Portraits – again!

Forums All About Photography Portraits – again!

This topic contains 55 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Martin McGing 3 years, 6 months ago.

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    Ian McNab

    In our various competitions throughout the year, there are often pictures in which the main subject is a person. So, every year, when such pictures turn up in our special ‘portrait competitions’, it puzzles me. Are all such pictures ‘portraits’?

    If they are, why do we have special ‘portrait competitions’? If not, what’s the difference between a portrait and any picture that has a person as the main subject?

    I’m not being critical of anyone’s work here: I’m genuinely puzzled about whether our portrait competitions imply any difference between ‘pictures with a person as the main subject’ and ‘portraits’.



    Thank you Ian–exactly my point regularly ignored. Also to remind of my offer of £250 prize for the best”portrait” to encourage “portraits”. I knew briefly the late gentleman Howard Edwards and a superb portrait photographer he was–and I will speak up for him and say—THESE A”INT PORTRAITS.


    Ian McNab

    OK, Ken. But how come ‘all pictures with a person as main subject’ are not portraits? In other words, what makes a picture of a person specifically a portrait?




    Well—lets assume a parents sends their child off to the local photographer to have a portrait taken. To come home with a photograph swimming in mud. None of us need to think very hard on what defines a portrait in the true sense that a photographic Society “should” encourage.It should support the skills of various aspects of photography–be it—birds on sticks—-nature taken in the parks of Kenya sat on top of a Range Rover or proper portraits. The demise is seen at the debacle of the last portrait session—-with all respects to Sharon for her patience. This was an appalling example –of something simple enough to set up===back ground–lighting—model. Also in past years–again–ignored–I have offered to pay for models from the Chester School for Models.Ask four year olds to write down what is a portrait and you will get the answer.


    Ian McNab

    I think I know what you mean, Ken. But what exactly would the four year old write in answer to the question, ‘What’s a portrait?’; and – more interestingly – what would anyone trying to think seriously about photography write in answer to that question?

    (I’m hoping we might try to clarify a positive idea of what a portrait is, rather than just give examples of what it isn’t. And I think we may be able to this without the need to mention work by individual club members – which may help avoid distracting acrimony.)



    Pete Robinson

    the dictionary definition of a portrait is quite simple:

    <span class=”def”>a painting, photograph, drawing, etc. of a person or, less commonly, of a group of people: </span>

    This is the way I’ve always understood it and I don’t understand the confusion.

    Some parents might prefer a photograph of the child covered in mud as it more acturately reflects their personality. If you look at a series of school portraits they all look the same, they don’t show the personality of the child. Taking a good portrait of a stranger on location is probably more difficult than taking one in a studio where you have control of the light and the model and can do take it again it it doesn’t work.



    Suppose a new club member asked you what might be an acceptable entry in our portrait  competitions, what would you say? I have been in this situation and gave an off-the-cuff response but I had thought of giving more guidance. What do we say?


    Ian McNab

    That dictionary definition sounds simple and conclusive, except when you realise it describes this:


    …and this ‘drawing of a person’ is clearly not a portrait in the normal usage of the term.

    There’s something missing from that definition, isn’t there? Certainly, in terms of the history of art, when you think about what gets called ‘a portrait’ it’s not just any picture of a human being. For example, this famous picture, The Water Seller of Seville’ by Velázquez is a very great picture of a person, but it has never been considered a portrait.



    Even supposing Velázquez used a model when painting the figure of the water seller, he was not painting a portrait of the model. On the other hand, Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII is always referred to as a portrait:


    So what’s the difference here? What is it that turns a picture of a person into a portrait?



    Sorry chaps–even with my old grey cells this is not difficult to work out. My meaning-as a photographic Society we should encourage the skill and art of photographic portraits -control of the –set– the model–models—THE LIGHTING–the pose–the expression–as opposed to a snap shot of a person. There is a place for all the amazing photographs we see in various situations incorporated in “People”—–we are fast losing the skill and art of photographing portraiture. I am not going to argue with enery the 8th -I ave eard wot he dos. Take this to another scene—NATURE–What amazing photographs-out of this world—one click on safari. Compare with the likes of Patrick and many I have had such pleasure BD (before digital) -To photograph a Robin feeding its young in the nest. Photographers would develop their skill spending days in all weathers gaining the birds confidence -slowly -carefully day by day spending just a few minutes and getting closer-till the eggs hatched and feeding began-daily in all weathers approaching so slowly –getting closer-never losing the birds trust-until the day came to take that final stride in with camera- click—nothing–a magpie has cleaned the nest out.LOL


    Ian McNab

    If the answer to this matter were self-evident, we would already have an agreed definition. As we haven’t, I think John has the right question for us to try to answer:

    suppose a new club member asked you what might be an acceptable entry in our portrait competitions, what would you say?

    So, ideally, what would you say?





    I think a run through recent entries would define “what is acceptable as an entry for portraits in our club-)–last nights entries define that. That is the status quo -all no doubt magnificent photographs. Turning the question around–if a new member were to enquire regarding the facilities -support and examples of proper portraiture–for which I will explain–some one sat in a chair surrounded by photolights and a decent background to sit and have their photograph taken by a photographer with a camera on a tripod===who will say –smile–look over my shoulder–look up at my hand and whatever else God forbid–and flash bang wallop==so we have a portrait. I think I have found an enlightened photo club –not in LCPU- who are bursting at the seams to have a portrait set up and all that entails.If we proceed as is most likely I will have achieved my wish to enliven in one small way the support for an endangered species==and a few photo enthusiasts will have lots of fun –with equipment–models- awards including cash awards and my job will be done.Also this lively group do not find it a problem to define a portrait.


