BA (Hons) Photography year three
Plymouth College Of Art
Contexts of Practise
Does portrait photography distort the
way we see ourselves?
Submitted by sophie lane to Plymouth college
of art in partnership with the open university as a written research project
towards the degree of bachelor of arts by study in BA (hons) photography on the
26th January 2018.
Portraiture is one of the most used
mediums in photography. We see it everywhere; TV, magazines, newspapers, social
media etc. We see portraits of people so often, and also self-portraiture, we
constantly see shots of celebrities and well-known people, but are the photos
we see a true reality of that person?
Images are very commonly
manipulated, there are many discussions and arguments over what classes as
manipulating a photo; (e.g. changing the skin tone of a model, using the
healing brush to remove imperfections such as spots or freckles, or to make a model
seem thinner than reality is very obviously photo manipulation, something most
would agree with. However, things such as changing an images exposure and
brightness/contrast is questioned, is it manipulating the photo or is it just
altering the general view of the photo as if you were changing the camera
settings, altering something that had gone wrong in the physical stage of
creating the image. Any change to a photo however technically does qualify as
manipulation. If the photo has only been altered to improve the quality and fix
slight problems, and not to deceive the viewer, then it does not get seen as manipulation,
unlike the first known photo to be classed as manipulation which was a shot of
Abraham Lincoln, manipulated to make him look slim.) If manipulating a photo is
ethically correct and acceptable then why is there so much constant discussion regarding
this. Conflicted views. people will
often manipulate photos, most commonly, portrait photography; something easily
done via social media and applications on portable devices and desktops, the
common use for manipulating photos seems to be done on celebrities for big
branded newspapers, articles in magazines and for social media, it is something
we can not escape in this day and age. Social media sites such as Snapchat and
Instagram are key apps that give us the chance to alter our images before we
even take them, to rid of any blemishes and to apply filters to our selfies
before sharing them with the world. There is also now even an Adobe Photoshop
app available to download on IOS and Android, proving how popular manipulating
photos is, how common it is, and how easy it is to do so considering its now
accessible from the devices in our pockets.
The mass production and
manipulation of portraiture photography as well as the increased use of sharing
this on social media and other platforms (e.g. magazines), has led me to question
if portrait photography is distorting the way we see ourselves. Could portrait
photography be distorting the expectations put upon people and their bodies,
telling them how they should look, warping images to fit someone’s set
standards, and is this in turn misrepresenting us and making us do things to
fit the norm to meet these standards?
During this dissertation, I have explored
historical and contextual research into the topic of portraiture photography
and have looked at things such as the ethical side to manipulating photos, the
history of the portrait and the publics opinion as to whether our views are
being contorted by the views we are continuously seeing in the media and the
industry. I also conducted research from fellow practitioners on their opinion,
gaining a strong body of research to support my question.
The History of the Portrait
The portrait can be viewed as many
things, some would say it is only a portrait if it is photographic, however
some would argue this point and say art, like paintings, sculptures, drawings etc.,
are portraits. Portraiture as an art
form dates back to, at the very least ancient Egypt around 5,000 years ago, and
due to photography not being invented at this time and day, paintings,
sculptures or drawn pieces of work were the only things classed as portraits. In ancient Egypt images of deities and
pharaohs were painted and carved in places of spiritual importance in places
such as temples tombs and palaces.
The ancient Egyptians utilized a
style of frontalism, this technique and style of work requires the sitter to
sit with their body straight on and their head turned to the side. The subject’s
eyes however are in a clear view of the viewer of the work. This is a technique
then even to this day we utilize often in portraiture work, it is a strong pose
and one of the most successful.
The portrait was originally more
than documenting someone’s appearance, It was a way of documenting someone’s
wealth, their importance, their stature in society. Portraits were to be portrayed
as beautiful and honest, and in the olden days you would only find yourself
able to get a portrait done if you were wealthy.
When visiting the exhibition empire
through the lens in Bristol I found a good example of portraiture being used
for the wealthy, named merry xmas, the photographer however is unknown. The photo
was shot in Nigeria in 1923.
in this photograph, you can see a
selection of mixed race people, and you can clearly see the difference in
ranking between these people, the people with the money are sat in luxurious
robes or items of clothing whereas the workers simply have a pair of poor
quality trousers. The subject of this group portrait Is that the workers have
been used to send a Christmas message, whereas the wealthy people are
essentially being made to look respected and beautiful.
As my project delves into both
portraiture and self-portraiture I continued to read a piece of text on the Tate
website which opened my mind more. ‘A
self-portrait does not necessarily have to be representational – an abstract or
symbolic depiction by an artist of themselves can also be classed as a
self-portrait. A self-portrait can also be in any medium.’ – quote taken from
the Tate website http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/portrait
This quote made me consider what
we perceive to be a self-portrait in this current day, and the way it states a self-portrait
does not have to be representational made me consider the use of manipulation. This
then led me to research the first photographic portrait taken.
From my research, I have
discovered that portraiture stems from around 22,00 BC, in the form of a
sculptural work around the Venus of willendorf, these pieces of portraiture
date back to before the Lascaux paintings (Lascaux paintings are the work
created on cave walls.) after this
movement in the portraiture scene then came the work of the Greeks, the well-known
statue that is believed to depict Aphrodite is estimated to be dated to some
point in the second century B.C. this statue in itself shows progression in
portraiture compared to the work of the Venus of willendorf, the body and
features are a lot more realistic to that of a human subject, the details were beginning
to come through to show a level of importance.
Below is an image taken from an
online source to show the difference In these two different forms of early age
during the renaissance era a new
art form emerged known as humanism,
Artist Research/Historical artists.
