Exercise 2.4 — Same background, different model

Exercise 2.4 Same background, different model

Aim: make portraits of three different subjects, but keep the background to the image consistent; present all three images together as a series.

Exercise 2.4 (500 words)

The consistent background in the three portraits is a large sculpture situated in a city park; the sculpture comprises four figures and commemorates a grim episode in history, this grimness being reflected in the perhaps somewhat grotesque aspects of work itself (see Gallery 1 below). For this Exercise I visited the sculpture and spend time photographing it; as I did so I would engage people walking nearby in conversation enquiring for example as to whether or not they liked the sculpture, if they knew what was commemorated and so on. Finally I asked if they would like to be photographed standing in front of the sculpture. The reasons I suggested for this request were vague, even meaningless, for example that I needed for my photograph an individual person in the frame in order to ‘humanise’ the statues, to give the sculpture ‘human scale’ or ‘emotional scale’.

In this manner I first photographed some subjects as they stood directly in front of the sculpture (see Gallery 2 below) but felt the background was obscured and therefore not very visually coherent. Better was when the subject stood to one side with the same aspect of the sculpture in the frame.

Attempting to photograph and control both the background and portrait subject while out of doors proved difficult. The subjects were passers-by who I engaged in conversation before proposing that I take their photograph; consequently they could only be subjected to minimal direction (basically what spot to stand on) before I risked their loss of interest and walking away. Also, there were long intervals between photographs such that the light was not constant, something that would have been more easily controlled by the use of a portable studio. In addition, a portable studio would have allowed me to control more exactly the camera’s distance from each subject. In the three final portraits this distance is not constant due to the restrictions in my movement caused by other people walking or standing in the same area of the park. Therefore the focal distance of the zoom lens I chose varied across the three images in Gallery 4 (below) – 129, 117, 100 mm respectively.

The idea behind choosing the particular background (see Gallery 1 below) was firstly that it gave me an opportunity to engage in conversation easily with strangers (people walking in the park). Secondly, given the subject matter of the sculpture I thought it might give interest to the portraiture in that the subjects would very likely have this historical event in their mind as the photograph was made — in this sense the background also acted as a prop. On some occasions the background appeared irrelevant to the subject, for example the person in Gallery 3 was aware of the grim nature of the commemoration yet simply chose a pleasant ‘social media’ pose. However others’ demeanour showed them to be aware of the significance of the background, most evident perhaps in Image #3 in Gallery 4 (below).

The final series of three portraits for this Exercise is shown in Gallery 4 below.

Gallery 1 (click to enlarge) ‘Famine’, a sculpture by Edward Delaney

Gallery 2 (click to enlarge) ‘Framing’

Gallery 3 (click to enlarge) ‘Pose’

Gallery 4 (click to enlarge) Three image for Exercise 2.4



Project 2 The Aware (v)

Project 2 The Aware (v)

In Clare Strand’s series of portraits ‘Gone Astray Portraits (2002/3)’ (Strand, s.d) ‘it is Charles Dickens who provides the inspiration’ (Lowry, 2009: 81 – 95). The series ‘is based upon a short story of the same name in which he [Charles Dickens] describes being lost as a child in the city’ (Lowry, 2009: 81 – 95). This short story is one which is ‘filled of references to anxiety and vulnerability and to people leading double lives’ (Strand, s.d).

Strand has described how she arrives at her choice of subjects:

When I start to make work it is totally subject driven and then I look around to see what business photography has with it – it never happens the other way round. Narratives sometimes emerge as part of this process, but they are always a bi-product, never a starting concern. My passion for photography is driven by utilitarian photography, which, in my opinion, is the source of some of the most visually rich photographic imagery – at its best offering baffling yet compelling visual-narrative possibilities. The appropriation of the utilitarian is evident through out my photography – in the conventions of 19th-century street/city portraiture shown in ‘Gone Astray’ … (Honigman, 2011)

In the ‘Gone Astray Portraits’ series Strand:

borrows from the 19th century street portrait convention of using painted murals as backgrounds to photograph city dwellers. Each sitter is carefully styled and propped to assume an urban generic type, on close examination each subject shows signs of wear, from ripped tights to bandaged wrists [see fig. 1 – 3] (Strand, s.d).

