Mike Dunbar Commercial Photography | Portraiture - what's it all about?©

Portraiture - what's it all about?©

March 03, 2012  •  Leave a Comment


What is portraiture?  In order to ensure that this post is a study of respected opinion on the subject, and not a possibly entertaining but otherwise irrelevant excursion through the writer’s views,  let our starting point be: I don’t know.  (Which may in any event accurately state the position.)

The New Oxford defines a portrait as “a painting drawing, photograph or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.”  It defines portraiture as “the art of the painting or taking of portraits.”  (New Oxford, page 1446)

Why are portraits created?  If the viewer knows the subject and retains a depth of knowledge and a gamut of visions of him/her, what can they hope to learn from a portrait?  What statement about the personality of a subject does the portrait make?  Or as Graham Clarke puts it in “The Photograph”, “In what sense can a literal image express the inner world and being of an individual before the camera?” (Clarke page 109.)

If not acquainted with the subject, why does his or her appearance matter anyway, unless there is something freakishly unusual about it as suggested in the work of Diane Arbus?   

Jack Dracula by Diane ArbusJack Dracula - Diane Arbus












Jack Dracula  - Diane Arbus

If the portrait reveals a pair of eyes and ears, some or no hair, a nose and a mouth, what is so remarkable or distinctive about it that we would wish to preserve it for posterity?

The epic life work of August Sander in visually cataloguing a cross section of the German nation offers one possible answer to this: that the value of the portrait is not in how the subject appears but in how it differs from the appearance and circumstances of contemporaries.

Bricklayers MateBricklayers Mate - August Sanders
















August Sander 1928 The Bricklayer's Mate

Is it a crude and simplistic depiction of an individual for the purposes of filling a space on a wall?  We may suspect not, based on a foundation of denotation and connotation.  Clarke justifies deeper investigation of the coded message of the portrait when he observes, “The portrait photograph is, then, the site of a complex series of interactions – aesthetic, cultural, ideological, sociological and psychological.” (Clarke page 102.)  The view of a respected commentator is therefore established.  Topically, this was reinforced by a spontaneous comment made by Guest at Gray’s lecturer Joanna Kane, creator of The Somnambulists series exhibited at the National Galleries of Scotland in 2008.  (http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibition/5:368/4774 )  “There’s always an agenda with portraits,” she said.  Thus the commentator and the practitioner are agreed: There is more to portraiture than meets the eye.

In further pursuit of this question, let us consider the purpose of sexual reproduction.  “The most popular theory among respected evolutionists is that sexual reproduction allows ‘genetic recombination’…. One of the more popular alternative theories for the evolution of sex is the idea that sexual reproduction generates greater genetic diversity.” (http://www.evolutionary-philosophy.net/sex.html)

In either event, why should we be so surprised by the routine fulfilling of the entire purpose of sexual reproduction that we would wish to record each individual outcome?  Alternatively, what meaningful result can there be unless the visual outcome of each sexual reproduction is recorded for the purpose of comparative analysis?  If we do not produce a portrait of everyone what is it that distinguishes those whose likeness is so captured?

We may obtain some clue to the underlying purpose of a portrait by considering its many sub-genres, especially in photography.  Corporate, environmental, editorial, official, fashion, family, wedding, the self portrait.

In this essay we will look at the “why” of portraiture, its philosophy.


The Philosophy of Portraiture

What is philosophy?  The New Oxford defines it as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” (New Oxford, page 1395)

In order to do so what will we need to study?  Its place in time.  Its origins and commissioners, certainly. Subjects, scholars and commentators on the subject.  Its practitioners and consumers.  Its forms and contexts.  We see already that it is a wide brief, considerably more than the picture on the mantle.  Where to start?  John Berger.  Though he may view art, and indeed life, through a Marxist prism his work on the portrait is among the most respected.

What is the locus in time of the portrait?  Clearly images in one form or another have existed for as long as man.   This we may reasonably deduce from the existence of cave wall drawings.  According to Berger, however, the increased consciousness of individuality, which facilitated a record of how X had seen Y, has existed in Europe since the beginning of the Renaissance. (Berger, page 3.)  To clarify further, the Renaissance is defined (in this case by the Tate glossary)  as the term used “to describe the great revival of art that took place in Italy from about 1400 under the influence of the rediscovery of classical art and culture.”

