Early Photographic Portraits

The Oxford Dictionary defines a portrait as a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

The word portrait comes from the French word ‘portraire’ which means to portray and is based on an older French word ‘traire’. This is turn comes from the Latin word ‘trahere’ which means to draw.

The definition of a photographic portrait could be defined a little more tightly. In Michael R Peres’ book Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, Kathleen Francis defines portrait photography as that which “produces pictures that capture the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops and poses. A portrait picture might be artistic, or it might be clinical, as part of a medical study. Frequently, portraits are commissioned for special occasions, such as weddings or school events. Portraits can serve many purposes, from usage on a personal website to display in the lobby of a business.”

This tells me three things about a photographic portrait:

  • The subject is the main focus of the image and in it we should see something of their personality and character. I would add that although these definitions refer only to portraits of a person, the same is true for portraits of animals or groups of people.
  • It is constructed and carefully composed using traditional studio equipment, although I would add that natural light and outdoor environments can also be used successfully to create portraits.
  • It is commissioned by someone for some kind of purpose, whether that is for display or simply as a memento.

In the 17th Century artists were frequently using camera obscuras to project images on to a wall or canvas. Canaletto and Vermeer are two well know artists that are thought to have used a camera obscura, in fact Canaletto’s machine can be seen in a museum in Venice. We cannot be sure that Vermeer used a camera but there is evidence in his paintings to suggest that he did.

Officer and Laughing Girl

The perspective of the officer and the girl is geometrically correct but doesn’t really suit the style of other paintings at the time. The officer would normally have been painted smaller and more in scale with the girl. Also, the map in the background is painted so accurately and in such detail that it points to a camera obscura being used.

The first ever photographic portrait was a selfie taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius.

It seems that he set the camera up, ran around to sit in front of the lens for over five minutes and then covered the lens again.

It was lit by the light from gas lights in his father’s shop.

It is a Daguerreotype that is now in the American Library of Congress. On the back is written the words “The first light picture ever taken, 1839”

Incidentally Cornelius went on to open one of the first photographic studios but only for a few years as he went back to support the family business inventing new types of solar lights that sold internationally.

As photography became more easily available, the demand for portraits increased dramatically. During the American Civil War not only did families demand portraits of their loved ones before they went to fight in the war, many photographers also set up ‘studios’ in military barracks and made portraits of soldiers to send home to their families.

Of course many families wanted portraits of their young children but because of the long exposure times they were required to sit still for relatively long periods of time. For very young children this would have been an impossibility if it wasn’t for their mother holding them and concealing herself somewhere out of view!

Of course at least the image above shows that the children are alive. It was also common among the Victorians for family members and especially children to be photographed posthumously!


Irving Penn

Irving Penn was an American photographer who first came to public notice following his work with Alexander Liberman, Art Director of Vogue magazine. Although many of the staff at the magazine didn’t rate Penn, Liberman supported him and he was encouraged to produce his first cover in 1943.

Penn’s first magazine cover for Vogue in 1943

Later, Penn founded his own studio and pursued a career in fashion, commercial and travel photography. He published several books and held several exhibitions but there are a few projects that I find particularly useful to my studies this year.

The Cranium Architecture project is a reminder of Vanitas. The hard studio lighting really highlights the shapes, cracks and pits in each skull and I think using the word architecture is clever as he is highlighting the construction of the skull very clearly. I can’t say that this is a subject matter that appeals to me but I can see that the images are masterfully created.

Cranium Architecture

Penn has also done a project called Small Trades where he produced full length images of people working in different trades, against a plain background. It is almost like a catalogue of different trades people of the era. As I look through, I am struck by how many of the trades are no longer around yet the people depicted are probably just one of several generations that have all been doing the same thing.

I found that looking at these pictures was quite useful in terms of finding the ‘truth‘ in a portrait. Although I don’t believe it is possible to capture the whole truth of a person in an image, these images certainly capture what the person does if not who they are.

Small Trades

Finally Penn’s Cigarette’s project is also notable. The cigarette butts are photographed simply and clearly and leave the viewer wondering what type of person would have smoked them.


This video gives a short overview of some of Irving Penn’s work.

Remembrance Poppies

This month I was fortunate enough to visit the Tower of London and see the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation. Most of the 888,246 ceramic poppies, designed by artist Paul Cummins, were in place; each one representing a commonwealth life that was lost during the 1914-1919 Great War.

This centenary commemoration is temporary, and now, just a few days after Armistice Day is already being dismantled. The brevity of the installation reminds us that just as the poppies are removed, so too were these lives removed from our communities.

