David Bate on portraits

My tutor’s list of recommended reading following assignment 3, the self-portrait, included a chapter by David Bate, ‘Looking at portraits‘ from his 2009 book ‘Photography: the key concepts’ (Bate 2009, 66-86). The chapter covers some key concepts in a readable way, demonstrating that being theoretical and accessible are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The 2009 edition is available as a free download, and there is a 2016 second edition (which I have just ordered) with new chapters on snapshots and ‘the act of looking’. The snapshots chapter will feed into another suggested line of enquiry and a probable future posting.

If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than ‘just a picture’, it is a place of work: a semiotic event for social identity. (Bate 2009, 67)

A portrait ‘fixes’ the identity of the subject/sitter in some way, dependent on why it has been taken and for what purpose it is used (gallery, social media, police mugshot, etc.). The photographic portrait is ubiquitous as a result of, and arguably was a driver for, the massive impact of photography itself.

Over the next six pages (68-73) Bate looks at the history of photographic portraiture, linking it both to painterly conventions and to the development of photographic technology. When cameras were constrained by tripods and long exposures, the artist’s studio was a convenient location and had lights, props, backgrounds etc. There was a two-way flow of influence – Bate tells us that the chin-on-hand pose was a photographers’ device to keep the head steady, which then appeared in painted portraits as well. Improving and cheapening technology led both to the carte-de-visite and the passport/bureaucratic identity image (‘mugshot’). There is a brief discussion of eugenics, the images of Francis Galton and the effect of facial expression on apparent character.

Unsurprisingly, the face and its expression takes up the major part of the next section, the elements of a portrait. Bate lists these as the face, pose, clothing and location – which can be thought of as a hierarchy, each as the ‘external context’ of the previous element. Facial expressions (and, as viewers, we are attuned to even very minor changes) and poses can hide or reveal elements of character – or simulate or falsify our reading of the subject’s character: a consideration in advertising or propaganda.

Clothes (or lack of them) and setting give clues to social status, occupation, etc. and are also capable of manipulation. Bate describes the combination of the four elements: setting, clothes, pose and face as the ‘rhetorical argument’ of a portrait, a phrase which I would normally regard as relevant to language rather than images, and segues neatly into the final section on ‘reading’ portraits.

In reading a portrait (photographic or not) we are literally expected to take the image at its ‘face value’; Bate’s discussion starts from Plato’s distrust of surface appearance. This section deals with the interlinked concepts of recognition (even if only that we are looking at a human face) and identification (‘of’ and ‘with’), digressing into narcissism, projection, soft-focus and deadpan blank expressions.

In the concluding paragraphs, Bate argues for the role of the viewer (‘the processes of spectatorship) in fixing the meaning and value of a portrait.

If various forms of portraiture are concerned with establishing social identities, then we surely need to consider the pleasure in viewing these images and begin to interrogate our own investment in them, if only to begin to understand how and why pleasure in looking, and psychological and social identity, are all intertwined within the external question that portraits seem to address: who are we? (Bate 2009, 84)


Bate, D. (2009) Photography : the key concepts. Oxford UK: Berg.


Self-absented portraiture (examples)

The course notes give four examples of photographers who are said to be using self-absented portraiture to ‘tell the viewer something of who they are’ (p83). I find myself disagreeing with this assessment in all but one case. I also suggest that these are not the best examples that could have been chosen.

Maria Kapajeva’s series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman can be seen on her website. It is a set of environmental portraits of young women (probably Kapajeva’s contemporaries) who, with one exception (the woman in the garden appears nervous), appear strong, self-confident and challenging the camera. This is borne out by the artist’s notes (course notes p84, a drop-down box on her website, and in several other places) which make it clear that she is interested in portraying the women as themselves. However, I do not see them as saying anything about Kapajeva herself (or at least no more than any photograph says about its photographer).

Anna Fox’s Cockroach Diary appears to fit better into Part 2 Project 2 (Image and Text) rather than this section. It is an example of narrative and describes a situation Fox has lived through, but I did not get any sense of a ‘portrait’ of her.

Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’ has been discussed in a previous posting, also under the Image and Text heading, where it is a better fit.

Another photographer, and body of work, discussed earlier (Part 2 Project 3, Photographing the Unseen) is Peter Mansell. His series ‘Paralysis’ and ‘Check Up’, and the image ‘My Space’ deserve to be placed in this Self-Absented Portraiture section because of how much they tell about Mansell, his injuries and the detail of his daily life, coping with them.