Fundamentally under consideration, therefore, are painted and photographed images of people created since about 1400.


The birth of the portrait

John Berger contends (Berger page 9) that 17th century Dutch artist Frans Hals was “the first portraitist to paint the new characters and expressions created by capitalism.”  According to Liz Wells, John Tagg concurs on the origin of portraiture, describing the development of photography as “a model of capitalist growth in the nineteenth century.” (Wells, page 196/197.)  Though it might disturb the lay observer’s assumptions, portraiture’s emergence through capitalism is thus corroborated.


Frans Hal 1664Frans Hal 1664 The Women Regents of the Haarlem Almshouse















Frans Hal 1664 The Women Regents of the Haarlem Almshouse

So we have established the period in which portraiture emerged and its socio-economic imperative.  But not yet its appeal, its raison d’être.  What is so appealing about the portrait to the subject and to the viewer?

The reasons are many and complex.  Again according to Wells, Tagg contends that “photographic portraits were affordable in price [compared to the painting], yet were reminiscent of aristocratic social ascendancy signified by ‘having one’s portrait done’”.  (Wells page 197.)

Of the Daguerreotype and Carte-de-Visite Tagg also says that “the possible creativity of the new technology” (early photography) “…by the desire to reproduce a set of conventions already established within painted portraiture.”

Why do people wish to make a statement of status?  Do all people wish to make such a statement?  Or is the aspiration confined to particular groups of people?

Suren Lalvani “has also highlighted the way in which nineteenth-century photographic portraiture was a powerful express of bourgeois (“characteristic of the middle class…” New Oxford) culture through the conventions of display in both dress and the arrangement of the body.” (Wells page 197.)

Two relevant points emerge from these mutually supportive assertions.

Portraiture was (and as we shall see, remains) a statement of status.

Photographic portraiture continued the appeal of the painted portrait but at a price now affordable by lower levels in the social hierarchy.

As a related anecdote, this linking of portraiture to social status was directly reflected in my own Commercial Practice project Business as Usual.  Thus the consultant physician, the lawyer, the minister, the anaesthetist, the self made entrepreneur needed little or no persuasion to feature in images displaying the environment which they owned or worked in.  Whereas those performing tasks of perceived lower status – the caterers, the firemen, the fitters and others – required a great deal of cajoling to participate and in some cases – the policemen, the male dish washer and one female ward nurse – could not be persuaded to appear at all.

From all this we see that portraiture is a form of promotion or self promotion and is therefore inherently a genre of commercial photography.  And we have learned that the middle classes commissioned portraits of themselves for the purposes of self promotion and the advertising of their status.

What of portraits commissioned by one party of another?  The X as seen by Y described by Berger.  Do these conform to the convention of promotion?

Are men and women portrayed equally?  The evidence suggests not.  According to Berger (page 39) “the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man…  A man’s presence is dependent upon the presence of power which he embodies…  By contrast a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself….”  Berger expounds at length on this difference but his essential premise is that images of the female are depicted to flatter the male (page 58) as the spectator/ owner of the property displayed.  The property in question is both the female and the surroundings. 

Is this generally true? Berger contends that there are [only] a few exceptional nudes in the European tradition of oil painting to which this convention does not apply (Berger page 51).

Thus the portrait of the female nude is another expression of the power of the male “owner” of the female depicted.  The connotation is that this vision of beauty is but one of his many asset-playthings.

Is this convention maintained today?  An informal survey of top shelves reluctantly conducted for research purposes suggests that although social attitudes may have changed, and with some acceleration in the past quarter century coincidental with the gradual relaxation of prejudice towards same sex attraction (the pejorative term “homosexuality” has been deliberately avoided here), the depiction of the nude remains predominantly of the female for the entertainment of the male.  It is apparent that the sensuous female is often combined or intermingled with other much loved playthings such as exotic supercars or sprawling and opulently furnished residences.  (To a much lesser extent the male is depicted for the entertainment of other males.)  The convention of power and status is therefore maintained and again can be discerned as a continuum not interrupted by the transition from painting to photography.

