Research – Portraiture

In a tutorial with Anthony, we identified that my work had taken a slightly different turn, I was focusing on the idea of identity more than the original concept of communication. This had resulted in my engagement with several debates surrounding the practice of portraiture, as the images I had produced using binary code, were and still could be characterised as portraits. With this in mind Anthony recommended I research other practitioners working with portraiture in different ways and examine their process and the decisions behind their work. With this knowledge I could better understand the processes behind my own work, enabling me to progress and make further decisions such the presentation strategies I want to employ. In addition to this, in a tutorial with Caroline she gave me some interesting research avenues to explore modern, contemporary portraiture with the involvement of technology which relates to my own creative process.

Nancy Burson

Nancy Burson is an artist who has been working with composite images since her first images emerged in 1982 with her first book being published a few years later. The ideas behind Burson’s images focus on the portrait as a signifier of culture, race, power and status in society. The portrait can be a definition of beauty, an icon of power or a simple means of identification, accompanying all these examples are complications. Burson produces composite portraits to make statements about the different instances of portraits in society which work to make people think about what and how portraits are used in the media.

First Beauty Composite: Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren & Marilyn Monroe 1982
Second Beauty Composite: Jane Fonda, Jaqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton, Brooke Shields & Meryl Streep 1982

These two portraits are combinations of celebrities that represent the idea of beauty however when put together it demonstrates how different each face actually is. The pressure to conform to the media’s beauty standards can be extremely detrimental to the psychology of both men and women, with so many different faces of beauty being presented to the public in the media. There are different trends of beauty which emerge when celebrities become famous, which the audience are constantly trying to keep up with. Perhaps the most worrying trend with the social media age is the ‘thigh gap’ where young online users share photographs of people thin enough to have a gap at the top of their thighs. However this is counteracted by some of the most positive trends such as ‘girls who lift’ or ‘girls who squat’ referencing the fitness trend currently circulating. The fluctuating dynamic of beauty is definitely represented by these composite, reminding the viewer that the ‘beauty’ defined by the media is vastly diverse and unachievable.

A blend of the faces of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao and Khomeini

Where the portrait can be used as an icon in a positive way it can also be a symbol of a power status like a dictator. This portrait is a combination of famous dictators in history, acting as a representation of power. The image itself is named Big Brother, a reference perhaps to George Orwell’s 1984 which takes place in a society ruled by a dictator, using technology to keep people under rule. Although the idea of a dictator to Western society may seem like a radical notion, it is not a concept that has died in the world since these historic examples. The viewer can pick out distinctive features about the different dictators in this image, which reminds us that we do hold on to portraits as symbols of power and danger, that portraits don’t always represent the best part of a person.



Since the original composites, Burson has taken the process further and investigated the conflict which occurs when people don’t accept a different race to their own, making a the ‘Human Race Machine’ which depicts the viewer with the ‘characteristic’ of each different race. This encourages the viewer to see themselves in a different way and hopefully accept that although someone may be part of a different race and culture, it doesn’t make them any less of a person. Her most recent composites ‘Mankind/Womankind’ was made from 2003 statistics and is meant to depict the combination of every single person from every single race, the image on the left is the male, the image on the right is the female and the image in the middle is male and female combined.


This image shows us that once all the different racial characteristics are put together, the result still looks like a completely normal person, Burson makes the statement that there is no gene that decides the race of a human being. We are all human, therefore we are all fundamentally the same as each other and race shouldn’t have anything to do with the way we treat each other or perceive one another. Burson’s work is really relevant to my practice because of the way she is using information to create these composite portraits, she uses statistics to generate a representation of the a multi-racial, multi-gender person to make a statement about race and racism. Nancy Burson is using her practice to try and make us feel more connected to one another because we attempt to recognise ourselves in these images. My project however is taking this process and trying to make the least human representation of people possible using information, to make a statement about whether a person could, or should be defined entirely by information. There are differences between Burson’s practice and my own, however we are both using information to try and create a representation of the human race in a way that challenges them to think differently about their role in society.


