For your oral presentation, you’re free to choose from any of the study areas on this course – social documentary, fine art photography, portrait photography or advertising photography.
Prepare your presentation in PowerPoint and deliver it to camera. Your presentation should demonstrate your understanding of the underpinning issues behind your chosen area of study and how you’ll adapt them to your own future practice.
Your presentation should look at:
- the historical background
- contemporary practitioners, visual language, influences and contexts
- the relevance to your own practice
- your future plans and direction and possible projects relating to this area of study.
Your presentation should be 15 minutes long (± 2 minutes).
Post your presentation onto the OCA website or to your own website. There must be a facility for student reviewers to ask you questions about your presentation and for you to reply and post both questions and the answers that you give.
Before I present my video and transcript I’d like to take some time to make out my reasons for doing some of the things that have been commented upon by reviewers on the OCA Student Website. I’d like to thank all those who provided reviews as they helped me clarify why I did what I did and was agreat help in presenting those reasons to the assessors.
Portraits have developed over thousands of years from prehistoric rock art, Aboriginal rock art, through Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras, took something of a rest through the dark ages and re-emerged and developed rapidly during the renaissance and continued developing in style, content and meaning during the following three-hundred years. Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romanticism and many more styles of painting developed before, during and after the coming of photography.
During all this time only the rich and powerful could afford to patronise the painters who made the wonderful works of art we know today. Paintings took a great deal of time to complete due to the expense of keeping an artist paid all the while he was making the painting, so only those with money could afford it. Portraits symbolised power, wealth and influence and would only be seen by those who painted them, those who commissioned them and other individuals of similar standing, projecting the status and personality of the sitter through the depiction of objects of characterisation, a globe for a traveller or merchant, a traverse board for a mariner, exotic fruits for the rich, these pictures were definitely not for the hoi polloi of the day to gawp at, nor would they have been able to kept in fine houses, churches, castles and palaces where they couldn’t get to.
It wasn’t until the industrial production of artistic canvas, along with commercial priming methods, was perfected in the first two decades of the nineteenth century that painted portraits became more accessible to the emerging nouveau riche as a result of them becoming less costly to produce. Portraits then changed from depicting just the landed gentry and the powerful, to that of the middle classes as well, but not the working classes who would still be unable to afford such luxuries, the content also changing from the depiction of accumulated objects and wealth to that of the person and family.
From this burgeoning interest in art, particularly by those who would normally sketch and draw whilst on their ‘grand tour’, arose a group who hadn’t the talent for sketching and drawing but who never-the-less wanted to have a pictorial record of their travels. Development of a process to capture an image by other means was sought and two rival processes came about in 1839; the Daguerreotype and the Calotype.
The Daguerreotype was initially the most popular method of making images, although depending on light availability the exposure times were anything from a few seconds to many minutes, hence the need for a head brace to hold it still when making portraits. Even though the photographic process was by modern standards a lengthy one, compared to making a painting, or even a miniature which was an extremely popular portrait method then, the time taken was very short, and hence a great deal of cost reduction accrued making them available to many less wealthy customers. This advantage, along with the novelty factor, made photographic portraiture an instant success.
It’s easy to see why the Daguerreotype was more popular, you only have to look at the difference in quality of image of these two very early examples of each.
The first portrait photographic studio in England was opened at 309 Regent Street, London by Richard Beard in March 1841, in what was then the newly opened Regent Street Polytechnic, now the University of Westminster. Beard held the national patent for the Daguerreotype process but was unable to make the licence totally viable as by 1849 he was bankrupt, a sign of the financial difficulties of the times.
Hill & Adamson of Edinburgh are the most celebrated Calotype practitioners of the period, producing somewhere in the region of 2500 – 3000 portraits of distinguished persons’ between 1843 and 1848 and the studio closed in 1848 after the death of Adamson.