So we have the Berger and Tagg views on the balance of power in portraiture.   In The Photographer Graham Clarke devotes a chapter to Portraiture in which he establishes the continuation of the conventions of the painted portrait into photography (Clarke page 102), and affirms the highly privileged nature of the portrait in oils “by its very nature confirming status and declaring significance.” He notes that the painting is a study over time whereas the photographs suggests an instant capture. (Clarke page 203.)  In spite of which the conventions are maintained.

The need

So far we have determined the capacity of the portrait to influence the viewer’s perception of the subject for the purpose of making a social and commercial statement.

But what fundamental purpose within the willing subject does the portrait fulfil?  Why are some people apparently driven to make this statement?

There is some popular wisdom that those who are driven to make statements of status and power through portrayal of their image suffer from a condition known as narcissism.  In order to evaluate that contention we must first establish the true definition of narcissism.

According to Adam Phillips’ Freud Reader (Phillips page 358),  “the term was chosen in 1899 by Paul Nacke to define the form of behaviour whereby an individual treats his own body in the same way in which he might treat that of any other sexual object, by looking at it, stroking it and caressing it with sexual pleasure until by these acts he achieves full gratification.”  Phillips goes on to “clarify” this, saying, “In this formulation ‘narcissism’ means a perversion that has swallowed up the entire sexual life of the individual, and consequently entails the same expectations that we would bring to the study of any other perversion.”

What is immediately apparent is that insufficient data is available in the overwhelming majority of cases to determine whether or not portrait subjects were or are consumed by narcissism.

That is not the end of the matter, however.  Again, Phillips reveals, “Psychoanalysts were then struck in the course of their observations by the fact that individual elements of narcissistic behaviour are encountered in many people suffering from other disorders….  The supposition inescapably presented itself that a form of libido lodgement definable as narcissism may occur on a far larger scale and may well be able to lay claim to a role in the normal sexual development of human beings.”

So far this is of little help to us.  We cannot possibly tell by the data available – which, generally speaking, is by looking at images - whether portrait subjects suffer from true narcissism.  And in any event we see that narcissism may well be a part of normal development, and therefore present in most humans, indeed in every living creature.  On that basis it is reasonable to question whether narcissism is a disorder at all – perhaps merely a survival technique -  and what relevance it has to portraiture.

This equivocation is unhelpful.  It is not a safe basis on which to form a diagnosis of narcissism in anyone.

However, Phillips then reveals that there are compelling grounds for linking elements of narcissism to megalomania, a condition defined by the New Oxford as:

A psychopathological condition characterized by delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence. An obsession with grandiose or extravagant things or actions.  At the end of this tortuous process of definition Phillips arrives at, “The libido, having been withdrawn from the external world, is channelled into the ego, giving rise to a form of behaviours that we can call narcissism.”

St Gordon of Kircaldy














Gordon Brown, variously described as "psychologically flawed"  and "bonkers".  Picture copyright Eddie Mulholland, reproduced with thanks.

Topically, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was famously described, allegedly by then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Director of communications Alistair Campbell, as being unsuited to the role of Prime Minister because of “fatal psychological flaws.” (Rawnsley 2010, page 13)  Given that Brown is the willing subject of so many portraits, and his well documented personality traits and performance after inheriting the role, we may speculate on whether this was a reference to narcissism.  (In later editions of his own diaries Campbell reveals that Blair thought Brown to be, amongst other things, "bonkers.")

We should seek further guidance on the subject, in this case by considering the views of Jung, Freud’s great rival in matters of the mind, as expressed in his seminal work Modern Man in Search of a Soul and in particular chapter 4 A Psychological Theory on Types.  In this respect we are quickly disappointed. Our frustration is continued by Jung’s indulgence in excursive observations and his own apparent unwillingness to form firm conclusions.  Consider his observations on type (Jung page 85). “And here we meet the chief difficulty of the problem of types – that is, the questions of standards or criteria.  The astrological criterion was simple; it was given by the constellations.  As to the way in which the elements of human character could be ascribed to the zodiacal signs and the planets, this is a question which reaches back into the grey mists of prehistory and remains unanswerable.  The Greek classification according to the four physiological dispositions took as its criteria the appearance and behaviour of the individual, exactly as it is done today in the case of modern physiological types.  But where shall we seek our criterion for a physiological theory of types?”

