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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    Pete Robinson

    The problem with applying rules like these would probably mean very few entries to the portrait competition. I was talking to Mary before last Thursday’s meeting and she told me years ago they used to strict portrait rules and they didn’t get many entries.

    I also don’t understand the logic of excluding photographs of people acting or dressed up. If you were to photograph someone in their casual clothes it’s allowed. If they then get changed into a uniform and you take a photograph in the same lighting and pose it isn’t allowed. It doesn’t make sense to me. We don’t want to spoil one of the highlights of our season. We need to be careful before making any changes.


    Ian McNab

    To take your second point first, Peter, a photograph of “a musketeer in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army” is not a portrait of “Jim Carter from Stoke, an electrician who got dressed up as a musketeer after eating bacon and beans with his wife and kids this morning”. Well, you get the point – a picture of someone pretending to be a historical character isn’t a portrait of an individual as themselves.

    And that’s essentially the issue that your first point asks us to decide about. Do we want to have a portrait competition, or should we have a competition called ‘pictures of people’? At one level, I don’t actually mind either way, as long as we are clear what the competition is about. And I do take your point that having a proper portrait competition may be too specialist to get a big entry. If this turned out to be the majority opinion, I think it would be really important to change the name of the competition to ‘Pictures Of People’ or something similar, so that it does not mislead newcomers and those with a serious interest in portraiture.


    Martin McGing

    I’m in total agreement with Peter, why do we want to spoil one of the highlights of the season?  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  Surely we should be encouraging people to participate and enjoy photography, rather than thinking of ways of redefining what can and cannot be entered into our portrait competition.



    I know the intent here is to get us thinking about what we are doing with our photography but I think we are confusing rules with interpretation.

    In drawing up rules for a competition we are just setting the parameters and those parameters are for a particular competition. For example we always adopt the rules for nature photography that the L&CPU uses. We do not have to, it just makes sense to do that because we will want to enter our members work in the L&CPU Competitions.

    Now, when a member asked me what a portrait was I guessed he was wondering whether “people pictures” were allowed. So, I answered that the picture would have a person as the subject and would show them in sufficient detail for the facial features to be absolutely clear. That was just off-the-cuff, as I said but nothing I have read here would change my mind about that – I might want to polish it up a bit but that is what we are after. We could set ourselves a similar task with the word “Landscape”.

    Beyond the bare definition we have to be very careful, lest we restrict creativity and personal expression or whatever. If our portrait is to genuinely show the character of the subject that is a very hard thing to assess, perhaps impossible, as a deep knowledge of the person is necessary to judge that. What we usually mean by character is that it has caught something special, perhaps beyond a mere “likeness” (though, heaven knows, that is hard enough). The something special could in truth be a downright lie. Dressing up, doesn’t everyone do that? You could have a nude portrait I suppose, but if you put on clothes of any sort you are still you, if you then engage in behaviours which are atypical of you then you are still you and the mere fact that someone photographs you doing that is simply capturing a part of your personality which we don’t often see – we might actually find that interesting and worth 20.

    I think the Water Seller and the Holbein of Henry are both portraits. Give the water seller a name or call the Holbein “A King” and there is no difference (save the fact that Henry looks straight at us (some think this a pre-requisite, can’t agree).

    No, I would not want to go beyond the original definition.

    There are three portraits which come to mind which I would ask your opinion about. Unfortunately, I can only reproduce one here.

    1. A “portrait” of John Barbirolli. Taken with a slow shutter speed as he was conducting. Arms a complete blur as is the face but somehow you could still just about recognise him. Is this a portrait?

    2. A “portrait” of the chairman of Collins (publishers). Obviously commissioned as a portrait it shows him from behind, three-quarters, side of face reasonably discernible in the sense that his mother would know him. Full-length, he stands at a massive glass window (floor to ceiling) which looks out over the factory. The room is not well lit inside. He holds up to the light a page of a book which he pins to the window with his fingers.

    3. A “portrait” of Joyce DiDonato which she tweeted today. A publicity shot no doubt.

    All portraits?







    Thanks Martin, our comments “crossed in the post”.

    I was going to add that Macclesfield have their particular definition because they don’t want to restrict themselves to portraits, we do, after all they are in memory of portraitists and there is clearly enough interest to field a good entry.


    Ian McNab

    I’m not sure it’s a matter of spoiling things, Martin. We could continue with a competition for pictures of people as we now have. We just need to make it clear that entries do not have to be portraits, and so avoid disappointing or alienating members who are misled by the current title. Just calling it “Pictures of People” or – as Macclesfield do – “People & Portraits” would remove that problem.

    But maybe we might also want to check whether enough members would prefer a competition solely for portraits to make that a viable proposition. (A number of people have some unease about the content of the current event, and some would prefer a specific portrait event, but it’s hard to estimate how general this feeling is.)




    No, “People & Portraits” is not what we want – it is too general – most of our “General” entries would qualify. We would not want a Joel Meyerowitz style photo winning a portrait trophy. Macc do that because they don’t have enough portraits. I’ve judged it twice.

    I would not object too strongly to the picture of John Barbirolli being disallowed because you could not see his facial features, though I think it would be a shame.

