Portraiture in Photography

24th June 2014

Since the 1830’s – 40’s, it has been possible to make an image of a specific instance in time by ‘photography’, which by its very simplicity, compared to painted works, meant it quickly changed the hierarchical position that painted portraits held previously.  Later as faster film stock became available, that shortened exposure times and was flexible enough to become a roll, the ‘snapshot’ developed rapidly amongst the general public as the preferred means of pictorially recording events that interested them.

Since the advent of the portrait in ancient times its purpose has been, and still is, manifold, but the symbolisms most commonly attributed to painted portraits is that from the 16th to 19th century of status, wealth, power and dynasty.  They have become a source of historical record for dress, fashion and political events, and have provided insights into the personality and psychology of the subject.

Although photography expanded the market for portraits exponentially, and as a result the many forms they now take, but still the most common psychological reason for owning one is as a smaller than life-size, visual record of a loved one as a reminder or token whilst out of their presence.  In fact the modern habit of many people carrying around pocket-sized, or smaller photographs on their person, or more commonly now a personal electronic device holding many more images, is a modern version of the ‘miniature’ which was a popular medium for elites from the 16th century to the development of photography in the 19th century.  A piece of doggerel from the Victorian era clearly demonstrates this sentiment.

‘When amid life’s surging battle
Reverie its solace lends
Sweet it is to scan the faces –
Picture faces – of old friends

Some have passed the mystic portals
Where the usher Death presides
Some to distant climes have wandered
Borne on Time’s relentless tides;
Some, perchance, to paths unholy;
Some to deeds without a name
But the faces in the album
Are for aye and aye the same.

Picture faces! Oh what volumes
Of unwritten life ye hold:
Youthful faces! Pure, sweet faces
Dearly prized as we grow old’ (Liz Wells et al 2009)

Portrait photography in its very earliest years was constrained to the formal style, where the subject would most normally be seated, looking squarely into the lens, with the head clamped still for the necessarily long exposure.  Even so, the Daguerreotype became an extremely popular means of having ones portrait made and “by 1849 it’s said that over 100,000 were made in Paris alone.” (National Portrait Gallery, p. 8). The level of excitement is difficult to comprehend today as we’ve not experienced as significant an invention that encompasses the whole of society since photography came along, but the following extract from a contemporary letter should provide some idea of what it was like to see a permanent photographic image for the first time.

(Richter, 1989) The following quotation from a letter written by poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-63), gives us some idea of the impact of these small portraits:

‘My dearest Miss Mitford, do you know anything about that wonderful
invention of the day, called the Daguerreotype? – that is, have you
seen any portraits 
produced by means of it? Think of a man sitting
down in the sun and leaving his facsimile in all its full completion of
outline and shadow, steadfast on a plate, at the end of a minute and
a half! The Mesmeric disembodiment of spirits strikes me as a degree
less marvellous. And several of these wonderful portraits … take
back like engravings – only exquisite and delicate beyond the work
of the engraver – have I seen lately – longing to have such a memorial
of every Being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness
which is previous in such cases – but the association, and the sense
of nearness involved in the thing … the face of the very shadow of
the person lying there fixed for ever! It is the very sanctification of
portraits I think – and it is not at all monstrous in me to say what
my brothers cry out against so vehemently … that I would rather
have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest Artist’s
work ever produced.’

No longer was a portrait the preserve of the elite, the photograph made this very desirable artefact available to anyone and what’s more in a world where travel was limited to horses, trains and ships, the image size and quality enabled a traveller to carry several with them, particularly as foreign travel could mean extended periods away from home, the only drawbacks being that they were simple bi-tonal reproductions and not colour, and the polished surfaces needed protection.

Although the length of time required to make an exposure was quickly reduced to more manageable periods by the improvements in lens technology, camera design and emulsions, he making of photographic images was confined to professional photographers and wealthy amateurs until very late into the 19th century when George Eastman invented the roll film and founded the Kodak Company.  This invention led to a burgeoning growth in the making of images by the masses and to the long tradition of amateur photography.

Photographic artistic style to this point had closely followed that of classic painted art but as the arbiters of that world started to be challenged as to what was acceptable artistic style, so did the style in which photographic images were made.  This led to a more casual style of portrait making, although by modern standards they’re still considered very stiff and trite.

The advent of 35mm film and smaller cameras allowed photographers to become much more adventurous in what and how they made images.  For the first time candid photography and action images became easy to obtain and set a trend in the way images should look.

