How Do Portraits Communicate Cultural Identity Part 1
Alan Evans BA Hons Photography
HOW DO PORTRAITS COMMUNICATE CULTURAL IDENTITY
The proposal is to explore the way in which portraits communicate cultural identity. Looking at key
theories surrounding portraiture past and present. Beginning with a brief history of portraiture.
Looking at what portraits were used for. Exploring Van Gough’s self-portraiture and his portrayal of
ordinary people. The people whose portraits were painted and the reasons they were painted.
Considering the three elements of portraiture.
A brief history of the invention of photography and its affect on the painted portrait. Looking at how
the range of people sitting for portraits changed. Documenting the brief period of pictorialism and
the popularity of the pinhole camera. Likening George Eastman’s Box Brownie and the film camera
revolution to today’s Digital revolution. Following the 1950’s exhibition of man, Post war
photographers began to document their environments. I will be looking at the work of David Hurn,
Bert Hardy, Ian Berry and Robert Frank. Each of these photographers made a photographic study of
their own national identity. I will be making comparisons between the differences and similarities in
their work and relating this to the social ‘norms’ of the time.
I will be looking at the impact that the photographer Martin Parr made through his photographic
studies of specific groups of people, their surroundings and their cultural identity. This will aim to
cover his work at Hebden Bridge, New Brighton. There are comparisons to be made with the earlier
I will also be looking at the way in which portraiture has been subverted and redefined by
contemporary photographers. I will be looking specifically at the portrayal of ethnic and
marginalised groups of people. The photographers Dinu Li, Sonia Boyce, Philip Lorca diCorcia,
Boris Mikhailov, Ingrid Pollard, Eileen Perrier and Margareta Klingberg have all been involved in
documenting cultural identity in some way.
I will summarise by looking at the role of the Internet as a living, changing portrait of a universal
This paper aims to establish how portraiture communicates cultural identity. This will be achieved
by looking at the key theories and ideas past and present of portrait artists and photographers. The
intention is to focus on the use of portraiture pre photography and the representation of cultural
identity through paintings and the arts at the turn of the last century. Looking at the invention of
photography and the affect it had on the traditions of portraiture. The people making portraits and
the people being portrayed. Looking at the way in which black culture was portrayed through the
arts, the National Geographic Magazine and artists from the turn of the last century onwards. Taking
a dictionary definition of portraiture, culture and identity. The paper will aim to establish whether
photographers agree with these definitions and highlight the way in which they are adhering to or
challenging them. It will compare the work of photographers whom have attempted to document
their National Cultural Identity. The paper will also attempt to highlight emerging contemporary
portrait photographers who are dealing with cultural identity. It will also attempt to identify a pattern
in the circumstances, which lead to the photography of marginalised, people from other cultures. It
will also attempt to highlight a shift in direction of racism from the black community towards the
Muslim community and immigrants.
The 19th century was a time of technological change, of increased mechanization and automation. A
sense of optimism about the future and an embracing attitude to technology prevailed. With new
advances came the fantastic growth of cities throughout Western society. The pre-industrial rapidly
gave way to a world of urban and eventually suburban workers. As new industries developed,
people moved to the cities to secure employment. This caused social balances to shift forming an
immense new class, which Karl Marx called ‘the Proletariat’. Another shift came with the enormous
rise of urban shopkeepers, professionals, small business owners and other non-aristocratic property
owners. These people became the most dominant of the classes both economically and socially and
were known as “The Bourgeoisie”.
By 1900 advertising agencies, firstly in America then Europe helped to stimulate consumer demand
and create products that were considered desirable. The simultaneous development of mechanised
transport, and advancement in communications linked cities around the world. Some key inventions
that became fundamental to life in the new century available to the everyday customer included
electric lighting, domestic appliances, the telephone, the gramophone and cinema. The automobile
also played a key role in making rural and urban communities more accessible to each other. The
radio and the airplane - both transformed people’s lives in terms of dissolving national and regional
boundaries. The airplane also prompted travel and encouraged tourism.