Clare Strands portrait series may be viewed from several viewpoints. In one, articulated by Joanna Lowry the series addresses:

one of the central conundrums of life in the modern city where we are surrounded by strangers. How can you know whether they are authentic? Might they not just be dressed up for the part? Be performers? Or confidence tricksters? (Lowry, 2009: 81 – 95).

Strand has stated that the creation of such uncertainty is a deliberate aim in the series:

Each character is a constructed ‘type’ cast as you would actors, with similarity carefully selected pops. They are types of people I would expect to find on any urban street. If they weren’t there, I’d want to know why not. That’s why I used the Dickens quote from [the short story] Gone Astray as he talks about double lives, about people pretending, colluding with the theatrical element of the street (Strand cited in Lowry, 2009: 81 – 95).

This construction of character ‘type’ (above) in the series is reminiscent of the work of August Sander (b. 1876) but with essential differences: Sander chose as subjects those from the population whom he felt fitted best to his preconceived ideal of a particular social type (Clarke, 1992), whereas Strand has employed costumes and props to construct each character type (above). Another difference is that Strand ‘poses her characters in front of a painted woodland, a rural arcadia. The reference is to both the studio tradition of portraiture and to the bourgeois fantasy that that tradition embraced’ (Lowry, 2009: 81 – 95).

In addition to the above Strand’s series is also part of ‘the recent re-emergence of the staged photograph within the domain of art’ (Green, 2009: 103 – 110), and is consistent with the idea that ‘it is the sense of theatricality, and with it an emphasis upon narrative, that seems to be of most interest in much of the new kind of work being produced today’ (Green, 2009: 103 – 110). Other artists that could be included here include Tom Hunter (b.1965), see fig. 4.; Mitra Tabrizian (b. 1954) see fig. 5.; Sarah Dobai (b. 1965), see fig. 6. (Chandler and Henneman, 2009).


Clarke, Graham (1992) ‘Public Faces, Private Lives: August Sander and Social Topology of the Portrait Photograph’ In: The Portrait in Photography. Clarke (ed.) London: Reaktion Books. pp. 71-93

Chandler, David and Henneman, Inge (2009) Theatres of the Real. Brighton: Photoworks

Green, David (2009) ‘Constructing the Real: Staged Photography and the Documentary Tradition’ In: Chandler and Henneman (ed.) Theatres of the Real. Brighton: Photoworks. pp. 103 – 110

Honigman, Ana Finel (2011) Clare Strand. At: https://nihilsentimentalgia.com/2011/12/04/%E2%94%90-clare-strand-%E2%94%94/ (Accessed on 28.07.17)

Lowry, Joanna (2009) ‘An Imaginary Place’ In: Chandler and Henneman (ed.) Theatres of the Real. Brighton: Photoworks. pp. 81 – 95

Strand, Clare (s.d) Clare Strand, Works. At: http://clarestrand.co.uk/works/?id=100 (Accessed on 28.07.17)


Figure 1. Strand, Clare (2002/2003) ‘Untitled’ from Gone Astray Portraits (2002/3) At: http://clarestrand.co.uk/file_uploads/large/Small_JPEG_4.jpg (Accessed on: 28.07.17)

Figure 2. Strand, Clare (2002/2003) ‘Untitled’ from Gone Astray Portraits (2002/3) At: http://clarestrand.co.uk/file_uploads/large/Small_JPEG_1.jpg (Accessed on: 28.07.17)

Figure 3. Strand, Clare (2002/2003) ‘Untitled’ from Gone Astray Portraits (2002/3) At: http://clarestrand.co.uk/file_uploads/large/Small_JPEG_6.jpg  (Accessed on: 28.07.17)

Figure 4. Hunter, Tom (2005) For Batter or Worse. At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/staticarchive/251c0412884c7df9016c34ac454db7ffcfd50f07.jpg (Accessed on: 28.07.17)

Figure 5. Tabrizian, Mitra (2003) The Perfect Crime. At: http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/assets/img/data/3860/bild.jpg (Accessed on: 28.07.17)

