David Bate: Looking at Portraits

Via Chas Bedford’s C&N blog (see here), I tripped over a reference to David Bate’s 2009 book titled Photography: The Key Concepts. There is a chapter titled Looking at Portraits which is particularly relevant for C&N Assignment 3. What follows is part summary, part reflection on the contents of the chapter.


The first section discusses the idea of identity and Bate makes the point that “portraits fix our identity in what is essentially an art of description”. Although there are myriad uses for portraits, put quite simply, the portrait says “this is how you look”. He notes that “the early commercial industry of photography was dominated by the development of studio portraiture” because people wanted “likenesses”. The demand was immense and focused strongly on the fixed studio where “clients [could] see themselves in a picture as they wished to appear”.

After discussing different types of portraiture, Bart ends the first section of the chapter by stating:

“What all portraits have in common, in their overlapping and different ways, is the central issue that the portrait is a means employed to establish the identity of a sitter, regardless of whether they are viewed as a social problem or a human being with positive features”.

Elements of a Portrait

Bart puts forward the notion that almost all portraits are made up of four key elements: face, pose, clothing, location. He notes that different types of portraiture use these components in different ways – for example, the face might be emphasised and the other three reduced in importance or be practically non-existant. He states that “in effect, the use of the four elements (face, pose, clothing, location) and their combined relation in the picture are what organizes the rhetoric of a portrait”.

These four elements form a useful language for thinking about portraits. But what do they say about self-absented portraits such as Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up? It seems to me that they’re not so useful in such an extreme example where only location plays a role.

Bate argues that we “read” all of these elements. That is, we observe, interpret and take meaning from them. For example, he states that “just as the expression on a face is the rhetoric of mood, so the pose contributes to the signification of character, attitude and social position”.

Ad for Kodak Brownie – Eastman Kodak Company

In the section discussing pose, Bart makes the observation that passport photos and police mug shots have a similar aim: to be as objective as possible. The flat lighting and lack of a smile are meant to reduce subjective differences and any empathic identification with the subjects. He goes on to suggest that “the ‘smile’ (a rarity in the history of painting) emerged in photography as a popular convention precisely to signify the willing – ‘happy’ – participation of the sitter ‘to-be-photographed'”.

This is an interesting observation, but I do wonder at what influence marketing has had towards making the smile almost ubiquitous.  When I think about the early advertisements for cameras which came from Kodak which stressed the happy, fun aspects of photography. These early ads typically contained a happy family and very often showed smiling people, plainly delighted with their new Kodak camera. This would be an interesting topic on its own to investigate.

Reading Portraits

In this section, Bart argues that we can only go so far with “reading” portraits. The four elements give us a language, however we are very limited by surface appearances. Even if there is written material to provide a context or anchor the meaning of a portrait, we are still left with only a “surface” with which to make up our own minds.


Bart asks us what do we see when we look at a portrait? He asserts that we recognise a human figure and that this recognition gives us a kind of pleasure. He gives examples such as seeing the photo of a loved one, or suddenly meeting someone seen a long time ago. He argues that this re-cognition, or the return to something already known, is the return to a pleasure already experienced in the past. It’s effectively the repetition of a pleasurable moment.

He goes on to say that “in portraiture we probably encounter three general categories of people, all of which entail different aspects of recognition”: familiar, unfamiliar and the known.

The familiar category includes family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. These images are often circulated in the personal realm such in family albums, desktops and these days probably most often on smart phones.

The known category includes people who exist as a “discursive knowledge”.  That is, they might be familiar to us, but we do not know them in the sense of the familiar category. Examples include famous (and infamous) people (celebrities, stars, politicians, criminals). These people (who may be fictional – Bart uses the example of James Bond) appear in magazines, newspapers etc. – they are very much in the public eye and in that sense, they are known to us.

Bart states that the familiar and known categories “can be seen as comforting, since they repeat, in different ways, figures who are already ‘images’. The pleasure is in seeing the familiar and known again and again”.