    Ian McNab

    Formal studio portraits in the manner of Yousuf Karsh are certainly one sort of portrait to include. And surely ‘environmental’ portraits of the sort Arnold Newman was famous for would also count.

    Those two photographers both often (though, we should note, not always) used studio lights for their portraits, as do people like Nadav Kander, Denis Rouvre and Andy Gotts. (Gotts specialises in simple lighting, usually with one or perhaps two lights and maybe a reflector that he sets up himself when he visits the subject.)

    On the other hand, there are famous portrait photographers who use only natural light and the subject’s own normal surroundings. The most famous is probably Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose profoundly psychological portraits can be seen in his books ‘Tête-á-tête’ and ‘An inner silence’. And this natural style also characterises the work of Jane Bown, Sally Soames and, among many others, the Observer’s Antonio Olmos.

    So, there’s a great deal of famous portraiture that doesn’t involve a studio, a backdrop, three lights and a camera on a tripod, which means our definition should not restrict ‘portraits’ to one particular technical arrangement for making the picture. Rather, our statement about portrait competition entries will need to indicate the appropriate subject matter.

    So, lets assume that we are going to write some downloadable guidance for members, old and new, about our portrait competition. And let’s suppose this is what we’d give to a new club member who asked what might be an acceptable entry in our portrait competitions. What would you say in the guidance?



    Pete Robinson

    We don’t want to put off a beginner to the club by confusing them with a lot of technical information about how to use studio lighting. We can build up to that as they progress. A point I think we need to remember is that portrait photography is much about the photographer rapport with there subject, as Adrian Lines noted on  Thursday.  The photographer needs to get their subjects confidence and they need to know what each other wants to achieve. Adrian said he spends some time just chatting to his subject before photographing them. He then find it easier to pose them gets better photographs.

    Ian asked early if a portrait was a photograph where a oerson is the main subject. Technically and going by the dictionary definition it is. But has illustrated how wide this description is. For me, a good portrait brings out the subjects personality and gives the viewer a connection with the subject. It makes them think they know something about the subject. Of course, the technical side of the photograph needs to support this. You do need to understand how to set up the camera to get the results you desire. It depends on how advanced the beginner is.


    Tom Seaton

    I must admit I was a bit surprised by the entry to our portrait competitions. Many were ‘people’ pictures by my old fashioned definition and most

    of them I’d have given my eye teeth to have made, by the way.

    Ian mentioned several photographers I associate with what I’ve always thought of as true portraiture – as Peter says, a representation of the character

    of the ‘sitter’. It’s the main reason I don’t do portraiture as I don’t think I’m capable – at least from efforts I’ve made in the past!

    However if it’s people pictures which compete then I have plenty, though nothing as good as the print winner last Thursday.

    I agree with Ian, a good idea would be to refine our definition of what we expect a portrait to be for our competitions – if most members agree, that is.

    (A subject for an Open Night discussion perhaps.)  The definition need not be too technical just an indication of what qualifies as a portrait for our competitions






    • This reply was modified 3 years, 6 months ago by  Tom Seaton.

    Ian McNab

    I think you’re quite right, Tom: portraits are all people pictures, but not all people pictures are portraits. And I also agree that we have to decide whether our competition is about people pictures in general or portraits specifically. I know that Macclesfield call their corresponding competition ‘People & Portraits’, which allows entries of a more general sort.

    If we do want to have a specifically portrait competition, there seem to me to be some key elements that need to appear in the statement of what can be entered. (For simplicity of expression, I’ll phrase this in terms of a single person as the subject of the picture, but we might want to allow more than one person – for example, a couple, a family, workmates, friends or whatever.) So here are some possible matters to include in the description of what is and isn’t OK as an entry:

    – The picture should be a likeness of a person depicted as themselves, in such a way that the descriptive title of the picture could simply be their name.

    – The picture should not be of a person playing a role or character, or depicting a type or category of person. (Such pictures might properly be given titles such as ‘The Caretaker’, ‘The Chambermaid’, ‘Train Driver’ or similar, rather than the person’s actual name.) People in role at re-enactment events, historical exhibitions, dramatic performances, etc would also be excluded.

    – The picture should not be of model (whether paid or unpaid, professional or amateur) posing to provide a human figure as the subject of a picture, rather than as an individual person whose depiction could properly be titled simply with their personal name.

    – The picture may include aspects of the person’s environment, indicating their job, leisure activities, or other aspect of their real life.

    – Portraits should include part or all of the person’s body in a way that convey’s their individual identity. (This would allow portraits identifiable as a particular person that do not necessarily show the person’s face.)

    These probably need refinement and better phrasing, but I hope it’s clear what they are getting at. Do you have any additions or clarifications that might help? (I don’t think we need to start editing and dismissing ideas at this stage – it’s probably worth just trying to get ideas together first, and then refining them into a statement for members to consider.)


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