Figure 6. Dobai, Sarah (2005) Still from Short Story Piece. At: http://estherwindsor.com/assets/1000000mph/dobai/dobai_7.jpg (Accessed on: 28.07.17)

Project 2 The Aware (iv)

Project 2 The Aware (iv)

The type of photography practiced by Penn in his series ‘Small Trades’ (Heckert, 2009) is often termed ‘ethnographic photographic’ (Garner, 2015). Garner takes five examples to illustrate his concept:

What links the portraits in this article? The figures here are very different: a young Burmese girl elaborately encased in metal-hoop adornments [see fig. 1.], from a century before Paco Rabanne launched his radical metal couture; a Wigan mining girl of the 1860s with the paraphernalia of her trade [see fig.2.], a prototype of Irving Penn’s Small Trades series; Oscar Wilde in the precious costume affected by aesthetes of the fin de siècle [see fig. 3.] ; a trio of young Germans photographed by August Sander for his 1929 anthology Antlitz der Zeit [see fig. 4.] ; and chic Vogue editor-in-chief Emmanuelle Alt, photographed on the street in Paris in 2007 by The Sartorialist [see fig.5.] (Garner, 2015).

Penn’s work collected in his book ‘Worlds in a Small Room’ (Penn, 1974) closely complies with the above definition. Penn managed his ethnographic work alongside his fashion work. For example while on a fashion assignment in Lima, Peru he rented a photographic studio where he:

photographed rural Peruvians passing through the city over the Christmas holiday, pulling them in from the streets and paying them to sit for a portrait. Penn’s photographs show the subjects wearing their traditional clothing, and these, like his fashion photographs, reveal the texture and design of their garments.

More importantly, however, these photographs reveal familial and social relationships. Penn’s photograph ‘Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs’ (1948) [see fig. 6.] shows a boy dressed like a miniature version of his father and sitting at his feet. The five eggs arranged on the rug are the man’s goods to sell at the market that allow him to provide for his family. In the group portrait ‘Six Street Boys, Cuzco’ (1948), [see fig. 7.] Penn shows a group of adolescent boys inside the studio engaged in the same behaviours they would display outside in public. The boys are posed with their shoe shining equipment or newspapers to sell, and others simply stand casually in the background (Art Institute Chicago, s.d).

Penn wrote of this experience:

The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds (Penn cited by McLaughlin, 2013).

Penn went on to repeat a similar process many times: The Converted Studio 1964–67: Crete, Extremadura, and San Francisco; The Portable Tent Studio 1967–71: Dahomey, Nepal, Cameroon, New Guinea, and Morocco (Art Institute Chicago, s.d).

However, some observers are sceptical of Penn’s understanding of the studio (including especially the portable studio) as a ‘neutral area’; in a discussion of the book ‘Worlds in a Small Room’ (Penn, 1974), one such says:

As popular ethnography the book is adequate. It is on a humanistic level that I find this book troublesome. Penn makes the assumption that the studio (…) was a sort of neutral area where both subject and photographer were away from the protection of their normal environments. Stripped of their defences these strangers would be free to communicate themselves “with dignity and a seriousness of concentration” (p. 9). There is a fundamental flaw in Penn’s logic. While he was out of his culture in the sense that he did travel to these various locations, he always rented or constructed a studio to work in. The studio environment is one where Penn is clearly at home and totally in control. As wielder of the technology, Penn was literally calling the shots.

In fact, because Penn lacked familiarity with the language and culture of the people that he photographed, he had to pose them by physically manipulating their bodies into place. “I posed the subjects by hand, moving and bending them. Their muscles were stiff and resistant and the effort it took on my part was considerable.” (p. 12). The results are hauntingly beautiful and frightening images of human statues: people totally at the mercy of a technology and anaesthetic which is not theirs and which makes them into beautiful objects for our contemplation (Ruby, 1977).

Similar concerns as these have been highlighted and discussed by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in relation to documentary photography in general (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 -183).


