The practice of Portraiture


Media, Culture and Practice / Media and Journalism


Introductory Course

Reading Extracts week 1

1. From the Portrait to the Close-Up: Gender and Technology in Still Photography and Hollywood Cinematography

Patrick Keating
In Cinema Journal 45, No. 3, Spring 2006

Part I: The Practice of Portraiture. Before examining how the discourse of gender intersects with the practice of portraiture, let us first sketch the basic technology and techniques of that practice. Arthur Hammond’s 1917 article in American Photography, entitled “Home Portraiture,” offers a good initial account. According to Hammond, the amateur and the professional need only two things to light a portrait: a window and a reflector. The article includes several diagrams showing the right way and the wrong way to use these two tools. In the diagram illustrating the strategy for “ordinary lighting,” the window is placed at a frontside position. According to Hammond, the result is the following: “One side of the face is fully lighted, and on the other side, the side away from the window, there is a triangle of light on the cheek, just below the eye.” By carefully adjusting the window shades, the photographer can modify the lighting and control the highlights. Hammond has remarkably precise instructions about the placement of the highlights: “With good lighting there should be a highlight on the forehead, just above the eye on the lighted side of the face, and also on the bridge of the nose, on the tip of the nose, on the lips and chin, and also a bright spot in each eye.” In spite of these precise stipulations, Hammond does allow some room for variation. For instance, a bay window might allow the photographer to light a portrait without using a reflector. Alternatively, a photographer could try out a technique called “Rembrandt lighting.” In spite of the fancy name, the technique employs the same basic ordinary lighting setup. Instead of changing the lighting, the photographer simply moves the camera to a position facing the light source. As long as the glare is controlled, the result is a light outlining the sitter’s profile, similar to a Hollywood backlight. […]

Not all photographers at the time were relying on window lighting for their portraits. Some professional photographers had invested in artificial lights. However, this technical change usually did not involve a shift in aesthetic strategies. Photographers liked the reliability of artificial lights, but they preferred the “natural” look of daylight. In the 1918 edition of The American Annual of Photography, studio photographer T. W. Kilmer describes the professional’s dilemma:

For many years man has been striving to produce a light that will take the place of daylight as an illuminant in photographic portraiture. He has had a hard job. Daylight is certainly in a class all by itself when it comes to using it for this purpose. Its


softness, its subtleness, its actinic quality, its broadness, its various moods, all made it the ideal illuminant. Although ideal in character, it is nevertheless difficult to master, for one moment it lights your subject with a full blaze of bright light, only to be followed by a period of soft, dull light caused by a cloud scudding across the sun.

Kilmer goes on to suggest a simple solution: use artificial lights to duplicate the soft look of daylight. This desire for softness causes Kilmer to reject carbon arc lights, which give off light from a point source. Instead, Kilmer recommends using Cooper-Hewitt lamps, which illuminate from a larger area. […]

In short, whether British or American, amateur or professional, the typical portrait photographer of the time favored the soft look of daylight, so much so that even artificially lit portraits were illuminated in this fashion. At first glance, the aesthetic justification for this approach seems simple enough: this lighting provides the modeling necessary to create a plausible likeness of the sitter. Arthur Hammond writes:

Our vision is stereoscopic because the two images seen by the two eyes are merged and coalesced into one image, just as the two pictures in a stereoscopic photograph are seen as one. This gives us a sense of roundness and relief which, in a photograph made with only one lens we must suggest by means of varying intensities of light, halftones and shadows. [. . .] This is why lighting in a portrait is so important. The direction of the lighting determines the positions of the highlights, halftones and shadows on the face and these indicate the shape of the features and consequently the likeness to the individual portrayed.

According to Hammond, the photographer must compensate for the two-dimensional nature of the medium by using light to create a sense of depth. The photographer creates a likeness by creating a sense of the shape of the sitter’s face. Many of Hammond’s technical recommendations contribute to the goal of creating a sense of depth. For instance, Hammond insists, “To obtain the maximum relief and roundness, the light should come from one source only.” Hammond also advises stretching sheets of muslin over the window to soften the light, if necessary. Because a soft light creates multiple degrees of gradation between the light side and the shadow side, it can enhance the sense of depth. Hammond’s priorities are worth noting: soft window light is not favored because it is natural; rather, it provides the best modeling. Notice that Hammond does not suggest that the camera’s automatic use of perspective will supply the required sense of depth. Depth is not captured by the mechanical camera; it is created by the individual photographer, through the skillful manipulation of light and shade. Likeness is created, not captured. This rhetoric emphasizes the creative contributions of the individual photographer.

