Portrait Photography & Portraiture – background

The aim of a portrait is to capture and create a representation of a person, the face and its expression is predominant. A portrait is intended to capture the character or essence of a person, their personality as well as their likeness, a portrait can even tell a story about an individual.   A portrait often shows a person looking directly out and at the viewer with the intention to connect and engage the subject with the viewer.

A search on the internet for images of photographic portraits finds mostly images of head shots or head and should shots. There are even less that are photographs from the waist up.

What I consider makes a good portrait.

The portrait of the person is the main subject, recognisable, and not too artistic, because then it ceases to be a portrait but becomes a photographic composition with a person. Portrait photography in my opinion is very different from informal candid photograph snaps of people doing things or attending events.

My intention with portrait photography is to create a good likeness, with something that the portrait sitter recognises about themselves and others recognise as that person.   I hope that my portraits also say something about the individual, their character and mood at the time of sitting, have an artistic and creative element, but not too manufactured.

History of Portraits

The portrait has been around since man has been able to draw and paint. The portrait has been a method to remember people, what they look like. Through the ages portrait paintings became popular with the rich and famous, royalty, nobility, religious leaders or military leaders. Portraits were a means of immortalising themselves and a method to demonstrate their wealth power or importance, to others. Painting remained a skilled trade, and not something anyone could practice as a hobby. Only the rich could afford portraits by well established artists that produced paintings of quality likeness.

With the introduction of photography individual and family portraits were possible and affordable by many. The time taken to produce photographic portraits compared to paintings was considerably less. Photographic portraits was available for the majority of people. The high quality image and the relatively small size pictures also made portraits something that could be easily carried around or sent in a letter. The photographic medium made portraiture a popular subject and many photographic studios, shops business were set up. Many families had their portraits taken at to special times remember significant or occasions such as, religious festivities, birthdays, weddings, social events.

The First World War popularised portrait photography and many portrait studio businesses started up. They offered service men portrait photographs that would be given to wives, sweethearts and families as a keep sake, and the wives, sweethearts and families had their portraits taken to send to their ‘boys’. Also when troops were overseas photographic businesses set up to take portraits of the soldiers to send back to show how well they were getting on.

As photography developed, equipment became smaller, portable and more affordable more people could take their own photographs on holidays the formal family portrait photographs became less popular, the candid shots of family members having fun took over.

Portrait photography is still considered an important role in business and education. Schools regularly employ the services of photographic companies to take portraits of children for their school records and as a means of raising school funds. Businesses use portrait photographs for publicity material, press releases and photographic ID.

The government uses portrait photographs for photographic identity for passports, driving licences, and disabled car badges etc. These photographs are very prescriptive and have rules that have to be followed, they are designed for identification purposes, not artistic interpretation or quality.


Famous portrait photographers:

Richard Avedon (1923-2004), American photographer, born and lived in New York.   http://www.avedonfoundation.org/ Plain white sometimes grey background studio portraits. High contrast that shows the subjects facial features, wrinkles and freckles. Some of the portraits the subjects are holding or carrying items such as a butcher wearing blood stained apron and cleaver, soldiers carrying guns.   The majority are solo portraits of people Avedon though interesting to photograph, some of the subjects were famous and influential people such as Andy Warhol, Ronald Reagan. There portraits that have more than one person such as Duke & Duchess of Windsor (Edward & Mrs Simpson).

I like the style of clear backgrounds the sharp focusing in on the subject, for the individuals that I don’t recognise I wonder and want to know the story behind the photograph, why that person?

David Bailey (1938- ), http://www.davidbaileyphotography.com/ English photographer famous for photographing the swinging 60s, celebrities and pop stars of the 1960s and 1970s. These works were mostly black and white photographs with white backgrounds. His more recent portrait works are mostly colour, with backgrounds that set a scene or attempt to tell a story about the subject. The stark white backgrounds, B+W photos with high contrast are similar in style as Avedon.


Bert Stern. (1929-2013) American photographer, born and lived in New York. Self-taught commercial photographer. http://www.bertsternmadman.com/  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Stern

Inge Morath (1923-2002) Austrian-born, lived in Germany during the War years. 1951 moved to London, 1953 moved to France, joined the she joined the Magnum Photos Agency. 1962 moved to America http://www.magnumphotos.com/IngeMorath http://ingemorath.org/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inge_Morath

Philippe Halsman, (1906-1979) Born in Latvia, moved to France in 1930, after the War he emigrated to America. Halseman took many iconic photographs of Salvador Dali and Albert Einstein, some of his photographs were inspired by the surreal art movement and featured Dali. http://philippehalsman.com/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_Halsman

Bill Brandt (1904-1983) German born, British photographer. His portraits are characterised by atmospheric lighting with backgrounds and props to help describe the person. http://www.billbrandt.com/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Brandt  https://www.google.co.uk/images?q=bill+brandt+portraits

Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) American photographer known for her portraiture, photojournalism / documentary photography and commercial advertising photography http://www.maryellenmark.com/ https://www.google.co.uk/images?q=Mary+Ellen+Mark

Arnold Newman (1918-2006) American photographer, his style of portraiture is of individuals in their surroundings, not studio photographs. http://arnoldnewman.com/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Newman

Duane Michals (1932- ) Portraits are more experimental, series of portraits in sequences, multiple exposures and the use of mirrors that distort reflections. http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals http://www.nga.gov.au/Exhibition/KarshShmith/Default.cfm https://www.google.co.uk/images?q=Duane+Michals

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) Canadian portrait photographer. A lot of his portraits were shot in the studio, with dark backgrounds and atmospheric lighting. In his career he photographed many political leaders such as Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro and personalities of the film industry including Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Humphry Bogart. http://www.karsh.org/ http://www.karsh.org/#/the_work/portraits https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yousuf_Karsh


Contemporary portrait photographers according to D&M Imaging include: http://dmimaging.net/top-modern-photographers/

Joe McNally http://portfolio.joemcnally.com/index

Martin Vrabko http://www.martinvrabko.com/

Joey Lawrence https://www.joeyl.com/overview/category/quick-portfolio

Michael Muller http://www.mullerphoto.com/#/

Jeremy Cowart http://jeremycowart.com/portfolio/featured/

Top according to the website top100 Photographers these are some of the leading current portrait photographers. http://top100photographers.org/index.html

Terry Richardson http://www.terryrichardson.com/archive/#/

Annie Leibovitz https://www.facebook.com/annieleibovitz , http://www.vogue.com/tag/photographer/annie-leibovitz/

Alasdair McLellan http://www.alasdairmclellan.com/


Iconic photograph by Arthur Sasse Einstein’s tongue


Other web resources:



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