Just prior to the assignment of the Daguerreotype patent to Beard, Antoine Claudet arranged a separate licence to use the process and then had to fight a successful legal action regarding this with Beard. Claudet was a very successful Daguerreotypist, and later a Collodion photographer, and was appointed to Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
There are two things that stand out about these early images, the number of different tonal colours and the rigid posing.
The colour differences are most probably due to age but could also be due to the fact that the photographers did have to mix their own chemicals which would lead to variances of amounts of ingredients used, thus making the results inconsistent leading to colour variance.
The rigidity of posture has a couple of reasons. The first is that, initially, as has already been said, the exposure times for these images would, by contemporary standards, be very long and therefore the body had to be held very still to obviate blurring. The second reason is that it was also the fashion of those times for portraits to be painted in similar poses and the photographers were taking their lead from these practitioners in those terms, although the painters did manage to make their subjects look less rigid.
The outdoor images are less rigid, presumably because the sitters felt more relaxed, but there is also a sense of context with them as they all appear in their own locality, with many signifiers pointing out their occupations and/or status, whereas the studio portraits, as today, have very little or no contextual evidence about the subject within them.
The licence fees charged by Beard and Fox-Talbot for their respective processes made it inevitable that British photography got off to a very slow start, and it was in America, where the Daguerreotype wasn’t patented, that it gained a very strong following and many hundreds of thousands of images were made using the process, although by the end of the 1850’s the process was almost entirely overtaken by the collodion process.
From this point onward the restrictions of patent rights on photography were no longer a concern. The Daguerreotype became defunct, simply because only one unique image could be made whereas the improved Fox-Talbot process of the Collodion process allowed any number of prints to be made making it more economically viable.
Julia Margaret Cameron is of particular note from this period as she developed the technique of soft-focus and closely cropped portraits to a fine art in her attempts to capture the personalities of her subjects. Her work is of particular importance for a couple of reasons: her connections with many of the leading figures of the day allowed her unprecedented access to use them as models and many of her images are the only photographic record of these personalities. Her style developed to produce images that have what has been described as capturing almost a spiritual content, which resounds even into contemporary portraiture.
Over the next decades, up until the turn of the 20th century, many improvements were made to the equipment and capture processes resulting in higher quality images and lower exposure times. The most far-reaching development was made by George Eastman when he invented roll film and the Box Brownie camera under the aegis of Kodak. This brought down the cost of photography to the point that, apart from the poorest people, every household could afford to have a camera within the family and the family snapshot was born.
It was during the twentieth century that photography really developed as an artistic medium and finally became accepted as such. Although he wasn’t classed as a portraitist Alfred Stieglitz did produce a great number of images, his long-time partner Georgia O’Keefe was a favourite muse, and he was one of those people who was instrumental in getting photography accepted as an art form in its own right.
I don’t believe that any of the most famous photographers have ever really just specialised in portraiture, they all seem to have several areas of expertise and portraits just seem to be one thing they’re all expected to produce simply because people want to photographed by famous artists. It’s therefore difficult to choose those who have been the most influential portraitists of the twentieth century as there are so many to choose from, however I believe Dorothea Lange is the first that comes to mind. Possibly a strange choice as she’s better known as a documentary photographer of the depression era with her seminal work ‘Migrant Mother’ being the most famous. However, she did own a very successful portrait studio in California prior to her documentary work and the experience she gained there is, to my mind anyway, evident in the work she produced later with her images of the people most affected by the depression. She brought dignity and pathos to their plight and had a much gentler look to her work than did her contemporaries and there was always contextual evidence within the images proving the plight of the people she photographed.
When movies started to become popular, and more particularly when offset lithography was developed, portraiture became a way of bringing the stars of the screen, on low-cost print media, to the masses. Manufacturers of consumable products saw the advantage of this, particularly ladies fashion, and advertising started using the images of beautiful people to endorse and sell their wares. Semiotics, the study of sign systems, had developed to a point where the advertising developers used the concepts within adverts to make the appeal of the products depicted attractive to the potential purchaser. The use of well-known actors and actresses apparently endorsing the wares made them even more appealing to certain classes of the public; ‘commodification’ the assignment of economic value to something not normally considered in economic terms.