Nigel Shafran (website here) is a British photographer, engaged on fashion and architecture work in the 1990s when he started on personal projects, collecting and sequencing photographs of daily life and his partner, Ruth. These became home-made books, then a calendar, and are the starting point for his current fine-art work (Jobey, 2008). ‘Washing Up, 2000‘, featured in the C&N course notes, stands alongside series on bookshelves, shopping on supermarket checkouts, and random people on the escalators at Paddington, among others.

Unfortunately, Shafran’s website does not caption or title any of the individual images, which is a pity. The Washing Up example image in the course notes is titled ‘Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants‘, presumably a description of the meals recently eaten which generated the washing up. This gives a glimpse of the mundane details of his daily life (most of the images feature  the same sink), and I am intrigued about the titles of the others. This is particularly so when there is a quirky extra detail, like tinsel around an electric flex, or a paintbrush.

Course-note questions

You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

• Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

I believe that there is a difference between men’s and women’s photography but I would be hard-pushed to define it in any way. I am intrigued as to why the author of the course-notes found it necessary to mention it or raise the question. Is there some gender-agenda about who does the washing up who or notices it more? (In our home, the rule is that the washing-up is done by the one who didn’t cook the meal)

We get a clue by considering Washing Up alongside some of Shafran’s other series, such as Bookshelves or Packages. These are typologies of the mundane – which put me in mind of the works of Ed Ruscha or Eric Tabuchi, which I looked at during EYV. (Unfortunately, Tabuchi’s website has lapsed in the interim). Typologies do appear to be a male preserve (notable exception, Hille Becher), probably driven by a male need to systematise.

I regard Washing Up as a typology series which tells me something about the Shafran household.

• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

As noted above, I believe there is a difference. This is something I first consciously noticed after a magazine ‘reader workshop’ that I took part in, in 2012 (Roberts and Clinch, 2012) at Dungeness. This is a rugged place that oozes testosterone (fishing, large power tools and stuff discarded and left lying around when it becomes redundant). The two male participants went ‘gritty’ and emphasised those features, while the woman found softer and more beautiful images. I see some of the same differences between male and female members of my camera club on competition nights.

• What does this series achieve by not including people?

To have included people, whether actively washing up or as ‘innocent bystanders’ would tell an entirely different story. The person would automatically become the point of interest. Presented as they are, we concentrate on what is around the sink, and what might have happened (cooking, decorating) to cause it to be there.

• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

At one level, yes. However, as Jobey points out, Shafran does not consciously arrange his subject matter, but finds the image in what is in front of him. The phrase ‘still life composition’ suggests deliberate arrangement.


Jobey, L. (2008) Photographer Nigel Shafran: domestic harmony [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/23/nigel-shafran&gt; [Accessed 1/12/2017].

Roberts, E., and Clinch, T. (2012) ‘A day at Dungeness’. Black+White Photography  (134), pp.40-43.

Exercise – childhood memory

For this exercise, I am working with ‘found material’ from a family archive (literally). Some years ago I digitised my father’s collection of Kodachrome slides dating between Christmas 1958 and the mid-1970s. My starting point is an image from 1961, taken on my first day at school (despite the passage of 56 years, I can remember the day but not the photograph). It shows my father and his Ford Consul, with me sitting on the bonnet in my new school uniform.

I decided to use this exercise to explore the idea of memory when crystallised into physical form through photography. In particular, I was interested in the various forms it can take. A secondary influence is the ‘Drosté effect‘ where an image is recursively repeated within itself.

I made a print from the scan and photographed my hand holding it. This represents the photograph in its traditional physical form, a ‘hard copy memory’ as it were, such as we can see in countless family albums of the 20th century.

I then re-photographed the resulting image on my laptop computer screen. This represents the 21st century manifestation, where our memories are held in an insubstantial electronic form and viewed on a screen (computer, tablet or smartphone). Effectively, this is a memory of the way memories used to be kept.


Finally, I uploaded the resulting image to this blog. We now have a memory of a memory, distributed via (and discussed on) social media, which pretty much describes the prevailing current use of photography.