At the turn of the century the Exposition Universelle was being held in Paris. Black visitors flocked
to see the ‘American Negro Exhibit’ on the Rue des Nations. The items exhibited included,
photographs, books, fine art, handmade products, industrial products and numerous other items
made by independent black artisans. In his book, Black Art A Cultural History, Richard J Powell
describes this as being
‘A shining example of what was possible for any oppressed people whether in Africa,
Europe, or in the Americas, once the veil of slavery had been lifted, and they had a chance to
do something for themselves’. (Richard J Powell, 1997, pg24)
The artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, Sculptor May Howard Jackson and
photographer C. M. Battey were producing new imagery of black life. Powell
describes Tanner’s painting ‘The Banjo Lesson’ as ‘a luminous pictorial
narrative about learning, cultural nourishment and cross-generational affection’.
(Richard J Powell, 1997, pg26). This image could be deemed as portraying a
positive cultural identity. Not all was positive following the emancipation of
slavery. White black faced minstrels, comics, art, music and dance orientated
towards racist representations of black people.
The illustrator Edward W. Kimble is noted as having created his own one-man
Negro–stereotype industry through dozens of racist illustrations for books and
journals of the period. In a twist of irony the man responsible for putting the
word ‘coon’ into common usage was the black Vaudeville performer and
composer Ernest Hogan. Powell suggests that Hogan’s song; ‘All Coons Look
Alike to Me’ started the ‘coon’ craze and racist representations of blacks
worldwide. Images such as this could be deemed as a negative portrayal of
cultural identity. The public had to decide which of these artistic representations were accurate.
This image, ‘Candle Lightin Time’, was taken by Leigh Richmond Miner (1901).
Miner was a member of Hampton Institute’s camera club. The institute was
founded in 1868 in Hampton Virginia for the children of ex-slaves and
reservation bound American Indians. By 1900 it had almost 1,000 students
enrolled. Historian and black activist William, Edward Burghardt Du Bois
championed cultural expression and believed that paintings like Tanner’s ‘Banjo
Lesson’ and photographs like this one were the guiding lights in the vast gloom and darkness which
followed the American Civil War. Powell describes the portrait as
‘Communicating African Americans that stressed both their slave heritage and what Du Bois
described as that transfigured spark of divinity’. (Richard J. Powell, 1997, pg33)
Prior to the invention of photography, painting was seen as the visual medium through which the
world was represented. Wealthy individuals commissioned portrait artists whom worked on the
painting over a period of time. The subject was often portrayed amongst items, which symbolised
their social status. Books, jewellery, gowns or anything, which communicated wealth or status.
Miniature portrait paintings were commonplace in aristocratic households.
Portraits have often been presented to others as a gift. They have appeared in many forms including,
paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings, coins and medals. They can also appear in newspapers,
magazines, on pottery, mosaics tapestries and bank notes and of course, photographs. The
photograph is used to symbolise friendship and displayed in a place of prominence within
households worldwide. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century the exchange of portraits was seen as a
means of affirming friendships, particularly amongst young men. The artists Van Gough and
Gauguin exchanged portraits shortly before they came together at Arles in 1888. Vincent Van
Gough made numerous portraits of people in cafes, brothels, or simply working the land. This
portraiture provided an insight into the cultural identity of individuals and a nation. In his painting,
The Potato Eaters Van Gough states that
“I have tried to emphasize that these people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug
the earth with those same hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and of
how they have honestly earned their food’. (Cutts, Josephine & Smith, James, 2004, pg49)
Van Gough saw his subjects as peers. He was preoccupied with peasants and the working classes.
Jean-Francois Millet inspired Van Gough. Millet was also painting scenes of social realism. Van
Gough was so inspired by Millet that he began to copy some of his works. The most famous being
The Siesta, 1889-90. The nature of people being portrayed was changing. Portraits of ordinary
people, servants, farmers, etc were beginning to become commonplace.