 Two faced: the changing face of portraiture 

As I was recommended to explore contemporary portraiture, I decided to read the book Two Faced which is a collection of portraiture from different fields including photography, art and illustration. These pieces challenge the conventional historic dynamic of portraiture where the depiction of a person was very much focused on portraying a visual likeness or copy. Now portraiture is exploring new areas like identity, personality using new methods like illustration and video. Researching this book will both expose me to new methods of portraiture but also to begin analysing why the practitioner has made the creative choices will help me determine how my project should take shape.

Eboy – portrait of Paul Smith


This portrait is making a comment on the digital world demonstrating that images are now made up of pixels. There is a definite distinction between this representation and the view you would get of the subject when seeing them face-to-face; this suggests that the artists is making the point that an online or digital presence has the capacity to be far from reality. Despite the obvious fact that the portrait doesn’t look completely like the person, it is still recognisable and isn’t manipulated so far as to loose the identity. This image doesn’t look very sinister however, the bright colours make the image appear light hearted and the aesthetic is somewhat comparative to an old video game. Overall the impression I receive from this image is a light-hearted statement about the emergence of digital technology in society and how this technology may impact the way we see people.


Mark Blamire – portrait of Rankin


This portrait is a clever twist on the recognised paint palette which most DIY and decorating stores have to enable the customer to choose what colour paint they would like. By mimicking the coloured dots and putting skin-type colours together with various shadows and highlights, Blamire has been able to create an effective representation of Rankin from a photograph that we are already familiar with having been introduced to it earlier on in the book. This work doesn’t seek to make a major social or political statement, the practitioner has chosen to experiment with a societal norm and hopefully make people perceive their own world slightly differently. However I believe that this style of portrait can only really work with previous knowledge of the particular person or image it has used to experiment with as the depiction is fairly limited. The familiarity with the image is a key concept for this method of portraiture, this is something I will need to address with my own work. Whether the audience will be able to figure out the concept without any stimulus or whether I need to provide either some visual or textual support.


Trevor Jackson – portrait of Ian Wright


This portrait immediately creates a sinister atmosphere with this intimidating face looming from the black page towards the viewer. As with the portrait of Paul Smith, the face has been broken down into a series of pixellated dots however this version appears to be more sophisticated and doesn’t reference old video games. Instead the viewer gets the impression of futuristic technology, perhaps a hologram which adds to the sense of unease because there is the impression of being confronted with the unknown. The sinister, negative atmosphere created suggests that this portrait is referring to a darker side of technology. Where online users can get exposed to toxic individuals known as ‘trolls’ and children are at serious risk of being exploited through an ignorance of privacy settings. Although this portrait is fairly simple to look at, the aesthetic conjures up negative thoughts and really provokes the viewer to consider a concept they might not perhaps otherwise think about. This is a similar effect to that which I would like to achieve with my work, that increasingly an individual is being defined by the information they share on the Internet as opposed to their real self. I was previously unsure as to whether I should use a white background or a black background for my images, however by researching and coming across this portrait, I am taking inspiration from it and choosing black. This will create the impression there is something serious for the viewer to think about, which will hopefully contribute to the concept behind the images.


Hillman Curtis – portrait of Timothy Saccenti


This body of work made by Hillman Curtis is actually a video portrait, inspired by the work of Sam Taylor Wood. The images here are stills from a clip of Timothy Saccenti which Curtis produced by shooting a quick film. He described his process as looking for the small signifiers of personality and identity through body movement. Each individual moves their face and body in different ways and each have their own personal trends in movement and Curtis determined this was best explored through moving image as a photograph works to freeze movement. One aspect of this project that is particularly ineffective however, is the choice to display it in a book, although video stills are the only way in which this concept could be visually represented, I feel it would have been better to have some sort of link or a QR code which the user could use to find the original content. Viewing a piece of moving image in a series of stills really takes away from the idea Curtis is trying to create with his work, proving that presentation strategy is really important as it can be highly complimentary or detrimental. I really must experiment and consider which method of presentation will be the most effective for my project both in the context of the exhibition and out of it as I intend to use my images in my portfolio, in the exhibition catalogue and in the Source Photographic Review. Although my project is not moving image, I have identified that a series of stills is really not the most effective method for a video, therefore I will consider my project in the same respect and won’t attempt making a video out of the images I have made because this wouldn’t be the appropriate method. I am not trying to reference movement therefore I don’t need the dynamic nature of a photofilm or moving image and definitely will not pursue it.