Robert Cornelius was an amateur chemist when he created the
first daguerreotype images in America in 1839, this image so happened to be a self-portrait
known in this era as a selfie. At this point in his life Cornelius was only
known to be an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast, this soon changed
after Cornelius set up his camera in the back of the family store in Philadelphia.
To achieve the shot Cornelius had to remove his lens cap before running and
sitting in the frame for over a minute, before then recovering the lens, when
the image proved to be successful he documented this by writing ‘the first
light picture ever taken, 1839’. Below is the picture discussed.
David Bailey is a well-known and respected
photographer whose work tends to revolve around portraiture photography. My reasoning
behind looking at baileys work is the fact that his images look beautiful and
his models look pristine. When reading an article about bailey and his work he
explains I don’t take pictures, I make pictures. Bailey went on to explain that
when he is shooting with a model he takes time, he spends a good hour talking
to around ten minutes of shooting. After looking through his portfolio of work William
Golding said he wasn’t sure if he will ever be the same. After
viewing the picture-maker’s work, the novelist William Golding, wrote in his
preface to Bailey’s 1985 book, Imagine. “I am not sure I shall ever be the same
again.” Undoubtedly, his photographs get beneath the skin of his subject’s to
reveal more about their character than one might ever expect from a common or
garden photo: Cecil Beaton is as camp as a row of tents (“He was really
talented but a ghastly man, such a snob, the middle class are the worst
snobs”), Jack Nicholson’s infectious smile fills the frame (“He’s the
most intelligent actor I have ever met – he knows something the other actors
don’t know”) while Francis Bacon looks intense and downright sleazy (“He tried
to pick me up in Soho when I was young and I didn’t know who he was.”) quote taken
from – http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/david-bailey-i-dont-take-pictures-i-make-pictures-9107353.html
From reading the above piece of text I must agree, you see so
much of a character in the models that bailey uses. You see more than their
outer appearance, you see more than their eyes or their smile, you see them as
a person, their personality and who they are, what they felt in that moment. In
my opinion these are the photos that are strong, stronger than any image in the
media of someone like Kim Kardashian that has manipulated to make someone
appear how you want them too, to appear happier than their true self or
skinnier than reality.
Diana Arbus – also a well-known historical portrait
The ethics of photo manipulation in the media.
Upon researching I found an article that relates to the
ethics of photo manipulation in the media, specifically in magazine
photography. Within this article was something I agree with, stating that as
soon as the red eye in a photograph is removed, the image itself is altered,
this relates to what I have previously mentioned, what is classed as
photographic manipulation? The article also states that the public accept the
use of changing lighting or colours and altering the image into black and white
is not seen to be un ethical, viewers will accept this as they haven’t been deceived
as it is something everyone will commonly do before getting personal photos
printed, so it is ethically correct. But once an image has been altered past a
point of reality, is this ethically unacceptable?
This article also stated that clearly disclosing the use of
photo manipulation can take away some of the viewers opinions of it being
unethical, if it has been done and done for a reason, share this information
with the viewer.
The introduction of the ‘smartphone’ and how it has
altered portrait photography; including the view and use of it.
Applications such as Snapchat and Instagram and the easy to
use filters on them, including the ones that soften skin and hide flaws such as
skin blemishes, freckles, spots and things that are perceived as imperfections.
Flaws that would not be seen on an image of a celebrity or well-known person.
We as people now have full control over the view of us people
get to see via any type of media, with the exception of photos taken by others
using their smartphones or cameras.
The way that the smartphone has changed how many people
perceive photography and being a photographer, e.g, many people to this day
class themselves as a photographer because they take photos on an iPhone and
alter them via Photoshop and other applications, therefore the idea of a
photographer is being very much materialised. For example the portrait mode on
the iPhone is now seen to be as high quality as using a professional camera,
and seen to look superior and more to standard. People prefer it as it can hide
their imperfections and the true reality that would be seen by a professional
camera; something that can affect people.
Recently I have researched into an article about how the
camera can add 10 pounds, something that you would likely have heard a lot
during your life. This theory is in fact true: the camera can add on weight to
the subject dependant on the camera-to-subject distance used. Some
photographers are told to remain at least 36 inches from the subject in
question. This results in a more pleasing result to the photographs. due to the
perspective in photographer, the closer you are to the subject, the more narrow
it will appear.
Regarding this article there have been tests done to show the
physical changes to a photograph dependent on the distance from the model.
Looking at these images it is clear to see how photography may be distorting
our views upon ourselves and damaging our self esteem. We often see ourselves
up close in mirrors and at an eye level, what we don’t see is ourselves from a
distance. So to us photographs or self-portraits seem to make us look thicker
than we perceive ourselves to be, so we dislike the image and we feel bad about
ourselves; however to others this is how they often see and perceive you so
their opinion differs to our own.
The use of photography in the media and how it
alters our views of ourselves.
The constant use of portraits of perfect bodied and idealistic
celebrities as well as well-known fashion icons and people in the media means
portrait photography now has an impact of lowering people’s self-esteem, they
are more likely to aspire to look like these constantly airbrushed people and
strive for a reality they cannot achieve in day to day life, we cannot walk
around constantly airbrushed. To support this concept, I have conducted a short
survey and sent it out to the general public to complete, this has helped me
see if people agree with my view.
Artist research. Contemporary artists.
David La-Chapelle is a modern day photographer who clearly
uses photo manipulation within his imagery, however this kind of photographic
manipulation does not come across to me as trying to deceive the viewer of the
models appearance, but more to create
more vibrant eye catching scenery to his images.