The nature of art also changed, as collectors could be a factory owner or an aristocrat. The church
and state no longer had the monopoly on commissioning works of art. Artists began to experiment
with new subject matter and new styles. Artists rejected the depiction of historical events in favour
of portraying modern contemporary life. Creating images that presented and analysed class
relations, family structures and individual anxieties. The term ‘Modernism’ arose through these
radical changes in artist’s attitudes. Modern artists began to champion innovation, inventions and
individuality. Modernist art developed as a series of movements. These included Impressionism,
Symbolism, Post-Impressionism, Purism, Vortism, Dada and Futurism. Futurism, for example,
celebrated technology and innovation with the glorification of speed. Artwork also became more
accessible to the public during the 19th century. Accessibility developed in three ways. Through art
museums and exhibitions, through lithography and through the modern medium of photography.
Photography, developed in 1839 with inventors such as William H. F. Talbot and Louis Jaques-
Mande Daguerre. Since its invention photography has been used for creative expression, as a record
of the world or to present different perceptions of the world. Photographs have been used for
personal mementos, historic records, pornography, factual evidence, fictional work, artistic work,
propaganda and numerous other uses. It had a great effect on modern art. Exhibitions began to
include the photographic medium. George Eastman the founder of Kodak brought film photography
to the masses. Public interest in photography came with the development by Kodak of an easily
portable hand held camera. A truly revolutionary and modern development that began to limit the
necessity of the professional artist. Eastman’s invention was accompanied with his slogan "You
press the button, we do the rest".
It was not until the invention of photography that the ordinary man or woman
was portrayed in large numbers. This was realised through a fad for the ‘carte
de visite’. In 1854 Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi took out a patent on carte-
de-visite photographs. These were small postcard sized images usually taken at
a photographer’s studio. The subjects were photographed in front of a
background, which included a number of props. These ranged from simple
curtains to elaborate staged sets, which replicated a wild jungle scene or
numerous other objects peculiar to the time. Actors, musicians and writers were placed on carte de
visites. This formal set up for photographic portraiture was to become the ‘norm’ for many years to
come. Portraits could now be completed within a short period of time without too much fuss.
Photography was utilised by artists as a means of improving their workflow. Self-portraits could be
constructed from the photograph rather than the artist sitting in front of a mirror. Despite predictions
that photography heralded the death of painting, it went on to expand the potential.
Photographers set up studios in the main, but some took to the streets. From now on anyone could
represent his or her own world and experiences. As a result births, weddings, deaths and other
events in peoples lives became the arena of the amateur photographer. Portraiture became
One of the earliest records of street – photojournalistic photography occurred
in New York. Jacob Riis emigrated to New York in 1870 and became a police
photographer. Riis went into the slums and cellars of New York City in the late
1800’s. His images documented the awful conditions that some immigrants had
to live in. He was so appalled at the conditions that he decided to devote
himself to reform. His book, How The Other Half Lives, 1890, was the first of
its kind to be illustrated with photographs. At the time these images were seen
as documentary. Today they could be defined as portraiture. They serve to define the identity of
individuals in the New York slums. One could argue that they also represent the ideas, beliefs,
values and knowledge of that particular civilization at that particular time and therefore represent
cultural identity. The French photographer Eugene Atget was taking photographs of street
entertainers and prostitutes. New Realism images were appearing. As a result of the popularity of
photography societies and publications began to be formed worldwide.
By 1899, the National Geographic Magazine was being circulated. The magazine kept an emotional
distance from the rest of the world to begin with. This was partially to do with the fact that
communication was cumbersome and long distance travel was uncommon. There was some
coverage of the First World War and Immigrants flocking to America in search of a better life. The
world was experiencing change and revolution. In 1906 Ghandi began a passive resistance in Natal,
India. There was rapid industrial growth. There was extreme poverty in many parts of the world.
Racism was prevalent and aimed predominantly at black people. There was a fascination with
celebrity and The First World War was about to break out.