Digital photography has had the greatest impact on the art of photography since it was invented.  Now everyone who can afford even the smallest amount of money has access to it.  Not only that, but the development of computing that can be accessed by the masses has heralded a plethora of highly effective post-processing software packages that enable just about anyone to produce very acceptable quality images that can be hung on a domestic room wall and admired by everyone.  Digital imaging has the facility to provide instant feedback on the results of the image just made and as a result the users’ technical abilities can improve faster than previously when film had to be developed normally by laboratories.

Portrait photography today has many styles and more than a few of them can be used to produce highly effective works of art.


The 9 styles this webpage quotes is questionable as they left out No3 thus only 8 are listed from them.

  1. Traditional
  2. Environmental
  3. Candid
  4. Glamour
  5. Lifestyle
  6. Surreal
  7. Conceptual
  8. Abstract
  9.  Without people        (Added from Gesture & Meaning programme)
  10. Selfie

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’m sure that others could be added, but it gives an idea of just how far the art has developed in 170 years.  Several of the styles could be combined to make an unusual approach and outcome for instance.


Follows a normally accepted definition of a portrait photograph. – An image of a single person, or group of people, that attempts to capture the expression, mood and character of the sitter(s).  Normally the face(s) will be the focus of attention, particularly the eyes, and will also include from just the head and shoulders to the full-length body.  The background can be that set in a studio to contemporary contextual.


An image made where the subject is in their favoured environment, undertaking some form of activity usually associated with their occupation.  The environment and pose is normally chosen to enhance the characteristics of the subject and his activity.  Robert Doiseneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson


An image taken when the subject is generally not expecting an image to be made, and may well be a complete stranger to the photographer, and who may not even know it’s happened.


 A posed image where the subject will generally be physically attractive and assuming a pose to display their physical attributes to their best advantage, associated with erotica and pornography.


A combination of candid and environmental portraiture which is increasingly popular amongst families with young children and wedding parties.  It also has many uses in advertising where the lifestyle depicted is presented as one to aspire to and plays upon emotional feelings.  The relaxing nature of this style is considered to help bring out more of the essence of the character and social situation of the subject(s).


Depict sub-conscious reality thought up by the artist.  The form can take many different approaches from something that can be determined as a person to something that has to worked looked at very carefully to determine the subject.  Eugene Atget, Man Ray, Andre Kertesz


The principle here is to purvey and idea and has been wonderfully exploited by Cindy Sherman where she has made images of fictitious movie scenes taking the lead role in the image herself.   The best way to explain it is to look here – http://www.cindysherman.com/


These images are not meant represent people as we normally view them but purely as an art form and can result from much digital manipulation, collage and photomontage.

Without People

There are many artefacts that remind us of someone, for instance if the Imperial Crown of State, the Mace and the Orb were placed together most people would immediately have a mental image of the queen.  Similarly this can be done for less famous people and environmental and contextual evidence can also be introduced to give the viewer a clearer idea of who is being portrayed.  This type of portraiture unfortunately has less and less meaning as the person becomes more every day and then the images are only relevant to their immediate contemporaries.


The so-called selfie is most usually made by an individual of themselves or small group, usually with a smart phone or web-cam.  Used extensively on social media sites the portrait itself isn’t normally considered for printing and hanging.

The wonderful thing about portraiture is that with its many styles they can be combined or used individually to create an extensive oeuvre and/or illustrate a narrative with considerable interest.


National Portrait Gallery, No Date. Portrait Photography From The Victorians To The Present Day. [Online]
Available at: http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/learning/schools_wide_angle.pdf
[Accessed 23rd June 2014].

Richter, S., 1989. In: The Art of the Daguerrotype. s.l.:Viking, pp. 5,14,15. Cited in National Portrait Gallery, No Date. Portrait Photography From The Victorians To The Present Day.[Online] Available at: http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/learning/schools_wide_angle.pdf
[Accessed 23rd June 2014].

Gitin, S., 2012. Learnmy shot.com. [Online]
Available at: http://learnmyshot.com/9-fundamental-styles-of-portrait-photography/
[Accessed 24th June 2014].

M. C. Duncan, Frontpiece to Richard Penlake (1899), Home for Amateur Photographers. Cited in LIZ WELLS, Michelle Hennin, Patricia Holland, Martin Lister, Derek Price, Anandi Ramamurthy (2009). Photography A critical Introduction. Fourth ed., New York, Routledge, 119.





4 Responses to Portraiture in Photography

  1. Vicki M says:

    Enjoyed this tour of the history of portraiture Eddy!

  2. Catherine says:

    A good summary Eddy. That quotation from the letter certainly brings out the enchantment that photography must have seemed in the early days.

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