Masquerades – Tracey Moffatt

Tracey Moffatt is an Australian artist, working in photography and video. Her images are more manipulated (‘Photoshopped’) that the other artists considered in this section and ‘Under the Sign of Scorpio‘ (2005) probably takes this to extremes. In the images, the model (Moffatt herself) is cut out from her original setting and composited, floating onto abstract bright colours and the result modified almost beyond reality. In some cases, Joni Mitchell for example, the same image could have been created by an abstract painter. Even the bright yellow dress she wore for the shoot becomes light blue in the final image.

I am not sure that the series qualifies as any form of portraiture, self- or masquerade, due to the level of abstraction. In the majority of images we do not see the subjects face; it is concealed by hair, turned away from the camera, or the head is out of frame. For Vivien Leigh all we see is a dress and a wide-brimmed hat, and Nadia Comaneci is a pair of disembodied arms.

What is interesting about the 2005 exhibition is its second part, ‘Being Under the Sign of Scorpio‘ which showed the contact sheets (9-16 images per sheet) for each shoot. We see Moffatt exploring poses in one (or, at most, two) concepts for her character in what is obviously an amateur bedroom studio environment. Of course, the background did not matter as it was stripped out as part of post-processing. This is a rare example of an artist actually taking us through her creative process.

The final images are not highly realistic renderings, in the style of Cindy Sherman for instance but, in Moffat’s own words (Moffatt, 2005) “In my portraits I have tried to capture their spirit and likeness, but only “at a moment’s glance”. It is almost like the moment when you see a famous person in a restaurant. Everyone is craning their necks to get a glimpse, only to end up with a fleeting view of the back of the celebrity as they exit into the VIP room.”


Moffatt, T. (2005) Tracey Moffatt – Under the Sign of Scorpio, 2005 [online] Available at <http://www.roslynoxley9.com.au/news/releases/2005/07/10/94/&gt; [Accessed 30/10/2017].

Selinger-Morris, S. (2005) The secret lives of Tracey Moffatt [online] Available at <http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/the-secret-lives-of-tracey-moffatt/2005/07/29/1122144006147.html&gt; [Accessed 30/10/2017].

An idea at last – the diary abandoned

Assignment three is about self-portraits; it says so in the opening sentence, “Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit.” The diary, which I have been agonising over and is probably my main reason for procrastinating over getting back to blogging, is just a tool to identify a way in.

My 11 day’s worth of diary was pretty much a chronicle of events, mostly pretty routine, and with no ‘deep innermost thoughts’. However, on re-reading it, I find that although much of life is routine (banal, to pick up on Garry, my tutor’s, comments) I do play several different roles, depending on where I am and who I am with. Of course, I should have been thinking about this all the time – after all, I introduce myself in the right-hand column of this blog (also on Facebook and elsewhere) as

I am a building surveyor, sailor and photographer, but not necessarily in that order.

To that list, I can add, father, husband, occasional saxophone player, Friday night curry chef …

My way forward into this assignment, with approval from my tutor, is to produce a series of self-portraits showing some of the different roles I play. I see this as a deadpan, if not totally banal (I still find that a pejorative word) series. My face will be the constant, with my roles signified by clothing and props. This might look derivative of Keith Greenhough’s ‘Iron Man‘ images on p73 of the course notes, but I plan to strip it back further. My first thought is to take inspiration from Richard Avedon’s approach to his ‘The Family‘ and ‘In the American West‘ series, contrasty monochrome against a plain white background, with frontal lighting, leaving his subjects nowhere to hide. It will be a digital effort, not large-format (I have the LF camera but focusing and actuation become a problem with selfies).

I had considered making this a self-absented series, still-lifes of the clothing and props but I think that would be a gimmick too far. Similarly with mirror selfies, which are already clichéd and the gimmick would detract from the meaning of the image.

Potential roles, identified from the diary (in order of appearance, not importance) are:

  • Building surveyor (‘the day job’)
  • Photographer
  • Photography student (assuming I can differentiate it from ‘photographer’)
  • Video/DVD watcher (is that a role?)
  • Rotarian (really unsure how to show that)
  • Reader of books (again, is it a role?)
  • Saxophone player (well, I make noises that I like)
  • Cryptic crossword solver
  • Occasional cook (top of cooker only, not oven)
  • Sailor and basic dinghy instructor
  • Wrapping wife’s birthday presents (on the day!)

No guidance or prescription on how many images are wanted in the set. I think 5-6 would be plenty. I will try some test shots during next week.

