commissions fulfilled by painters, the addition of photography allowed the masses to experiment in portraiture with its expeditious results. Early daguerreotypes and cartes-de-visite followed the typical conventions of a painted portrait. Soon after, the new medium quickly evolved from the portrayal of an individual’s status into a more elaborate form of documentary – this developed the notion of photographic portraiture into an expressive art form of its own. Today, contemporary portrait photography has further advanced to depict the complex societal times and cultural context we live in, as well as a representation of the individual.
The present-day photographic portrait, which we have come to be familiar with, entails an explicit relationship between photographer and subject in which the latter participates through the method of posing. This is often an intricate process which must take into consideration: the environment in which the photograph is taken, the sociological character of the subject, and the viewer’s expectations of what should be seen in a portrait. These aforementioned points are crucial in determining the grounds for a worthwhile portrait. It is also important to consider specific theoretical ideas in order to define meaningfulness within portraiture – Art critic Michael Fried has put forth the ‘notion of absorption’ as a critique. By this, he means when the subject actively disregards their audience, and instead, they focus intently on an object within the portrait. He also makes observation of the idea of family photographs and albums, and reveals their power to shape personal memories and self-conceptions. This analysis can be likened to professor Marianne Hirsch’s commentary of the ‘familial gaze’. Similarly, she believes that when a family member views their familial portraits, an instant emotional connection can be made through visual similarities, and thus creates a sense of belonging, and therefor meaningfulness. Furthermore, photographer Martha Rosler has argued that much of portrait photography’s appeal lies with an individuals ‘physiognomic fallacy’, by which she means “the identification of the image of a face with character” (CITE M.R p221). This essay will investigate these specific ideas in relation to particular examples of portrait photography, both historical and contemporary, and ultimately: what makes a photographic portrait meaningful?
Modernist art critic and art historian Michael Fried has argued that the ‘notion of absorption’ is one which creates an essence of meaning within a photographic portrait. In his critiques of mid-eighteenth century French portraiture, he states that the “portrait was a questionable genre in the eyes of many” (Fried, 2008, p192). This stemmed from critic’s beliefs that photography required only mere mechanical skills, rather than “pictorial imagination”. Moreover, the portraits inability to promise the much desired effect of “neutralising the presence of the beholder” (Fried, 2008, p193) only further reinstated this ideal. To omit the existence of a secondary party, namely the portrait taker as well as the audience, helped to create a pure vision of an individual – the portrait was solely about them and thus there were no distractions, which produced a feeling of authentic character revelation. In an attempt to overcome the genre of portraiture’s seeming inability to negate this presence, the notion of absorption was conceived. Fried has described this concept as “depicting persons in a portrait as absorbed in thought or action” (Fried, 2008, p193). This was done to ensure a natural, truthful representation of the sitter, which has long been regarded as the main basis for successful photographic portraiture. Moreover, this disregard of the viewer creates an illusion of totality, which further welcomes the beholder to focus intensely on the work. He continues:
naturalness so understood has been a photographic ideal, based on the belief that a person who is captured unawares – who does not know he or she is being photographed – will reveal the ‘truth’ about himself or herself (Fried, 2008, p194)
Fried has confidence in the opinion that people behave in a different, more sincere manor when they are unknowingly being observed, as opposed to when they are cognisant of such actions. Perhaps, this approach can be seen at its most effective in the work of American photographer and photojournalist Walker Evans. His principle subject matter was the vernacular, as he captured “the indigenous expressions of a people found in roadside stands, cheap cafés, advertisements, simple bedrooms, and small-town main streets.” (Photographs, 2018). Evan’s most acclaimed work documented tenant farmers and their families in the midst of the Great Depression in 1935. ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ combined the intensely subjective writings of journalist James Agee with Evans’ “stunningly honest representations” (Photographs, 2018) of individuals enduring the deplorable conditions of the severe economical decline that grasped America. His compositions took the form of close-range, full frontal encounters as they both considered this to be “basic honesty” (Fried, 2008, p196). Evans’ method was often surreptitious in manor, which can be compared to Fried’s critique of the “unaware” sitter. He was able to obtain intimate and authentic expressions of people that were unposed and absorbed in their own thoughts. However, Agee recounts the possible exploitation of Evan’s subjects because of this secrecy, and the desperate, hopeless light in which they were shown. Despite this, it can be argued that his dishonest technique of capturing people completely unaware of his behaviour produced honest results. ‘Sunday Singing’ (Evans, 1936) is one such image that represents the notion an unaware subject – it depicts a family of four deeply engrossed in their singing activities. The young boy second from the left appears to be the only one mindful of Evans’ presence, but not fully so as his facial expression shows slight confusion. The woman’s appearance is rather melancholic, which is a possible reflection of her austere living conditions. The other two males are captivated by the hymns, but neither look overjoyed. His portrait is evocative of a sombre atmosphere, which has been achieved both by Evans’ covert technique and the sorrowful social environment. This candid character revelation aids in delivering an honest and meaningful photographic portrait. (MAKE NOTE OF FAMILY PORTRAITS TO LINK TO NEXT PARAGRAPH?)
Additionally, professor of English and comparative literature Marianne Hirsch considers the concept of the ‘familial gaze’ to be influential in producing meaningful photographic portraits. This is the perception that when one observes, and is observed by, a fellow family member in a photograph, this method of looking can create a new perspective on the relationship between the sitter and the viewer.