The war had an affect on both painters and photographers. The German artist Ernst Ludwig
Kirchner completed a self-portrait shortly after being released from active service. Kirchner had
suffered a nervous breakdown and was exiled to a sanatorium. The portrait of Kirchner as a soldier
with an amputated hand is meant to convey his sense of despair and identity crisis. The general
public may have been shocked by such a graphic image given that photographs from the war were
not freely circulated in the newspapers and magazines of the time. Kirchner had also produced a
lithograph titled ‘Tapdancing Negro’ 1914. Richard Powell describes the image as ‘an overture to
black popular culture’ (Richard J. Powell, 1997, pg31). Powell goes on to suggest that
‘Most educated blacks of this period rejected those aspects of black culture which
perpetuated certain notions of black servility, racial jokes, derogatory pictures, and other
disparaging displays’. (Richard J. Powell, 1997, pg31)
Thousands of black soldiers had enlisted and fought in a war in Europe to
uphold democratic ideals and liberties which were not available to them. The
Soldier, 1919 by Edward A. Harleston shows a World War 1 black soldier
arms folded with a knowing look. Powell describes this as an embodiment of
what African Americans felt about the war. ‘Frustration and simmering anger
of knowing that duty to God and country will not be sufficiently
acknowledged or rewarded’. (Richard J Powell, 1997, pg39). Powell describes
the image in a way, which suggests that he is referring to the broken promises
of racial equality, which sparked the lynchings, and race riots of 1919.
‘Harleston’s black veteran, wearing medals, insignia, and an expression which tells of
campaigns against both the Germans and his fellow white Army officers, epitomized the
growing realization among many blacks that World War 1 was merely a prelude to greater
and more overwhelming battles on the home front’. (Richard J. Powell, 1997, pg 39-40).
Jean Renoir the son of the impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir made a film about the power of the
Charleston, a popular black dance step, Sur Un Air De Charleston, 1926. Renoir’s message in the
film was that ‘black creativity was modern society’s only salvation and hope’.
The dancer Josephine Baker may have been responding to this call. At nineteen, Baker appeared on
the stage of the Champs-Elysee’s Music hall in the 1925 stage show, La Revue Negre. Powell
explains that Baker was ‘Virtually nude and carried upside down, like a wounded gazelle, on the
back of the robust, Martiniquan dancer Joe Alex, even the most cosmopolitan Parisians were
stunned’ (Richard J. Powell, 1997, pg57).
Powell suggests that Baker single-handedly defined the ‘New Negro’ in Paris. The term ‘New
Negro’ meant an enlightened, politically astute African American. The portrait of the poet Langston
Hughes by Winold Reiss (1925) is described as ‘perfectly capturing the common ground from which
these newest structures and racial pre-occupations sprang’. Powell asks if it was ironic that a white
German artist was asked to portray this modern, black persona. Powell suggests that it made sense
given the artist’s cultural distance from American racism. It was the way in which the ‘New Negro’
movement wanted to portray African American identity in art.
Paul Colin’s lithograph of a caged and simian-like Josephine Baker, 1927
epitomized the primitive response to black culture exploited by both black and white,
not only in France but also in much of the Western world. The African Culture was
seen as exotic and dangerous. Technological developments and the increase in world
travel were about to offer an alternative representation of black cultural identity.
From the 1920's cameras with conventional lenses were cheap and available to a wider audience.
Realism found favour over Pictorialism. There was a newfound freedom resulting from lightweight,
small format cameras with fast lenses, and ideas of documentary truth. Representation and
interpretation of the world was now the prerogative of the masses. Cameras were at hand to record
just about any event, which unfolded. Ordinary people were making history through the act of
capturing decisive moments on film. Images were being recorded in working class ghettos, family
homes, war zones and far flung regions of the world. The new medium was being used to record
history in the making.
We begin to see character studies and environmental portraits. The photographer James VanDerZee
took photographs of ordinary people in Harlem, America, dressed up in order to look glamorous and
wealthy. Powell does not see these images as portraits, which map out a cultural identity. He
describes the work as ‘A modern, racial motif that transcended a specific black place or black
people’, (Richard J Powell, 1997, pg53). Midsummer Night In Harlem by Palmer C Hayden, 1936 is
described by Powell as ‘another brash, expressionistic scene of blacks relaxing in an outdoor, urban
setting’. (Richard J. Powell, 1997, pg36). We can see a similarity between the works of art
completed under Roosevelt’s Federal Arts projects (1935 – 43) and the images appearing in the
National Geographic magazine around the same time. The predominant style is figurative,
naturalistic and narrative driven.