Having asked the question, Jung declines to answer it, and appears to hint that we might as well give equal weight to star signs or Greek mythology. 

Furthermore he alludes to the “sciences” of palmistry, physiognomy, phrenology and graphology before forming his only conclusion on the matter: insufficient data exists on which to from any safe judgement on whether we may infer matters of the psyche from the physical appearance (Jung page 76).

So Jews do not have peculiar noses and Germans do not have high foreheads.  Criminals do not have enlarged brows.  Or at least there is insufficient data available to date to support these once popular wisdoms.  Even in the event of a science being formed around the linkage of physiognomy to the psyche we can anticipate the outcry of political correctness to which this would give rise.

Lest we remain in any doubt about the ephemerality of certain knowledge in these matters, he offers, “Although Freud’s attempts to solve this problem (diversity of neurosis in siblings) leave me entirely unsatisfied, I am myself unable to answer the question (Jung page 83.)

It is important for academic purposes to take stock at this point of what we have learned on the subjects of narcissism and megalomania, and how it may relate to portraiture.  We see that that it is unsafe to condemn the portrait subject as automatically suffering from narcissism in all its symptoms.  But we now have sufficient grounds to tentatively speculate whether the same subject may display, through megalomania, a form of narcissism which in the modern idiom we may regard as narcissism-lite.

We have invested considerable effort heretofore and may be tempted to regard it as a diversion producing little real result.  Alternatively, we have questioned the popular wisdom that the subject of the portrait may easily be cast as an automatic sufferer from narcissism in all its forms.  We have demonstrated that we cannot safely form that judgement.  Through Phillips and Freud we can allow that there may be an arguable case for suspecting some aspects of narcissism, in particular megalomania.

But it is not conclusive.  There is an ambiguity consistent with portraiture itself.  As put by Clarke, “..at virtually every level, and within every context the portrait is fraught with ambiguity.”  (Clarke 1997, page 101.)


The self portrait

So much for X by Y.  What of X by X?  This is an appropriate moment to consider the self portrait, with its additional scope for suspicions of narcissism.

Cindy Sherman 1978 Untitled Film StillCindy Sherman 1978 Untitled Film Still













Cindy Sherman 1978 Untitled Film Still

Whereas Berger considers the portrait as X as seen by Y, self portraiture presents an entirely different proposition.  As Brilliant notes, in self portraiture the patron, the subject and the artist are often one.  (Brilliant 1991, page 141.)  “The eyes of all three parties to this transaction focus on a single vision, asserted by the artist’s self-indulgence in the act of creation but subject to the queries of the unknown strangers who witness its result.”  In contrast, any such queries in traditional portraiture are raised by the artist upon the subject in the form of subjective interpretation.  In the self portrait, is such interpretation a form of deceit or flattery?  Is it narcissism in its full sense: The transference of libido from external objects to the self?

Curator and writer Susan Bright has this year published what is described by the British Journal of Photography as a major new book on the subject of the self portrait.  In this work she describes the most common understanding of self portraiture as “revealing something of your inner feelings or personality,” particularly in an autobiographical context.

That might lead us to argue that there is no more or less cause to suspect the self portraitist of narcissism than the subject of any other portrait.  It does not of course allay concerns that the entire autobiographical project may be an exercise in narcissism in one form or another.

On the face of it, there may limited scope to accuse Nan Goldin of narcissism in the self portrait below.
Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984 © Nan Goldin courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New YorkNan One Month After Being Battered, 1984 © Nan Goldin courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
















Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984 © Nan Goldin courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

It was taken 30 days after she was battered by a former boyfriend and the results remain clearly visible in the photograph.  Because it is not a flattering image we may be disinclined to suspect self love.  We may be deluding ourselves, though.  Perhaps it simply represents self love as self pity.

The self portrait provides the same opportunities for self promotion, advertisement of status and power as the portrait.  The selection of self as subject is clearly a decision taken by the photographer and some additional significance may or may not be inferred from this choice.  No other subject may have been available or suitable, for example.

I digress to relate my own recent efforts in this genre with some ambivalence.  My online photographic portfolio lacked an image of the author for many years.  Clearly, the choice of suitable subject was in this case somewhat limited and some form of representative likeness could readily have been obtained.  Nonetheless the allotted space remained stubbornly vacant until a studio opportunity recently arose to produce an image considered sufficiently flattering to be worthy of publishing.  Happily, a single incidence provides insufficient data to determine whether this represents some form of narcissism or mere vanity.