    Regarding dressing up, “Reg Biggins as an RAF Officer” would have to be OK, but “RAF Officer” would not. (Come to think of it, that would stop the silly crits about uniform!).

    While I would expect studio work to be represented in the entry it would be ridiculous to restrict the competition to that. It would be Portraits, not Studio Portraits.

    Martin is right, while we should be thinking about what we are doing we must not lose sight of the fact that we are amateurs, in it for the love of photography.



    Ian McNab

    John >>> You must have posted while my screen was locked as I replied to Martin – so our replies crossed, too!

    What you say in your post seems to imply that all pictures of people with a discernable likeness are portraits. Have I misunderstood, or are you saying that all people pictures are portraits?

    If so, you’re using the term ‘portrait’ in a way that isn’t supported by its art-historical usage. Normal art-historical usage would not identify ‘The Water Seller of Seville’ as a portrait of a particular individual: Velázquez is essentially depicting some typical impoverished bloke doing a typical job that impoverished blokes do; what was revolutionary about the picture was to make this the subject of an art work. And as you know, there are loads of paintings by Rembrandt in which his wife, his servants and he himself are roped in to be models for paintings called Bathsheba, St Paul, an Eastern Dignitary and so on – they are clearly not meant to be portraits of his servants or his wife – but of course, he also did some actual portraits titled by his wife’s personal name.

    Perhaps it’s precisely because these competitions are in memory of serious portraitists that there is unease in some quarters about the entries not actually being portraits.



    Ian McNab

    John >>> Rats! Crossed in transit again! My remarks above refer to your 9:53 pm post!



    No, people pictures could include most street photography but only some street photography would be genuine portraits. It has to be a study of a person.

    If anyone is claiming that only studio portraits should be valid entries I cannot accept that.

    The issue of pretence precluding acceptance as a portrait is a moot one. You don’t need to dress up to pretend and many studio shots are contrived in the sense that the photographer sets up a lot of the features of the photograph.

    So aren’t we safest just sticking with a portrait being a study of a person – yes, that would even include my Barbirolli picture!

    In fact “study” is a key word to use.

    The rest would be up to the judge – as it always is.



    Second line Chairman—“you cannot accept that” others might—it is a Society!!! Mountain out of a molehill comes to mind. Its all very easy—PEOPLE AND PORTRAITS. Portraits “include” the fast dying art of “studio type portraits” It really is quite easy.All lumped together –removed from that that horrendous description “General” ie landscapes and vinegar bottles. Throughout my life, the difficult and impossible was always a challenge to prove the impossible can be achieved.——————The “JOYCE” photo–as a portrait–4 out of ten———


    Tom Seaton

    Your provisional list of elements covers most of what I thought of as a portrait, Ian and  if we really wished to have a ‘specifically portrait competition’ it could fill the bill. Unfortunately I think a competition along these lines would attract fewer entries and put us back to former days when entries for the Maurice Ashwin Trophy were very few and far between. Gradually, over the years, a wider interpretation of ‘portraiture’ has been accepted, resulting in very a welcome enthusiasm for portraiture and a health increase in the numbers of entries.

    To foster this enthusiasm I’m attracted by the Macclesfield classification of ‘People and Portraits’ as being more like our present arrangement – although with tighter definitions of what is permissible than we have at present.




    >>>>>> Ken. The name is John, Ken, and the only difference between you and me in the club is that I have two votes. I am simply telling you what I think, which I believe is part of the purpose here.

    >>>>>>>Tom. Agree entirely but for the fact that People and Portraits widens things to the point where we cover almost the same area as General. A broad sweeping beach shot with a lone figure could legitimately be included, or a crowd scene.

    Do we require the person to be looking at the camera? Adrian prefers that. Martin Parr chucks out anything of his where one of the people is looking at the camera. It does often spoil a street shot. It is just as if you have been rumbled.



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

    Ian McNab

    John >>> The problem is essentially about whether pictures of people who are not depicted as themselves can properly be portraits: people pretending to be civil war soldiers, zombies, steam punk characters, Highland warriors etc. I think it’s really stretching the meaning of ‘portrait’ beyond breaking point to consider a photograph of someone ‘in character’ as a study of the person themselves: if they’re really good at acting, they may give the appearance of states of mind, intentions and action that in real life would not be at all typical of them – an issue that also renders posed pictures of models problematic as portraits.

    But I accept Tom’s point, based on experience, that the number of people who would enter genuine portraits of the sort that Morris Ashwin and Howard Edwards would have understood as such may be too small for a viable competition. The challenge then is to be clear about what the range of valid entries should be to ensure fairness. I say ‘to ensure fairness’ because there may still be a few people who wish to enter genuine portraits – subtle psychological studies or environmental evocations of real people as themselves – but they will find their photographs competing with dramatic sports shots, composited pictures of Victorian ladies, fierce mediaeval swordsmen and other ‘high impact’ pictures that will be judged on criteria more typical of General competitions (as we clearly heard being used last week). And these criteria may not be at all fair or relevant to the much more subtle nuances of a fine portrait.

    So if we are going to have a wider range of pictures with a person as the main subject, how can we succinctly describe what that range is?



    A study of a person.

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