Magazines like the National Geographic were becoming more popular as a result of the public’s
fascination for images of people from other cultures. One could argue that portraiture has played a
part in documenting these changes but what is a portrait and how does it communicate cultural
A dictionary definition of a portrait reads as follows, ‘1. A painting or other likeness of an
individual, esp. of the face’. (The Collins Concise Dictionary Of The English Language, pg885)
In her book, Portraiture, Shearer West suggests that this definition is too simple. West believes that
portraits are not just likenesses but works of art that engage with the ideas of identity as they are
perceived, represented, and understood in different times and places. West defines identity as
encompassing the character, personality, social standing, relationships, profession, age, and gender
of the portrait subject. West does not include any reference to a person’s culture. One could argue
that this could also be apparent in a portrait.
Historically generic qualities attributed to a sitter have been conveyed through gesture, expression,
role-play and props as clues to the sitter’s worth. Shearer West lists three considerations linked to
the complexities of portraiture. They are, likeness, type and commissioning.
West suggests that the first attribute of likeness is unstable and can differ according to whichever
artist or photographer is responsible for the creating the likeness. Historically, artists used a variety
of items to achieve this. The Romans used death masks to faithfully reproduce the likeness of the
subject. The nineteenth century artist Gilbert Start used life masks for his likenesses. The invention
of photography allowed the artist Degas to achieve as exact a likeness as possible of his subjects.
This is illustrated in this excerpt from the diary of Julie Manet.
‘Monsieur Degas can think of nothing but photography. He has invited us all to dinner next week
and he’ll take our photograph by artificial light; the only thing is you have to pose for three minutes.
He wanted to see if we would make good models and made Mr. Renoir pose, but he started
laughing’. (The Impressionists, pg213)
West argues that the drive for likeness in portraiture must be balanced against the limitations of
representations, which can only offer a partial, abstracted, generic, or idealized view of any sitter.
One could argue that the second attribute of type is closely linked with photography. Greater
numbers of people were recorded as a result of its invention. We could now record and compare vast
numbers of people within the same occupation or culture. This approach could be described as
scientific, one of ordering and studying large numbers of people in order to form conclusions about
the human species. This too has its limitations of representations. The German photographer August
Sanders produced a book, People of the twentieth century. His intention was to present reality in a
sober and detached manner. He divided his subjects into social categories, e.g. farmers, craftsmen,
and other professions. He was not concerned with individual likeness but types. His approach only
served to highlight the individuality of his subjects. Shearer West suggests that one of the most
concise statements on dualism in portraiture comes from Erwin Panofsky.
‘A portrait aims by definition at two essentials… On the one hand it seeks to bring out
whatever it is in the sitter that differs from the rest of humanity and would even differ from
himself were he portrayed at a different moment or in a different situation: and this is what
distinguishes a portrait from an ‘ideal’ figure or ‘type’. On the other hand it seeks to bring
out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity and what remains in him
regardless of place and time; and this is what distinguishes a portrait from a figure forming
part of a genre painting or narrative’. (Shearer West, 20004, pg24).
In her book, In Focus, 2004, Leah Bendavid - Val suggests that the dictionary
definition of a portrait ignores intriguing possibilities. The book itself shows
people photographed from behind, masked or half hidden. Bendavid -Val suggests
that the word ‘portrait’ calls to mind self-conscious mug shots. The National
Geographic is renowned and respected for its portraiture of cultural identity. The
magazine’s images are meant to convey information about cultures rather than
individuals. Placing people in information rich settings with the purpose of illustrating dress and
lifestyle achieves this.