Photographers who were concerned with justifying photography’s status as an art would take this argument about the photographer’s individual contributions even farther. For instance, Antony Guest, in his 1907 book Art and the Camera, writes:

What is likeness? It is not altogether an objective matter that makes its appeal by a set arrangement of form and colour, so that what one sees every one else sees, and asto which there is no room left for diversity of opinion. It is at least to an equal extentsubjective, depending on the point of view of the beholder, his mental attitude, and thedegree of sympathy that he feels for the person portrayed. […]Hence it seems that some other aim needs to be substituted for that of mere similitude, or, at least it should be supplemented by something more trustworthy;

and that which naturally suggests itself is character.

Guest opposes the weak notion of mere similitude to the stronger goal of capturing character. According to this theory, although appearances may change from moment
to moment, each subject has a more of less consistent character which can be captured by the artistic photographer.[…]

The concept of “character” is itself far from simple. The photographers’ discourse of character is almost invariably complicated by a discourse of gender, as many photographers start with the assumption that men and women have different degrees of character. This ideology of difference impacts their formal choices in concrete and specifi c ways. In his 1919 book The Fine Art of Photography, pictorialist and portraitist Paul L. Anderson offers a detailed discussion of the way gender and character impact photographic technique. Anderson’s discussion is particularly remarkable for his open acknowledgement that the ideology of difference invoked by photographers is a cultural construction:

Men are most likely to have strongly marked characters, since their mode of life tends to develop the mental processes and to encourage decision, whereas our present unfortunate ideals of feminine beauty incline toward mere regularity of outline and delicacy of complexion. One finds, nevertheless, a good many women whose features express mental activity and firmness of will, the higher beauties of the mind rather than the mental indolence which is imperative in the cultivation of what is popularly termed beauty.

According to this theory, character is more or less visible on a person’s face. A person with a strongly marked character will have more lines on the face, a result of mental exertion; conversely, a person with less clearly marked character will have a more delicate complexion. Furthermore, character (both as an internal state and as its external manifestation) supposedly tends to vary with respect to men and women. To his credit, Anderson refuses to naturalize this distinction, arguing that “the present variation seems to be rather the result of education and training than of anything else.” Nevertheless, he resigns himself to the distinction, noting that “for the present the facts are as stated.” Ultimately committed to the “facts as they are,” Anderson uses his generalizations about character to support various proposals about formal principles. His recommendations are different for men and women, though even here he makes an admirable effort to interrogate and complicate the assumptions of his profession. He writes:

We are accustomed to associate brightness and vivacity with children, and these qualities are suggested by a high-keyed print, transparent and full of light [. . .]. To a less extent the same is true of portraits of women, though here the scale may be extended, more contrast being used, even (in the case of women of strong character) approaching the full-scale, powerful effects which are valuable in portraying men. Evidently, men less accustomed to commanding positions, that is, artists, writers, students and the like, approach more nearly to the feminine gentleness of character, and they, since their work is more in the realm of the imagination, are generally to be rendered with less contrast and vigor than those who have charge of large affairs.

Anderson offers specific recommendations about the formal features of tonality and contrast. Specifically, a portrait of a man, particularly one in a commanding position, should have strong contrasts of light and dark. Although some portraits of women can approach

this range, the general rule is to employ a brighter overall tonality with images of women. He offers two of his own pictures as an example […] The portrait of the man has strong contrasts of light and dark, with darkness providing the dominant tonality. The portrait of the woman has much less contrast, and brightness is the dominant tone.Anderson does not explain why the control of contrast and tonality serves to differentiate character. However, it seems likely that the technique works in two ways: emphasis and expression. First, emphasis: according to Anderson, people with strong characters have stronger lines in their faces. “Contrasty” lighting and printing would serve to make these lines more visible, while high-key lighting would emphasize the smoothness of a sitter’s face. Applying this logic, to emphasize a sitter’s “decisive” character, a photographer might use “contrasty” chiaroscuro to bring out the lines on a person’s face. To emphasize a sitter’s “indolent” cultivation of beauty, a photographer might use less contrast to emphasize the smoothness of a person’s complexion.

Before considering expression, it should be noted that contrast is not the only way to emphasize lines of character. For instance, Arthur Hammond recommends varying the angle and quality of the light: “The lighting should always be suited to the subject, a strong shadow lighting might be appropriate for a man, but a softer, flatter lighting would usually be better for a young woman or a child.” […]

These techniques of emphasis can also differentiate character in another way: through expression. According to Anderson, a high-keyed print suggests the qualities of “brightness” and “vivacity.” The formal elements have expressive properties, and these properties can be used strategically to express the sitter’s personal qualities. In a chapter entitled “Appropriate Treatment,” Antony Guest makes this theory of expression explicit:

It is often overlooked that additional expressiveness is to be obtained through the decorative influence if applied with discrimination. Pictures of people are sometimes composed as if the beauty of lines and masses were a thing apart, a sort of gratuitous adornment in no way relating to the personality portrayed. To instance a ridiculous extreme, we may suppose a portrait of Lord Kitchener treated with delicacy, while that, say, of a pretty actress is composed with severity of line and an impressive chiaroscuro.

