What is Portrait Photography?

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I recently commented on social media that an image of a dog created in a studio with the dog’s steady gaze firmly directed toward the photographer’s lens was a portrait. This comment produced a series of increasingly heated responses stating that the image I had described as a portrait could not be a portrait as a portrait had to be an image of a person. Not only did it evidently have to conform to a particular subject matter but it also had to conform to a series of aesthetic and technical conventions.

Of course this didactic approach to creativity based upon pre-conceived ‘rules’ and genre definitions makes no sense to anyone engaged in trying to create new work rather than replications of existing photographs. However, it does reveal a desire for rules to help define a portrait image.

As a photographer who could be described as a ‘portrait photographer’ this desire for a definition makes very little sense to me. Within my photographic practice I shoot personal images and commissioned work for clients that includes the documentation of people alongside still-life, landscapes and interiors. The portrait is not only of the person but also the environment and whatever that environment maybe or contain.

My hope when creating a portrait is to create an image of the person that reveals more than surface, more than what the person is wearing; to capture a moment of truth, revelation or honesty based upon a connection between photographer and subject. My belief is that a successful conversation should produce a successful portrait.

Of course it is not easy to have a conversation with a dog but to exclude the animal portrait, the captured portrait, the unintentional portrait, the environmental portrait or the conceptual portrait from the broad description of what a portrait can be would be ignorant of the history of the portrait within painting, montage, sculpture and photography. So where does this narrow interpretation of the photographic portrait come from?

My suggestion would be from the rules and regulations of the photographic competition. In an environment where the direct comparison of the incomparable is the sole process by which a ‘winner’ can be decided upon, the narrowing of understanding of what constitutes an appropriate competition entry not only makes a judges decision easier it also makes understanding what the competition is looking for clearer. However, it does nothing for the understanding of what a portrait image can be.

This approach to defining a specific aesthetic to what constitutes a successful photographic portrait in the 21st Century is most clearly seen in the winning images in the annual Taylor Wessing Portrait Awards www.npg.org.uk/whatson/twppp-2015/exhibition/prize-winners.php. This much maligned international portrait competition is not only exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London but also travels nationwide to regional museums and galleries. The influence the selected works and exhibition have within and outside of the photographic community is therefore greater than is appropriate or healthy bearing in mind that its judging panel last year consisted of  a director at the NPG, the head of photographs at the NPG, a representative of the international law firm Taylor Wessing, a museum curator and one photographer.

Our challenge as creative  image-makers is to question pre-conceived opinions based upon our own visual language and understanding not to conform to set rules and artificially constructed genres of creativity. It is a shame that a competition platform such as the Taylor Wessing is not used to showcase a broader understanding of what portrait photography is, has been and can be. It could be a celebration of portrait photography rather than a selection of disparate images brought together without explanation or comment from a voiceless jury.

The creation of the Salon des Refusés – an exhibition of works rejected from a juried art show – titled Portrait Salon www.portraitsalon.co.uk as a response to the Taylor Wessing selection of images has addressed some of the issues raised in the understanding of what constitutes successful photographic portraiture the Taylor Wessing Prize promotes but by its nature it is shaped by its host’s submission guidelines.

I don’t not want to be dictated to or pigeon holed in my work by competition rules, pedantic guidelines or outdated beliefs. I want my work to be what it is, an expression of what I see and therefore to me a successful portrait should take us beneath the surface, it should be a visual conversation between the image and the viewer and I need no more rules than that.

© Grant Scott 2016


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