Marion Deuchars – portrait of Nathan Gale


This portrait, by illustrator Marion Deuchars, relies on the graphic composition of lines to form the depiction of Nathan Gale. The thickness of the line creates the impression of shadow and highlights on the face, which aids the interpretation of these lines as a portrait. The use of graphic composition is highly effective and it demonstrates the fact that it is possible to relate to something other than a believable depiction. This is a concept I am applying to my own project, trying to provoke some response by presenting binary code as a series of portraits.


National Portrait Gallery

Having research contemporary methods of portraiture, I also needed to research the historic use of portraiture as this would also impact my project and the method I choose to present it. The National Portrait gallery houses a vast collection of portraiture, from historic time periods to the contemporary portraiture artists are producing currently. The collection of the NPG is online so having already visited the gallery before I was able to research and find images of the collections I had already seen. The gallery features pieces from the following time periods: Tudor, Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian, 20th Century, Contemporary: all of which are laid out in different rooms. The images below showcase some of the collections and detail the distinctive styles from each era.

NPG 304; Richard Cosway by Richard Cosway NPG 83; James Gillray by James Gillray NPG Gallery Record - Gallery Interior Photograph – Born Digital

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 22.08.06NPG Gallery Record - Gallery Interior Photograph – Born Digital

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 22.41.05

It is clear, looking at these portraits that they are statements of identity in different ways. Some of the choices and methods employed are down to resources and technology however predominately these portraits are meant to showcase an aspect about the subject. In the older periods of time the portraits were a symbolic statement of wealth achieved through both the visual content and the quality of the piece itself. Different colours were used to denote the status of the individual in the portrait and additional elements such as fruit or flowers would indicate that the subject had wealth. The size and quality of the portraits were also a reflection of this wealth, indicating that the main aspect of identity early portraiture sought to express was the status in society. Just as we do now with our material possessions, individuals in history wanted to reflect that they had money and power, and did so using portraiture. In reflection, I must evaluate what I want to say with my own images and decide how this would be best represented in my presentation methods. A large portrait in more historic periods expressed wealth, I need to identify what elements express in the current world, as my project references a very current concept. What I am trying to express in the images is a sense of digital identity so I need to think about what presentation method would best represent this, or whether I try and remove attention from the presentation method to try and express the content as best as possible. My reasoning behind this presentation method needs to be completely informed as it needs to compliment the work and be part of the conceptual process behind it. I must handle the presentation method as carefully as I have attempted to handle the visual content.



Portraiture is such a diverse genre in the contemporary period and it will continue to develop as new ideas and concepts are introduced. Originally it appears as though the main statement of identity in portraiture was to try and establish a sense social prominence of wealth. It was customary for the upper class individuals to express their wealth and power in their material possessions and this is still true today however less so in photographic portraiture. Contemporary and current portraiture has introduced new approaches to the representation of identity as explored in my blog post specifically on identity. Instead of just focusing on wealth and social stature, the subject can express other aspects to their identity which could be something as simple as their favourite colour. Portraiture can also now be a way of addressing imperfections and aspects of identity that are perhaps the subject’s perceived weakness and in turn kickstart a healing process where the subject can accept their own self. In addition to this portraiture as Nancy Burson demonstrates can be a powerful tool in getting society to address it’s own flaws, similar to me, she used technology and information in order to achieve this. There are many different reasonings behind the portraiture being produced today and this impacts both their visual content and the method in which they are being presented. I need to address what I want to say about my images, and how the concept behind them can be reflected in both the content and the presentation method. Research behind all aspects of the creative process will enable me to push my project further and really make sure the images can operate effectively in the space of the exhibition.


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