The Portrait in Photography

The Portrait in Photography

16th May, 2016

This is the first book that I read from the reading list. It is a mixed bag as multi-author books often are (Clarke, 1992).

“In an official context, the photograph validates identity: he it on a passport, driving licence, or form. It has the status of a signature and declares itself as an authentic presence of the individual. Once again, however, the authenticity is problematic. The photograph displaces, rather than represents, the individual. It codifies the person in relation to other frames of reference and other hierarchies of significance.” (Introduction by Graham Clarke)

There are a few notable chapters;

Chapter 5. ‘Duchamp’s Masquerades’

This may be relevant to Assignment 3 which is about mirrors. I liked the discussion of Duchamp by Dawn Ades who says (P 97) that

“Rather than revealing a unitary nugget of identity, these photographs disguise, dissolve, multiply and contradict.”

I think it is this “expressive potential of abstraction” that I like and have used in the ‘Square Mile’ exercise. There is also a distortion of identity, or perhaps an identity revealed in that distortion or abstraction. I intend to use this more in my work which is often personal and internal.

I will come back this chapter and book.

Chapter 6. ‘J.P. Morgan’s nose’

One of the most important issues for me about portrait photographers is ‘Is it possible to always show that ‘hidden self’ or ‘real person’ in a photograph rather than simply capture their persona? I have mixed emotions about this question as it may not be possible sometimes to do that either because of lack of skill or relationship building with the person or because it is just not there.

On Page 118 Homberger mentions Steichen when saying that,

“The interpretive portrait aims not merely to document but to seek to have people to ‘reveal them selves to the camera and express something about themselves that definitely exists, though it may be hidden – perhaps even from themselves?'”

Elsewhere, page 119, Cartier-Bresson is quoted as saying “The sitter is suspicious of the objectivity of the camera, while that photographer is after an acute psychological study of the sitter.” Both bring home to me that there is a power dynamic in the relationship which has to be negotiated.

Chapter 7. Hoppe’s ‘Impure Portraits’

This chapter discusses Hoppe’s typology of “American types’ mainly taken in New York and first shown in 1922. Example titles are ‘New York Type, ‘Coloured Woman,’ ‘Negro Type,’ etc. I think that they are of their time and part of a search for the classification of people and forms.

The most interesting part of this chapter is a look at Hoppe’s later life where his focus was in individual portraiture looking for the individual and not the general, which is what I am looking for.


Clarke, G. (1992). The portrait in photography. London, Reaktion Books Ltd.