Art Institute Chicago (s.d) Ethnographic Studies. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/IrvingPennArchives/ethnographic (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Garner, Philippe (2015) Collecting guide: Ethnographic portrait photography. At: http://www.christies.com/features/Garner_Costume-5606-1.aspx (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Heckert V. (2009) Irving Penn: Small Trades by Heckert. New York: Getty Publications

McLaughlin, Tim (2013) Classic – Worlds in a Small Room. At: https://imageonpaper.com/2013/07/21/review-worlds-in-a-small-room/comment-page-1/ (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Penn, Irving (1974) Worlds in a Small Room. New York: Grossman Publishers

Ruby, Jay (1977) ‘Worlds in a Small Room. Irving Penn. New York: Grossman, 1974’. In: Studies in Visual Communication 4 (1) pp. 62 – 63 [online] At: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1048&context=svc (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail (1991) ‘Who Is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’ In: Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press pp. 169 -183


Figure 1. Unknown photographer (1860s) Borneo girl [albumen print] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_3_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Figure 2. Cooper, John (1860s) Wigan coal mining worker [albumen print carte de visite] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_2_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Figure 3. Sarony, N (1860) Oscar Wilde [albumen print cabinet card] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_1_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Figure 4. Sander, August (1929) Group of young men [book plate] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_4_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Figure 5. The Sartorialist (2007) Emmanuelle Alt [archival pigment print] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_5_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Figure 6. Penn, Irving (1948) Father and Son with Eggs, Cuzco. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/images/standard/WebLarge/WebImg_000184/84062_2029573.jpg (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Figure 7. Penn, Irving (1948) Six Street Boys, Cuzco. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/images/standard/WebLarge/WebImg_000184/84002_2028869.jpg (Accessed on 22.07.17)

Project 2 The Aware (iii)

Project 2 The Aware (iii)

Irving Penn (b. 1917) was well known ‘as a fashion photographer since at least 1943 when he began to work for ‘Vogue’’ (Jeffrey, 2014: 404). However, Penn had:

always been attracted to points of interchange, where due to a switch of context the prosaic begins to appear glamorous and vice versa. The other-worldliness of high fashion, for example, is made strange by being shown in the street, as strange as street life might be if it were brought into the studio. In 1951, for example, Vogue published his ‘New York Small Trades’ portraits, which show longshoremen and others from unsavoury side of the city seen in isolation in natural light against plain studio backdrops (Jeffrey, 2014: 404).

Penn expanded this series and worked in Paris and London as well as New York. He:

created masterful representations of skilled tradespeople dressed in work clothes and carrying the tools of their occupations [see fig. 1 – 5.]. A neutral backdrop and natural light provided the stage on which his subjects could present themselves with dignity and pride. Penn revisited his Small Trades series over many decades, producing evermore-exacting prints, including platinum/palladium enlargements (The J. Paul Getty Museum, s.d).

Penn took care to photograph his subjects in their work clothes:

For example, in ‘Patissiers, Paris’ (1950) [see fig. 6.], the two men are dressed in white uniforms, flour from the rolling pins visible on the studio floor. The platinum-palladium prints that Penn made of his photographs in the 1970s especially brought forth the details of these figures with crisp definition, from the wrinkles of their aprons to the veins of their forearms. In these details, Penn draws attention to the fact that much of their work is done by hand, still a physical process of taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a finished product (Art Institute Chicago, s.d).

There are strong echoes of August Sander’s (b. 1876) work in Penn’s ‘Small Trades’ project. A difference between the two is that Sander included the background as an important component of the composition, whereas Penn took pains to exclude it – compare for example Figure 6 with Figure 7.


Art Institute Chicago (s.d) Irving Penn Archives. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/IrvingPennArchives/ethnographic (Accessed on 16.07.17)

Jeffrey, Ian (2014) The Photography Book. London: Phaidon press

The J. Paul Getty Museum (s.d) Irving Penn: Small Trades. At: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/penn/index.html (Accessed on 16.07.17)


Figure 1. Penn, Irving (1950) A charwoman from The Small Trades. At: https://static01.nyt.com/images/2008/02/06/arts/penn190.jpg (Accessed on 16.07.17)

Figure 2. Penn, Irving (1950) Pompier (Fireman), Paris, At: http://www.elysee.ch/fileadmin/_processed_/csm_gm_31068701_144_web_02_c7e8a9f59a.jpg (Accessed on 16.07.17)

