Contemporary portraits

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This topic contains 4 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  ajroyle 1 year, 6 months ago.

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    Ian McNab

    Here, for your interest and entertainment, are a few varied collections of contemporary portraits. (Click the links to view the galleries)…


    Agnieszka Sosnowska : Icelandic portraits

    This is a striking set of monochrome portraits of young Icelanders that have an unexpected emotional intensity, amplified by repetition through the series of pictures.






    Pierre Gonnord: Soul light

    In this series of portraits of young people, the photographer brilliantly and convincingly evokes the quality of Baroque portraits by means of lighting, colour palettes, styling, costumes and pose, to create a visually and emotionally coherent set of picture.






    The 5th Portrait Festival in Vichy

    Here a more varied use of setting, styling and pose creates a gallery of portraits – again mainly of young people – in a completely different, visual style that seems very contemporary, but equally intense, created by several photographers from Modd, the French portrait agency.






    Pictures by renowned photographers of the Modd portrait agency

    Finally, a set of edgier, contemporary portraits, showing a more varied use of lighting, styling and pose – including work by internationally famous portrait photographers…





    Pete Robinson

    Thanks very much for sharing these with us Ian. I’ve just had a very quick look and these are my first thoughts.  They show a fascinating insight to portrait photography. There’s a wide variety of different styles and techniques and how different photographers approach the subject. What they all seen to have in common though that no one is smiling in any of the photographs which makes me wonder if they’ve been directed not to do so. Whenever I ask someone if I can take their photograph they usually automatically smile. It doesn’t always make the best picture. Is it artificial to have an unnatural smile? I think where the subject has a neutral expression it asking questions about what they’re feeling and makes the photograph more curious.


    Ian McNab

    I’m glad you liked the galleries of portraits, Peter. You’re right about the general absence of smiling from these portraits, and I understand that Claudia Imbert (a photographer in the ‘Fifth Portrait Festival in Vichy’ set) wanted her subjects “to suggest inner thoughts only they have access to”. (More pictures and information about this series in today’s Guardian.)

    As for the rest, I simply don’t know what direction the subjects were given about posing. But I always recall Bill Brandt’s surly instruction to his portrait subject: don’t smile – it makes you look stupid!

    Certainly, the instant adoption of a smiling pose when someone points a camera at us is a relatively recent cultural and social reflex. People rarely if ever smile in photographic portraits from the 19th century and early 20th century. This was perhaps at first due to the long exposure times required for studio portraits, which made holding a convincing smile nearly impossible; but it was really due to cultural and social norms: etiquette required that the mouth be carefully controlled, and beauty standards likewise called for a small mouth. In this regard, portrait photos were styled on traditional European paintings in which, generally speaking, only peasants, children and drunks smile!

    But by 1908, Kodak’s advertising of its new, easy to use cameras started to include smiling models; and Kodak’s advertising campaigns in the Twenties and Thirties continued to sell the idea of photography as fun by showing people smiling in photographs.  By the 1920s, advertising more generally used pictures for selling everything from beans to motor cars that showed beaming models having a great time. Thus the photographic smile was arguably a product of sophisticated American advertising in the early 20th century. And it was certainly only in the early 20th century that the habit spread – again encouraged by Kodak’s adverts – of encouraging people to say ‘Cheese’ when having their picture taken, to create the appearance of a smile.

    Now, if you look at Instagram, you see that the photographic smile is the immediate and routine reaction of people being photographed. I even see it surprisingly often when I do street photographs: quite a lot of people who notice me pointing a camera in their direction instantly smile; and young women may even do an exaggerated ‘S’ pose like a fasion model.

    So if you want to do portraits that don’t look casual and camp, you really do have to direct people quite firmly not to smile!


    meg cumming

    Like Pete I loved looking at these portraits and agree with you if you ask them to smile it looks false and unnatural. I’ve also noticed time and again when doing self portraits in paint, because your concentrating so much on getting the colour, tone and pose right the last thing you have on your mind is smiling. Sometimes I think its harder to get a successful portrait taken of someone you know, because you know them so well and are looking for their characteristics to come out. Looking at these images its so good to see a wonderful selection and a variety of choices.



    Thanks Ian. Portraits like these often have at least one aspect which club photography doesn’t permit; they are part of a series or project.

    I wonder whether we could in some way introduce this aspect? Many clubs try triptychs in competitions, but that is rarely used in this way.

    Would like to see those paintings Meg!

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