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.