Masquerades – Trish Morrissey

Trish Morrissey is an Irish-born artist now based in London, who works in photography, video and audio. In the photography projects seen on her website www.trishmorrissey.com she appears as her own model, in work which I would place in the ‘masquerade’ category as she takes the part of other (often named) people.

In a previous posting, I noted her 2005-2007 series ‘Front’ in which Morrissey switches places with a woman in a beach group. It is interesting that media commentary on the series (e.g. O’Hagan 2013 and Phillips 2013) and online magazines (examples here and here) tend to pick on the same image ‘Hayley Coles, June 17th 2006‘, although perhaps unsurprising as it is the only image embedding Morrissey among a non-caucasian family, thereby making the theme of the series obvious in a single image.

In ‘Front‘, Morrissey selects family groups that have made some sort of encampment, or marked space, on a public beach (she tells us in the series statement (Morrissey s.d.) that the work is about borders and boundaries), approaches them and has herself photographed in the place of one of the female members of the group. She exchanges clothes with her subject and takes her place in a ‘family snap’ photograph, with her subject opening the shutter  of a 5×4 view camera. As noted in the series statement, and as quoted by Phillips (2013) the whole process is a 30-minute piece of performance art.

Once they said yes, I set up, which took half an hour. I had to entertain them to keep their attention, and the mood became quite hyper. But it was fun: it had to be fun or why would I do it? (Morrissey quoted by Phillips 2013)

With the possible exception of ‘Hayley Coles‘, viewing a single image in the set is quite unremarkable but in viewing the entire series we realise that Morissey’s face appears as a common factor (the “Where’s Wally” effect again), which causes us to think deeper. Incidentally, we have no information about Hayley Coles’ ethnicity, so maybe the viewer makes an unwarranted assumption (mea culpa as well).

The course notes raise the interesting question, would I agree to taking part in a ‘Front‘ image and if not, why not? I do not know (and it would have to be a family decision); certainly, I would feel very uneasy and that reflects Morrisseys comment that the series is about borders and boundaries. She breaches the implied physical boundary that beach -users place around ‘our spot’ and also the psychological boundary of the family group (Morrissey uses the word ‘cuckoo’ herself). A lot would depend on how entertaining she can be in the half-hour of contact and, as a photographer using 5×4 occasionally myself, I would be interested in her use of the camera.

Another interesting question is whether such a series could be made by a man, and I suspect the answer is no. The approach would go beyond ‘cuckoo’, into ‘lion’ or ‘elephant seal’ territory and might be perceived as an attempt to supplant an alpha male.

Of the other photographic series, ‘The Failed Realist‘ is the only set that I would describe as self-portraiture. Said, in the artist’s statement to be made ‘in collaboration with’ her daughter (then aged 4-5), this is a series of head-shots after the daughter had attempted face-painting with various degrees of success. The series title comes from the psychologist Georges-Henri Luquet’s (1927/2001) description of the developmental phase where the child’s artistic vision exceeds its ability.

In ‘Rose, Irma and the Sandman‘ and ‘Ten People in a Suitcase‘ Morrissey takes the part of real, named people and recreates scenes from (or inspired by) archive photographs. In ‘Seven Years‘, she and her sister (seven years older, hence the series title) recreate the style of family snapshots from the 1970s and 80s. All of these series fall squarely into the ‘masquerades’ category.

Morrissey’s work invites comparison with Nikki S Lee. Both are playing a role for the camera, with the images being shot by an assistant, a collaborator or an innocent bystander. However, there are differences: Lee dons masks and make-up to bolster the illusion, whereas Morrissey (apart from occasional use of wigs) shows us her own face, and Morrissey uses a large-format camera rather than the snapshot cameras preferred by Lee. On a personal level, I prefer the Morrissey images – they give an air of letting the viewer in on the joke.


Morrissey, T. (s.d.) Front: statement [online] Available at <http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-front/statement.html&gt; [Accessed 22/10/2017].

O’Hagan, S (2013) The 10 best … photographic self-portraits [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/23/10-best-photographic-self-portraits&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Phillips, S. (2013) Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot&gt; [Accessed 22/10/2017].

