Portraiture in Photography - An Everlasting Classic

May 1, 2016

As Charles Baudelaire once wrote, what could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound than a portrait? Humans have portrayed one another for thousands of years, but the development of photography has created a completely new language for capturing the human image. Portrait photography has come a long way since its earliest days when people posed for the camera for pragmatic and sentimental purposes. It has developed into a more complex and multi-faceted genre, creating opportunities for depth, empathy and experimentation. Going beyond a mere record of a face and its various details, great portraits reveal one of the millions of intimate human moments that make up a life.

camera portraits photos use photo light photographer subject best tips using people great like make lens want portrait portraits camera photo people subject photographer use view good photographers great digital light like photos look using shot portrait phototgraphy
Left: Félix Nadar - Explorer Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazza, via reelfoto.blogspot.rs / Right: Frank A. Rinehart - Portrait Indien, via anthonylukephotography.blogspot.rs

The Portraiture Photography in the 19th Century

The emergence of photography in the 19th century triggered a decisive shift in the long-standing tradition of portraiture, beginning soon after the invention of the medium in 1839. Named after the inventor Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process and it presented a unique image on a silvered copper plate. The relatively low cost of the daguerreotype led to a general rise in the popularity of portrait photography over painted portraiture. Cartes-de-visite, small inexpensive photographic portraits intended for circulation, catered to a broadly held desire for individual likeness and represented a powerful means of virtual self-presentation. Having a portrait made was no longer the prerogative of the very rich, and the number of photographic studios started to emerge in Europe and North America. When W. H. Fox Talbot discovered a way to reproduce duplicates by inventing the paper negative, it provided the foundations of the modern photographic process and the evolution of portraiture photography.

camera portraits photos use photo light photographer subject best tips using people great like make lens want camera photo people subject photographer use view good photographers great digital light like photos look using shot portraiture photography
Left: Peter Hujar - Lost Downtown, via artsy.net / Right: Peter Hujar - The Portrait of Susan Sontag, via i-d.vice.com

The Portraiture Photography and Art

Early photographic portraits followed the conventions of the painted portrait. With traditional backdrops used in painting, early photographic portraits indicated a person’s societal status or occupation through clothing, setting or the surrounding objects. With the development of equipment and the possibility to move it out of the studio, a widening gap started to occur between these conventional and more documentary portraits. By the late nineteenth century, many photographers have rejected these traditional settings and surface impressions. Professional and amateur photographers aimed to expand the genre of pictorial photography and secure it the character of High Art, alongside painting and sculpture. After the development of the first simple-to-use small format cameras, the democratization of photography greatly affected the visual culture, as well as the idea of the human portrait. Since then, the plethora of photographers have mesmerized us with their interpretation of the portrayal of the human image, and this transformation and exploration continues today.

camera portraits photos best lens tips want camera portraits photos use photo light photographer subject best tips using people great like make lens want use view good great digital light like photos look using shot portraiture photography
Martin Parr - Spin. Benidorm, 1997, via pineasy.net

The Documentarism in Portraiture

In the 20th century, portraits went beyond simple depictions of individuals, but became portraits in a more complete sense – of our lives and times. With the emergence and the rise in popularity of the street photography, the idea of a portrait took on a different meaning. Going beyond the idea of a posed portrait, these photographs presented subjects naturally as they were found, though not always flatteringly. A portrait became dynamic and unpredictable, freezing a moment in a person’s life. Photographers such as Peter Hujar, Anton Corbijn, Sally MannMarry Ellen Mark, Larry Fink, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr or Danny Lyon greatly contributed to the evolution of this art form by candidly documenting people and their lives and blurring the lines between the documentary photography and portraiture.

view light like photos portraiture photography
Left: Rineke Dijkstra - Saskia, Harderwijk, 1994, via tate.org.uk / Right: Rineke Dijkstra - The Gymschool, St. Petersburg, 2014, via pinterest.com

The Contemporary Portraiture

Today, portrait takes on various forms, from the traditional and documentary to more experimental and elusive. A portrait is always about the interpretation or certain representation of a person, the moment and the expression, drawing the viewer in and evoking a reaction or emotion. A good portrait often leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Contemporary portraiture opens a multitude of possibilities, and a number of artists embrace this art form while playing with the idea of a portrait. Luigi Ontani uses himself as the subject of his photographs and plays with the imaginary; Cindy Sherman adopts many guises and re-examines women’s roles in history and contemporary society; the work of Hendrik Kerstens explores some of the many intersections between painting and photography; LaToya Ruby explores identities of place, race, and family; the work of Rineke Dijkstra offers a contemporary take on the genre of portraiture with different series of portraits; Nikki S. Lee blends photography and performance to investigate the fluidity of individual and group identities; Philip-Lorca diCorcia explores photography's relationship to the question of narrative. Their practice varies in approach, style and subject, but transmits the beauty of portrait photography and communicates the subject’s character, feelings, their world, the state of mind and much more.

With digital developments and social media, the world of photographic portraiture is not just an exploration of oneself, but also a socio-political and cultural discourse. It has evolved into means of reflection, exploration, investigation and analysis.

Editors’ Tip: FACES: Photography and the Art of Portraiture by Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua

As Cicero once wrote, ‘The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.’ There are so many thing to consider when making a portrait and capturing one’s personality. The authors of Faces show us how to match up a personality with lighting, posing, and composition. This book dives deep in the art of portraiture, enriched with details that can help any photographer to create a powerful image. Being a comprehensive survey of the subject, it features stunning images paired with a lighting diagram and a description of why the type of image was chosen. The authors also take things a step further by showing you some of the most famous portraits taken and how the techniques of these portraits were obtained.

Featured image: Philip-Lorca diCorcia - Brent Booth, via reddit.com

Follow These Artists

Nan Goldin
Martin Parr

Follow These Galleries

Lougher Contemporary

Bristol, United Kingdom

Bergamin & Gomide

Sao Paulo, Brazil


Brooklyn, New York, United States of America