Clearly the self portrait is a viable option in the documentary project.  Mortality aside, the availability of the subject in every required location can be assumed.  This might absolve it from the suggestion of narcissism but for the lingering question over the narcissistic qualities of the documentary itself.

Bright also pursues the subject of self hatred in the self portrait, citing the case of American photographer Charles Latham, who “creates a doppelganger, an alter ego, nemesis and imaginary friend in the form of Cyrus. Cyrus appears in his self-portraits as a masked and handcuffed minion. The hand-made gaffer-tape gimp mask that Cyrus adorns and the S&M overtones of their relationship is uncomfortable for the viewer. Issues of power and control seethe through the photographs. These self-portraits were made in order to help Latham investigate personal issues without harming himself, and so in order to do this, he created Cyrus…  Through Cyrus, Latham was able to work through feelings of self-hatred in a controlled manner.”

This raises an issue we have not considered thus far – portraiture as an expression of hatred.  It is a question we might have overlooked altogether but, unexpectedly, for the work of August Sander, the celebrated portrait photographer who produced an epic photographic documentary of German subjects between and during the two world wars.  Sander had good cause to hate the Nazis.  In a biography by Icarus Films (http://icarusfilms.com/new2005/aug2.html)  it is revealed by that “his son Erich joined the Socialist Worker's Party and anti-Nazi movement in 1933; he was jailed for treason in 1934 and died in prison 10 years later. At the same time (1933-1934) five books of Sander's "German Land, German People" series were published. They met with immediate disapproval by the Nazi authorities and he was forced to cease work on "Man in the Twentieth Century." His Face of Our Time was seized, the plates destroyed, and negatives confiscated by the Ministry of Culture.”

Portraits of Nazi figures are prominent in Sander’s work.  There is no discernible indication of his feelings towards them.  One is bound to ask, however, whether he could have felt anything other than hatred towards them, given their impact upon him.


What can we conclude from this brief journey through the mists and veils of portraiture?

We have seen that the portrait is a complex collection of socio-economic elements which combine – and may well conspire – to connote rather more than they denote.

We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that the portrait is principally a device to depict the appearance of the subject.  Arguably the subject of the portrait is not the subject, if that is not too abstract to conceptualise.  The subject of the portrait is the subject’s status, wealth and power.  His likeness (and we have seen that it is usually him, and not her) is of secondary importance.

Respected scholars of the subject, including Berger, Wells and Clarke et al are agreed on this common interpretation.  In this context, all portraiture is commercial in that it is intended to promote the image of the subject for the purposes of obtaining, increasing or reinforcing his status.

Less certain, but with identified grounds for strong suspicion, is the role of the portrait in the human psyche.  We have been unable to obtain much firm agreement between Freud and Jung on the underlying presence of full narcissism in the portrait.  (Save perhaps for an agreement that we do not know enough about it to form a firm diagnosis.)

At least anecdotally we have seen evidence of narcissist tendencies such as self love and megalomania.  There is some justification in asking whether these qualities are represented in a politician whose career has so influenced the lives we lead today.

Perhaps a little unexpectedly, we have not encountered overwhelming evidence that the self portrait is any more or less imbued with the qualities of the portrait.

Fittingly the final word is given to Joanna Kane, creator of the Somnambulists.  “There’s always angle with portraiture.”

©Copyright Mike Dunbar 2011.  Reproduction in whole or part with the written permission of the author may be possible.  Please enquire.  Reproduction in whole or part without the written permission of the author is not permitted and will result in enforcement action.

Reference List

BERGER, J., 1990, Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

BRILLIANT, R., 1991. Portraiture. Stockbridge:Reaktion.

CLARKE, G., 1997, The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.

PHILLIPS, A., 2006. The Penguin Freud Reader. London: Penguin.

JUNG, C,G., 1933.  Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Oxford: Routledge.

PEARSALL, J., 1999.  The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

RAWNSLEY, A., 2010. The End of the Party. London: Penguin.

WELLS, L., 2009, Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed, Oxon: Routledge.


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