Masquerades – Nikki S Lee

Nikki S Lee is an American performance artist of Korean origin. She uses a camera to record her art, but does not consider herself a photographer (Bright 2011,41). Her typical images are a form of self-portraiture, ‘snapshots’ of herself taken by others with simple point-and-shoot cameras. Of her two major bodies of work, ‘Projects’ is very much a masquerade exercise and ‘Parts’, although apparently more self-referential , is still a performance of sorts. More recently, she has branched into film; ‘AKA Nikki S Lee’ is part documentary and part performance, in which she plays both the documentary-maker and the subject. (reviewed in Kino, 2006 and Davis, s.d.)

‘Parts’ (2002-2005) is the less controversial and easier to describe body of photography. Lee has herself photographed in ‘social snapshot’ situations with different men, prints the image then cuts the man out, leaving just a vestige such as an arm or a hand visible. (slideshow of examples here) Seen individually, these images appear as caricature ‘break-up’ pictures, including the three-sided border which makes it obvious that this is a cut image rather than poor framing. In the AKA film, she gets angry at one exhibition where the borders have been removed before framing in a mistaken attempt to tidy-up the photograph.

When several of the images are viewed together, we see something different. The same face (Lee’s) is matched with differing costumes, make-up and locations and we realise that there is some role-playing (masquerade) going on. Lee tells us (reported by Bright 2011, 41) that these are not break-up pictures but “… show how personal identity is is affected by other people and different kinds of relationships. … You can see that it is one person throughout and that her identity shifts and changes depending on whom she is with”. The use of ‘her’ rather than ‘my’ is significant and suggests that even when interviewed, Lee is role-playing.

‘Projects’ (1997-2001) is a set of interconnected (if only by technique) projects in which Lee adopts a particular group or subculture for a period of weeks or months, attempts to assimilate or blend in, then has herself photographed in persona with group members, by members of the group or passers-by, in the same snapshot aesthetic noted earlier. As before, individual images are unremarkable but viewing multiple images makes the role-play and deeper questions more obvious.

At the surface level, we are tempted to play a version of ‘Where’s Wally’, to identify Lee in each image. Her distinctively oriental features make this easier in groups where there is a racial stereotype (the WASPs of ‘The Yuppie Project’ or the African-Americans of ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ for example) and part of the controversy around her work comes from reviewers dealing with perceived racism (eg. Berger 2001 and Kim 2016)

There are challenges in attempting to fit the group visually. In ‘The Schoolgirl Project’,  going back to Korea helps with facial features but Lee is noticeably older than the group. At the other end of the scale, she had to wear a mask and/or heavy make-up for ‘The Seniors Project‘ (it is reported that the group members ‘thought she was an elderly crackpot and gently humoured her’ (Cotter 1999)). It is her use of blackface in ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ that particularly attracts Kim’s venom.

Any masquerade project (apart from obvious drama in a formal theatrical setting, when we know what to expect) is going to be controversial, with accusations of voyeurism or exploitation. The language used by reviewers is interesting. The more neutral reviewers say little about the process by which Lee joins her groups; however Dalton (2000) who appears generally approving, refers to Lee ‘befriending’ the group, whereas Seamon (2011, reviewing Smith) in a book review says that Lee “… ingratiated herself with various subcultures …”.

The images appear primarily as a comment on the nature and identity of the group she is working with. Group members appear as subjects in the photographs, and Lee has either done her research or spent time assimilating in order to blend in as well as she does. Whether they comment Lee’s own identity is problematic. Clearly she is there, but my own reading is that she is playing a part. Ultimately, these are film stills with Lee as one of the actors.


Berger, M. (2001) ‘Picturing whiteness: Nikki S. Lee’s Yuppie Project’. Art Journal 60 (3), pp.54-57.

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now.. revised edn. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Cotter, H. (1999) ART IN REVIEW; Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/10/arts/art-in-review-nikki-s-lee.html&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Dalton, J. (2000) ‘Look at Me: Self-Portrait Photography after Cindy Sherman’. Performing Arts Journal 22 (3), pp.47-56.

Davis, B. (s.d.) Cultural Karaoke [online] Available at <http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/davis/davis10-24-06.asp&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kim, E. (2016) Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects”—And the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface, Brownface in “Art” [online] Available at <http://contemptorary.org/nikki-s-lees-projects-and-the-ongoing-circulation-of-blackface-brownface-in-art/&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kino, C (2006) Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/arts/design/01kino.html?ex=1317355200&en=ba68cca87c7383c1&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Smith, C. (2011) Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper and Anna Deavere Smith, Durham NC: Duke University Press [reviewed by Seamon, M. in unidentified journal]