Guest’s point is that the reverse treatment would be more appropriate. Although Guest does not make his assumptions explicit, it is no surprise that his recommendations follow the basic strategy of differentiation outlined by Anderson. The commanding male figure should be represented with “severe” lines and “impressive” chiaroscuro, while the pretty actress should be treated with more “delicacy.” Extending this expressive analysis to Hammond’s recommendations, we find that he prefers “strong” lighting for men, and “soft” lighting for women.

In short, a discourse of sexual difference intersects with the photographers’ discourse of character. This is not merely an intersection in the realm of discourse. The intersection also yields practical results: a set of specific procedures for varying their techniques, depending on whether the subject is a man or a woman. Here is a general summary of these techniques:

A) Direction of light: Frontal lighting smooths wrinkles, while side- and top lightings emphasize them. The former is preferred for women, while the latter is preferred for men.

B) Quality of the light: Diffusing or bouncing the light softens the edges of the shadows. Cooper-Hewitts also produce soft-edged shadows. Undiffused arc lights produce hard, sharp shadows. As we have seen, some photographers are opposed to the use of hard lights, regardless of the subject. However, in general, softness is preferred for images of women for two reasons: the expressive associations of the term “softness,” and the tendency for soft shadows to de-emphasize facial lines.

C) Contrast (lighting): Even a soft frontal light will cast some shadows, but weakening the contrast by adding a strong fill light will make those shadows even less salient, emphasizing the smoothness of the sitter’s features. Decreasing or eliminating the fill light will emphasize shadows (and therefore emphasize character), particularly when combined with hard side- lighting. Again, emphasis is reinforced by expression. Pictures of women feature “gentle” gradations in tone, while pictures of men feature “strong” shadows.

D) Overall tonality: Overexposing a woman’s face is one way to smooth out lines. Also, there is an expressive tendency to prefer darker tones for images of men, to create a mood of “seriousness.”

E) Lens diffusion: Using soft lenses or placing gauze over a lens softens the image, with predictable results to expression and emphasis.

F) Lens focus: Even when not working with a specially designed “soft” lens, a photographer could choose to throw a woman’s face out of focus, thereby smoothing out lines. Used in another way, the technique can also add character to a picture of a man: by softening other areas of the frame, a photographer could draw attention to a sharply focused, well-lined face. This approach would achieve appropriate emphasis, though perhaps at a cost of including some inappropriately expressive features.

G) Retouching. This is another way a photographer could soften all or part of a picture and smooth out the wrinkles in someone’s face. Indeed, this approach was probably more common among photographers than the option of altering focus.

H) Contrast (Developing and Printing): Yet another way to influence the contrast of the image is to use different developing or printing techniques. For instance, overexposing and underdeveloping the negative will result in a low contrast print, emphasizing soft gradations over strong contrasts. Meanwhile,underexposing and overdeveloping the negative will result in stronger contrasts. Developing and printing techniques could also be used to adjust the overall tonality of an image. […]

2. Media-Bodies and Photoshop Meredith Jones

In Attwood, F., Campbell, V., Hunter, I.Q, Lockyer, S. Controversial Images, Palgrave, London, 2012.

[…]The Campaign for Real Beauty

There is a growing fascination in comparing photoshopped and non-photoshopped images. Celebrities such as Britney Spears and Jamie-Lee Curtis have emphasised their own ‘authenticity’ by releasing non-photoshopped pictures of themselves, while magazines feature non-photoshopped covers and ‘photoshop free zones’ in order to have readers see them as not being responsible for women’s poor body-image. Paradoxically, the cultural trope of railing against the ‘unrealistic’ presentations of Photoshop is now so common that it has been taken up by advertisers themselves— the very group that uses these tools and processes to greatest profit now has an interest in ‘undermining’ them. Dove Evolution is a video that is part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty advertising campaign […] The video shows a young woman who is pretty by most standards staring at the camera. Then, in fast motion, we see a team of makeup artists and hairdressers set to work glamourising her. After they are done a photo is taken and an invisible photoshop artist goes to work, elongating her neck, arching her eyebrows, widening her eyes, etc. The final shot is a pullout that shows the image—looking very different to the original woman’s face—on a billboard. Fade to black, and white text comes up that says ‘No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted. Take part in the Dove Real Beauty Workshops for Girls’. This one-minute video was hugely popular through 2006 and quickly became viral. It was used in classrooms to discuss relations between body-image and media and it spawned many parodies and copies. It won two Cannes Lions awards for advertising and led to huge financial success for Dove, with sales growing by 700% (Hoggard, 2005).

