on the portrait chapter in Bate – a resusable reference

I have read this chapter again and again. I have referred to it on numerous occasions here and in my log for Context and Narrative. A summary of what is in it will be of benefit, I think…

After starting off with a potted history of the development of portrait photography in the nineteenth century, Bate gets onto the two topics I’m going to discuss here: What are the elements of a portrait photograph and how do we read them? and What is it that we do when we look at pictures of people and why do we like to do it?


These are the parts of a portrait that allow us to read what is there. They form the basis of what we use to read pictures of other people. the way we do so is loaded with political and social meaning and judgement.

  • Face – what people ‘look like’; their expression; their hair; their age.
  • Pose – how they hold themselves in the frame; how this positions the subject in relation to the photographer and the viewer; how comfortable they seem to be in their surroundings
  • Clothing – we all extract meaning from the way other people dress – the suited businessperson; the fast food employee with their name badge; the casually relaxed clothes of someone on holiday. How new or worn are their garments? clean or dirty? crumpled or neatly pressed?
  • Location – where is the subject when the picture is taken and what does it say about them? Are they in an alley or a richly furnished interior? Are they standing in front of the Taj Mahal or the Leaning Tower of Pisa? To go back to Sander are they in an enclosing space like ‘Unemployed’ or heading off into an open space like the three young farmers?

All four elements work together, either through reinforcement or through contrast. Their relative importance  within a single picture is determined by the extent to which they dominate it. The wider the frame of the picture, the more important location becomes with the face becoming less important (and vice a versa).

Reading Portraits:

  • Recognition: gives three categories of people to look a: the familiar (people who are like us), the unfamiliar (people who are not like us, the ‘other’, people we do not know); the known (people we are aware of for good reasons – Obama? – or bad – Trump? – but have not actually met)
  • Identification: four sub-categories are given: with the camera (ie with the position from which the picture is taken and/or the person taking it); of the person depicted (recognition again); with the person (an empathetic feeling toward the subject or possibly a directed aspiration to be like them or a nostalgic memory of when we were like them); with the look of the person depicted (taking a narrative position where the viewer aligns their view of the action depicted with that of one of the people in the picture)
  • Narcissism – according to the French post-Freudian, Jacques Lacan, the pleasure we take in the recognition (and mis-recognition) of one’s own body (in the image of others).
  • Projection – the ability to map states of mind/emotions etc onto the people depicted in a picture. Generally the examples given – ‘casting off uncomfortable feelings and relocating them within another person or thing’ –  would appear to be the negative flip side of narcissism. Also deals with the pleasure found in having your prejudices confirmed by the appearance of others.
  • The Blank Look – allows greater freedom for the spectator to impose their idea of what a person is feeling; ties in with Kuleshev’s experiments with film editing where spectators ascribed different emotions to the same close up of an actor with a neutral expression, based on what the reverse shot showed the actor was looking at (ie when the actor was juxtaposed with a pretty woman, you got desire, with a baby, tenderness etc etc.)

Identification and Projection go to work where there is not enough detail for a simple individual decoding of the picture; this same space is also opened up for us in the event of too much photographically accurate detail (as with Thomas Ruff’s enormous passport photos). The ambiguity of these spaces is what occupies the viewer as they try to make sense of them, in much the same way that the best of Gillian Wearing’s pictures of people holding signs, we are held by the gap between the statement and the expression – or lack of it – on the subject’s face.

In all this, it is the space opened up by ‘the blank look’ that seems to have most weight in practical photographic terms. As with Barthes’ concept of the punctum  where something in a picture arrests the attention of the person looking at it as something inside them is brought to light, this ambiguous space with either too little or too much detail can draw us into a picture of another human. And we like looking at pictures of other people…



Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. 1st Edition. London: Bloomsbury


2 thoughts on “on the portrait chapter in Bate – a resusable reference

  1. Pingback: assignment 2 – making the photographs | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

  2. Pingback: Four Portraits by Thomas Ruff – National Portrait Gallery, London | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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