A dictionary definition of culture is as follows,
1. The total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared
bases of social action. 2. The total range of activities and ideas of a people. 3. A particular
civilization at a particular period. 4. The artistic and social pursuits, expression, and tastes
valued by a society or class. 5. The enlightenment or refinement resulting from these
pursuits. (Collins Concise Dictionary Of The English Language, Pg272)
Taking these definitions literally, a portrait, which communicates cultural identity, would have to be
a painting or other likeness of an individual, especially of the face. It would also represent their
ideas, beliefs, values, knowledge and their particular civilization at that time. It would also have to
contain unique identifying characteristics by which it can be recognized. Portraits communicate
cultural identity because they identify individual characteristics, signs and symbols, which are
associated or represented within a particular culture or civilization at a particular time. Indicators
within the portrait may contain clues as to the cultural identity. Clothing, colour of skin,
environmental surroundings and memorabilia can give contextual clues as to the cultural identity.
Yenawine suggests that it has become more difficult to distinguish between cultures.
‘Because of time and circumstances, conquest, trading, migrating to find a better life or for
some sort of freedom, new communication systems, and even intermarriage these distinct
cultures have become rare’. (Philip Yenawine, 1995, pg10).
Yenawine believes that
‘While a figure can be anyone, and is often generalized on purpose, a portrait tries to present
both an accurate depiction and to some degree other aspects of a particular person’s
character, personality, for example, or moral goodness or authority’. (Philip Yenawine, 1995,
Leah Bendavid-Val writes in her introduction that ‘a person is far too complex to be revealed in any
single instant’. (Leah Bendavid-Val, 2004, pg29). The National Geographic Society’s mission is to
discover and present the world’s unknown places and populations. Bendavid - Val acknowledges
that the book and the magazines accept that the portraits give only a suggestive glimpse as to the
individual. According to Bendavid – Val, if we acknowledge this then it removes the burden of the
photograph giving total insight. Instead, we are asked to open our hearts and heads to the truths and
fantasies of photography itself. Bendavid - Val notes that in the early days of the magazine people
were recorded as ethnic types, not as individuals. Bendavid - Val defines the 1930’s as an important
period for photography. Photographers began working on the streets capturing people’s behaviour.
Although Bendavid – Val questions whether these were portraits she acknowledges the
democratization of portraiture through photography.
The photographer Stuart Franklin has submitted numerous portraits to the
National Geographic. He describes the early work in the magazine as
ethnographic, lacking intimacy. Franklin cites Clifton Adams’ photograph of a
Sardinian girl smiling, 1923, as ‘a paradigm shift in the National Geographic’s
approach to portraiture’. (Stuart Franklin, 2004, pg119). The image is natural,
unposed and meaningful. This is more in line with the images in the magazine
today. Franklin suggests that there are two problems with portraiture. The first
he suggests is that the picture fixes the subject passively in time and space. The second is that the
picture abstracts narrowly from dynamic, changing, everyday life. He is unsure of how a portrait
should be judged as successful other than rendering immortal something of the mortal character of
the subject. He also suggests that portraiture is more at home and more accomplished in
immortalising loved ones.
Bendavid-Val also places great value on family portraiture. She suggests that they are amongst the
dearest possessions in almost every household. ‘The first pictures we care about which are framed,
cared for and handed lovingly to next generations’. (Leah Bendavid-Val, 2004, pg72). I would also
suggest that these family snapshots play an important part in allowing us to establish and
acknowledge our cultural identity. This can be achieved through analysing not only the person or
people in the snapshot but the information rich background containing objects which signify a
particular time, place, fashion, etc.
The 1940’s editions of National Geographic reflected the depression and the Second World War. A
revolution of sorts took place with the improvement in the design of cameras and photographic film.
National Geographic photographer Sam Abell relates these improvements to the freedom enjoyed by
photographers and the subsequent results, which were seen in portraits. He compares this to the
digital revolution that we are going through at present. Abell suggests that this freedom and speed to
pursue moments in history defined the difference between portraiture pre 1940 and today. He likens
the pre 1940 portraits to still life images.
The Leica camera was to find popularity amongst young photographers. The
young Robert Cappa was documenting the landings in Normandy. Cappa’s motto
was, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. The
photographer Dorothea Lange had no such problem. Abell cites Dorothea
Lange’s portrait titled ‘Migrant Mother’ as one of the most powerful portraits of
the period. The image did not appear in the 1930’s editions of the National
Geographic. Abell informs us that ‘The portrait of life they saw month after
month was a reassuring one, seen from a distance and rendered in sunny colour’. (Sam Abell, 2004,
Pg166). Dorothea Lange started out as a portrait photographer in San Francisco. Shocked by the
numbers of homeless and their living conditions she began taking pictures of them on the street.