It is a stunning piece of art, that really helps visitors picture the scale of the loss of life during that war. As you wander around the moat, it is incredibly moving to think that every one of those poppies represents a life cut short and someone that was loved by parents, siblings, wives, children, friends and colleagues. They died that we might have freedom but I also wonder what life would have been like had they lived – would they have become inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists? If they had had children, how would they have influenced our lives?

It was a rainy day when I visited and there were so many people that the Police were needed to direct the crowds, and local tube stations were closed. I looked around two sides of the Tower in the morning and then came back to see the other two sides once it was dark and floodlit and most of the visitors had gone home.

Family Vanitas

Following on from the Vanitas project we have been working on in class, I wondered which items some of my family might choose to put in a Vanitas image.

I decided to convert the lounge into a bit of a make shift studio one evening. I set up a table, covered it in black paper and hung more black paper as a background. I didn’t want the background and table to distract from the item I was photographing and I wanted a darker gloomier feel to the photos.

I set up one soft box to the left of the table to light the Vanitas items and and set another light up behind the table to light the background. The set up wasn’t ideal but it was the best that could be done in such a small space.

A lot of the Vanitas paintings have a portrait in them somewhere so I included the person whose items I was photographing and used an old mirror frame to emphasise this idea.

I calmly talked the project through with my nieces and nephew and asked them what kind of items we might include in each of their photos. We talked about what items they might have included last year and do they think they might choose different things if we did it again next year. It was all very sensible and educational. Then I asked them to gather the things we had spoken about and all hell broke lose! The piles of items grew, the toys they chose got bigger and they even changed their outfits to their favourite clothes. They wanted to get involved in displaying their items and as they have me twisted around their fingers I gave in and my nice triangular display shapes went out of the window.

I wanted to focus on this idea of life being vapour and fleeting so I didn’t use the flash, set up the camera with a longer shutter speed and asked the children to duck out of the picture after a few moments. They loved doing it and two out of three of them took it very seriously indeed.

I find the final images a bit disturbing. These are three children, that are very full of life and that I love very much, looking like ghosts and as if they are no longer with us. Each picture perfectly describes their character and the things that they are into.

Not satisfied with ‘doing themselves’ they then created a version for mum and dad and gave me instructions for creating another for nanny and grandad. The adults were less good at ducking out of the image but I particularly like the way that the mum and dad picture has them interacting with the items chosen for them.

The final image of nanny and grandad was a bit easier to do. They still displayed the items themselves to be sure their most important items were clearly visible but with a lot more room and a large picture window on the right of the table, all I needed was a reflector in order to light the display.


Contemporary Vanitas

A couple of weeks ago we had a visiting speaker at college, called Robyn Woolston, who said that what you throw away says a lot about you. I thought the things I throw away would make an interesting subject for my contemporary Vanitas image.

I chose a wicker wastepaper basket and pulled a few things out of it to see what it might say about me. Food wrappers, tablet foils, hair products, magazines, train tickets and more tells you about my lifestyle, where I’ve been, how healthy I am, what my interests are and what I value. Its a little worrying to think that someone can work out so much about me from the things I simply toss in the bin.

I planned to photograph them in the studio and make it look similar in style to a traditional Vanitas painting, using strong triangular shapes and trying to replicate window light, using one light from the side with another to light the background.

ContempVanitas1webI spent some time getting the composition how I wanted it. At first the big crisp packet dominated the image but looked much better when I folded it down and under the bin.

The first image was taken using the flash and looks fine. I’m happy with the way your eye is drawn in and around the image but as we had not used flash for the traditional version we did last week I tried this one without a flash too.

ContempVanitas2webAs suggested, the light is much softer and gives it a much gentler and more solemn tone. This is probably my preferred image.





For the third image I moved the light at the side to the back slightly and turned it to face towards the front a little. It gives the image a bit more texture but is far too dark for my liking.


This has given me an idea to create further images on this theme about people that I know.

Contemporary Vanitas Prep

My aim to take a traditional looking Vanitas image using things that I would usually throw away. So the props I will need are:

  • Wastepaper basket
  • Variety of clean waste / recycling
  • I won’t take a take a cloth as I want to use the surface of the table in the studio

I want to recreate natural soft window light on the display, looking as though it will be coming from one side. So I plan to set up the studio to look like this.


So I will need the following equipment:

  • Tripod
  • Light meter
  • Medium softbox
  • Barn doors
  • Honeycomb
  • I’ll use the black background that is already in the studio

I will be placing the camera to frame the items quite tightly on a small table and want to have everything in focus, so I expect to use an aperture of around F8.


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