There are complex messages and meanings being addressed here. Dove’s accompanying website states that ‘the principle behind the campaign is to celebrate the natural physical variation embodied by all women and inspire them to have the confidence to be comfortable with themselves’ (Dove website). However, there is no denying that the campaign’s raison d’être is to sell Dove’s new beauty products and deodorants along with its more established soap. Marina Hyde wrote in The Guardian, ‘let’s not forget that the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is in fact the Dove Campaign to Shift Soap’ (2005) and Rebecca Traister wrote in Salon ‘Dove has a worthy new ad campaign that tells women to embrace their curves. Too bad they’re hawking cellulite cream’ (2005).

The hypocrisy that Traister notes here is important because it is part of a set of complex cultural contradictions where sub-texts are given voice alongside main texts, even where they appear to be undermining those dominant paradigms. […] such contradictions often work to support mainstream cultural narratives, beliefs and values. […] this tension between the dominant and the resistant is used by powerful groups (such as advertisers) to both incorporate and domesticate modes of resistance. […]

Thus the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty works by using apparently contradictory messages to support a dominant paradigm—in this case playing to a presumed public dissatisfaction with ‘unreal’ images of women being used to sell beauty products. It is a hugely successful campaign then, not because it in some way tells the ‘truth’, but because it uses resistant discourse to fortify a dominant paradigm. It does so by flattering its audience: positioning us as informed, intelligent and even radical consumers. Dove compliments and congratulates us on not being dupes, on not being fooled. The Evolution video enlightens audiences about what is ‘real’ and what is not. However, in terms of cultural complexity its revelatory ‘truth’ actually supports the cultural message it supposedly undermines. In other words, pedagogy and disclosure are used in the service of recruitment into the very system supposedly being undermined, something that should, of course, be no surprise given the commercial nature of the enterprise. […]

The Dove campaign consciously embraces well-worn debates around Photoshop and women’s bodies to create a successful and sophisticated marketing tool—that is at heart more manipulative and more insidious than the set of values it supposedly sets out to undermine.[…]


The digital age… far from being technically determined in any straightforward way by computers and the Internet, spawns new forms of fleshly, analogue, nondigital experience… (Mitchell, 2005:313).

I suggest that the controversies around the photoshopped images discussed above indicate more than debate around practices and beliefs about beauty as they relate to women’s bodies. Crucially, they also highlight cultural anxieties around the (mis)connections between representation and reality. Photoshopped images remind us that while it is easy to naïvely conceive of technologies of visual media (especially photography) as able to show actual bodies and objects, closer analysis reveals that rather than being able to represent fact they create what we might call ‘reality hybrids’, or in the case of bodies, ‘media-bodies’. These images/bodies are boundary crossers: neither fully fabricated nor fully connected to fleshy life, they are part of two worlds. This is what is simultaneously so confronting and so potentially wondrous about them: they occupy a double-place that is horrifying while also offering us new ways of being.

What do I mean by media-bodies? This term is an attempt to stop seeing media as distinctly separate from bodies, impacting upon them (and upon related psychological objects like ‘body-image’) from outside. Media-bodies is the beginnings of a theory that allows us to see media and bodies as symbiotic: mutually dependent and mutually creative. With ‘media- bodies’ I mean to evoke the ways in which our bodies are mediated, the ways in which our body-images are intertwined with images, photoshopped or not, that wraith-like, envelop and penetrate us. This mediation may always be a source of cultural tension and controversy. Its manifestations are likely to continue to engender concerns about dangerous images, effects, misrepresentations and so on, which is one reason it is so important to analyse it. […]

The Enlightenment and the belief systems it spawned united truth and the visual through visual technologies such as photography. These technologies seemed to promise transparency and a direct line to the real. Digital media such as Photoshop have the power to definitively problematise the belief in such a link. However, there is still a cultural comfort

in connecting photography to the real; hence the anger and angst that arise when Photoshop becomes less than invisible, and hence the space that is made for ‘heroes of the real’ like Dove that reassure us that there is a real, and that it can indeed be properly represented.

The questions that need to be asked in relation to Photoshop are not ones of the real and the virtual, or of truth and dishonesty, or of exclusion and inclusion. Rather the most important, urgent and interesting question we can ask of Photoshop is the same question that applies to all media: how am I reconfigured and created by you, just as I make you? How do our bodies become one? Where does my media-body end and yours begin?


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