I think it fair at this point to ask the question, “What is the definition of a portrait today?” I certainly don’t think that it’s can simply be defined as ‘the painting, drawing, photographing, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders’. I believe that for quite some time now that definition has become blurred. My own definition would now include fashion images, some advertising and photojournalism. The reason quite simply is that the images of the people within those genres can perhaps be looked upon as being of equal, or in some cases more, importance than the object or product that their image endorses, it therefore follows that the image of them has to be of the utmost quality, clarity and prominence to derive the perceived benefit of using them in the image, thus making it a portrait.
This concept was probably started by Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson and has been developed to a peak by David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, all of whom have had a very big influence on contemporary photographers, and all of whom were noted as portrait photographers as well.
Richard Avedon has influenced just about anyone who is, or has aspirations to be, a serious portrait photographer. He always strove to capture the personality and soul of the subject and did this with a minimalist approach to backgrounds and props. He would often spend an hour or more with a subject, not speaking to them, allowing them to only stand in one place but move their body as they felt they should, and then making images as he thought they presented themselves. A very difficult practice to emulate, it requires a lot of inner strength and a strong will to carry it through.
More up to date influences have come from Michael Birt, who is purely a portraitist, whose work shows many variations of how to pose, and light the subject in a studio setting. Looking through his extensive portfolios gives a-would be portraitist many ideas of how to go about their work.
My personal favourite is Luke Duggleby who is completely the opposite of Avedon and Birt in-as-much-as he includes a great deal of contextual evidence in his images and presents the viewer with a rich cornucopia of different meanings to be extracted.
Of course there are many other influencers that could be included at length like Steve McCurry, Annie Liebovitz and Diane Arbus, but there just isn’t room in this presentation to include everyone.
The newest development to become commercially successful occurred in 1988 when the first digital camera known to become commercially available to the public was the Fuji DS-X. The development and first application of digital technology was invented by Kodak in 1975, it ironically brought about the demise of the company as a photographic consumer product manufacturer but ushered in the era of the ‘selfie’, self-made portraits normally taken on a mobile ‘phone and shared on social media sites and normally of a flattering and casual nature.
Selfies have become something of a phenomenon and are particularly popular with young people. What intrigues me most about this form of photography is the sheer numbers involved, one popular website calculates it has over 53,000,000 at any one time with the hashtag ‘selfie’ attached. Another phenomenon that comes from this is the fact that, in my experience, a very large percentage of young people when asked to pose for a photograph either decline to, or put up a great deal of resistance to so doing, whereas they appear quite content to show themselves in all sorts of poses in selfies. Once again the genre of portraiture is being changed in the way it is made and presented to meet the changing needs of the community.
I like photographing people and I’ve invested quite heavily in equipment and time to develop my abilities in portraiture. I think it’s very important to develop studio techniques that can be used whatever the outdoor circumstances dictate but at the same time I do believe that someone like Duggleby has shown to me that to make images that have relevance and meaning for me it’s important to move into making images of people in context. I think that will develop as I become more confident and experienced as a portraitist, for to be able to make the most of situational portraiture like that one needs to be quick, experienced and unobtrusive, which can only come with time spent making those types of images.
Another area I’d like to develop is making images of people within the landscape, Elina Brotherus is a big influence here as her exhibition at the Wapping Project showed a way to introduce people within the landscape without them dominating the image and it becoming a definite outdoor portrait, but keeping the portrait feel as well.
So how have all these influences helped develop my work? I think the answer is it’s too early to tell. I’ve been taking pictures for many years, but to actually say I’m a photographic artist would measure in months perhaps, and how an artist’s work develops takes time and an oeuvre of work to be able to tell. I have no oeuvre of work to look at yet, but hopefully by the time I complete my degree I’ll have settled my style, my direction and be able to start and produce that work that will determine how much I’ve been influenced and by whom.