Lange was determined that the photographs she took were uncompromised. No fuss, no adjustments,
just what you see at that decisive moment.
Henri Cartier Bresson was travelling the world taking intimate portraits and documenting his mantra
of ‘”The Decisive Moment”. The Magnum Photo Agency was soon to be formed bringing together
some of the world’s finest photographers. Many of these photographers would be dispatched to
outer regions of the world including war zones. Some lost their lives in the process.
Jodi Cobb is another National Geographic Photographer. She believes that a portrait gives us
permission to stare at something, which is forbidden in life. She believes that in this staring we are
searching in private for clues to attraction, identity, personality and ancestry. Cobb believes that
portraits can provoke, repel and soothe. She believes that the face belongs to the sitter but the
portrait is the possession of the photographer. She sees a moral dilemma in this because the sitter
wants to look good and so does the photographer. Cobb’s summary is that
‘The pure portrait conveys only what he looks like, how long he’s lived, and his mood at the
moment, and the skill-and intent-of the photographer. For the full story she believes we need
to see his environment’. (Jodi Cobb, 2004, pg248).
Leah Bendavid -Val agrees with this idea and believes that the National Geographic photographers
intention is to present an entire cultural situation. Following The Second World War there was a lot
of subject matter. The 50’s and 60’s saw the Civil Rights Bill passed. Colour TV was invented. The
Russians went into space, and photographers and models became celebrities. The Beatles and Elvis
stemmed a youth culture, which eventually turned into hippie culture opposing the war in Vietnam.
President Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. There were race riots in the USA and
Cultural Revolution in China. The Berlin Wall was being built. Hard-hitting images were beginning
to appear in the media. One of the most famous being a child running along a road in Vietnam
having been burnt by napalm.
William Allard was just starting out as a photographer in 1964. Allard believes
that a fine portrait is about the eyes. Allard documented the culture of the
American West through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. His portraits are of Amish
families, ranchers, inter-racial marriages, black church congregations etc. Allard
acknowledges that he had to gain the subjects acceptance and permission in
order to take an intimate portrait. Allard moved from the American Mid West
and documented life in Peru.
In this portrait we see a boy, Eduardo, standing, crying at the side of a road. Allard had taken his
picture shortly after a truck had rammed the boy’s sheep off the road and to their death. Allard says
that ‘The sight of the boy standing before me registered in my mind as a reflection of much of what
Peru can be about for its people. Cold, harsh and cruel, a country where death can come easily to
animal and human alike’. (William Allard, 2004, pg315)
Allard cites Steve McCurry’s portrait of an Afghan girl as one of the finest and
most famous of any portrait published in the National Geographic magazine.
Allard believes that a fine portrait tells you something about the spirit of the
subject that can be sensed by someone half a world and a different language
away, something universal and simple. This may be true and be present in the
photographer’s representation of the Peruvian or Afghan cultural identity.
Allard concludes his essay by summing up what a portrait should achieve.
‘This is another person in our world and I’d like you to meet him or her. Maybe you
will feel like you know a little about them, what are their sorrows, what kind of songs
they might sing, what they might be like to sit with in a café and share a cold beer or
a glass of wine. A picture that’s good enough can do this’. (Willam Allard, 2004,
There are some whom have attempted to achieve this through a long-term study of a people and a
life’s work. One could argue that it is impossible to portray an entire nation’s cultural identity. The
French photographer Robert Doisneau followed in the tradition of fellow countryman Eugene Atget
in documenting French Cultural identity. He has become synonymous with a way of life defined as
Doisneau photographed ordinary men, women and children on the streets and in the cafes
and bars of the working class areas of Paris. His style could be likened to that of a storyteller.
He utilised photography and its ability to communicate to its full. Doisneau may not have
been aware of the post-modern implications of his work. The sensitivity and narrative of his