Figure 3. Penn, Irving (1950) Chimney Sweep, London. At: http://www.elysee.ch/fileadmin/_processed_/csm_gm_31055401_med_02_103aeaa749.jpg (Accessed on 16.07.17)

Figure 4. Penn, Irving (1951) Chestnut Vendor, New York. At: http://www.elysee.ch/fileadmin/_processed_/csm_gm_31059801_med_02_8a461e4f19.jpg (Accessed on 16.07.17)

Figure 5. Penn, Irving (1950) Vehicle Watcher”, London. At: http://www.elysee.ch/fileadmin/_processed_/csm_gm_31058001_med_02_94b868ab86.jpg (Accessed on 16.07.17)

Figure 6. Penn, Irving (1950) Patissiers, Paris. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/images/standard/WebLarge/WebImg_000193/108050_2139409.jpg (Accessed on 16.07.17)

Figure 7. Sander, August (1928) Pastrycook At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/AL/AL00033_10.jpg (Accessed on 17.07.17)

Exercise 2.3 — Same model, different background

Exercise 2.3 Same model, different background

Aim: Select a subject for a series of five portraits, varying the locations and backgrounds. The one constant element must be the subject you have chosen, who must appear in all five images.

Exercise 2.3 (500 words)

The subject of this series is someone who at this time in his life has the leisure to enjoy a regular stroll through the village and its local park where he lives. I met the subject once beforehand when I had the opportunity to explain my project and request his participation; we then met the following week to take the photographs. The series of five photographs are of the subject as he stops at some of his favourite places during his strolls.

The photographs were taken on a weekday, in the afternoon of a summer’s day when the village was quite, most people are at work, leaving the streets to mothers with prams, playing children and strollers such as we were.

Thus the photographs are taken over a short period, this is not a large or long-term study such as those undertaken by for example Harry Callahan (b. 1912) whose wife and daughter ‘aged before his lens’ (The Met, s.d), or the long term sequential portraiture series by Julian Germain (b. 1982) ‘For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds Of Happiness’ (Germain, 2005), a project made over an 8 years period (Germain, s.d).

Nevertheless there are many possible outcome when portraits are made even over as short a time as was taken here. It is a truism that ‘the creation of an image through a camera lens always involves some degree of subjective choice through selection, framing, and personalisation’ (Struken and Cartwright, 2001: 16). An often cited instance of this is the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration in the U.S. whose own ideological bias ensured that their subjects appear as ‘deserving poor’ (Sontag, 1977: 6; Franklin, 2016: 63).

In editing the final five images for this exercise I rejected the two photographs shown in Gallery 1 below. The first image (Image 1) is of the subject looking in a shop window, something of an idle occupation; the second (Image 2) has a background which is deserted but for a lone individual sweeping up; there are many signs visible advertising activities but no evidence of any currently taking place. Both these photographs play to the perhaps clichéd narrative of the lonely individual, with nothing to do, wandering the streets. This was not at all the situation of the subject of this Exercise. However, with the choice to exclude the two images shown in Gallery 1 in mind it is worth considering what the final series of images might have implied the Exercise been undertaken in winter, when the subject would have been bundles up in most likely a dark coloured overcoat and walking the same route through the village on a dismal overcast day.

This speculation in turn prompts the consideration as to whether the final image series for this Exercise shown in Gallery 2 is a photographic version of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ – a term famously coined by John Ruskin (Ruskin, 1856) to refer to our tendency to endow inanimate nature with humanlike characteristics. Thus the  warm summer’s day implies a happy, bright ‘sunny’ individual.

Gallery 1 (click to enlarge) Rejected Images

Gallery 2 (click to enlarge) Final series of five images for the Exercise


Franklin, Stuart (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon

Germain, Julian (2005) For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness. Göttingen, Steidl

Germain, Julian (s.d) For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness. At: http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php (Accessed 26.07.17)

Ruskin, John (1856) ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy’ In. Modern Painters, iii. (4) [online] At: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38923/38923-h/38923-h.htm#CHAPTER_XII (Accessed on: 27.07.17)

Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books

Sturken, Marita and Cartwright, Lisa (2001) Practices of Looking. An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

The Met (s.d) Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago. At: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/266958 (Accessed on: 26.07.17)