The unfamiliar category is the interesting one. These are people who are either ignored, or if they are shown, it is in ways which don’t fit with their self-image. An example which pops to mind are the many photos of the homeless over the years, extending almost to exploitation. This point is expressed very well in a PDN Online interview with Robert Shults. Those photographers who take taken the time to get to know and collaborate with individuals rather than the amorphous entity we call “the homeless”, have presented images which correspond to their actual identities. An example would be Sam Wolson’s project This Life I Lead.

Bart notes that “photographers who are conscious of representing the unrepresented in new ways, which do correlate to their actual identities in some way, is of much value – and this is often where innovations in portraiture are achieved, precisely because they interrupt the comfortable economy of the same”.

In the last part of this section, Bart argues that we get pleasure from recognising someone in an image – be it a loved one or someone famous or infamous. He goes further to suggest that we also get pleasure from the “uncanny impact” of a stranger’s face (the unfamiliar).


In this section, Bart commences with pointing out how the viewer of an image is unavoidably connected with the camera’s position in the scene – the two are interlinked. We are effectively constrained by the original positioning of the camera. Bart calls this “identification with the camera” and gives cinematic examples which exploit this aspect – for example, “a ‘thrilling’ point-of-view shot, hurtling down a cliff”.  We see many examples of this in sports and leisure activities which have been aided by the production of lightweight, waterproof cameras such as the GoPro and others.

A key aspect is identifying with something or someone. That is, we identify ourselves as being like the person in a portrait. Bart points out that this likeness might only be a fantasy and may never be fulfilled, but nevertheless there “a visual satisfaction in the fantasy of identification”.

He goes further to suggest that there are four types of identification when looking at portraits:

  1. “With the camera, as viewer.
  2. Of the person depicted (recognition).
  3. With the person (or object) depicted.
  4. With the look of the person(s) in the picture at us or other characters in the picture.”

Just from an intuitive point of view, these types of identification make sense. In the domain of marketing, it is number 3 which is perhaps dominant – the desire to be like the person and perhaps to experience their surroundings (luxury, exotic location etc.). Bart doesn’t expand on the 4th point, but I take it to mean the expression on the person’s face, or perhaps their clothes etc. Of course, this then links back to the earlier section on elements of a portrait: face, pose, clothing and location.

Returning to my earlier example of Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up where I argue only location plays a real role of the four elements, I can see that the identification aspect is probably key. We all have washing up and we can identify with the domestic situation and even with the captions of what was eaten that resulted in the washing up.

Narcissism and Looking

In this somewhat complex section, Bart refers to Freud’s theories about how we view ourselves from infancy and the implication that we look at portraits as a kind of reflection of ourselves. He states “in this respect we might see that a central gratification of portraiture is precisely an address to the imaginary question: am I like this person or not?”. From this basis, he moves onto the idea of projection which also affects how we view portraits.


Bart assets that “in ‘projection’, the viewer casts off uncomfortable feelings, which arise in themselves, and relocates them within another person or thing”. He gives examples of the projection of feelings about a father or mother onto another person who might serve as a substitute such as a father or mother. He argues that the same projection occurs when viewing a portrait.

Thomas Gainsborough: Self-portrait (1759)

I’m not sure why Bart only mentions uncomfortable feelings, because I believe that we can project all sorts of feelings onto others. For example, maybe a person reminds us of someone we like and rightly or wrongly we attribute (project) those feelings on that person.

Bart goes on to suggest that certain types of portraits (be they paintings or photographs) “invite the spectator to fill in the missing details”. At this stage he is writing specifically about the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough. He quotes Joshua Reynolds as stating that the “‘striking resemblance in Gainsborough’s portraits is achieved by leaving ‘many important features undetermined”.

This kind of projection is, I believe, us providing the narrative around the image. Classical portraiture often situated the subject in a fantasy landscape which could be some kind of idealised rural ideal or perhaps an exotic location, all designed to provoke our internal story telling and identification with the sitter. The “missing details” may be about the wealth and social status of the subject or about their profession, such as a ship’s captain.

The Blank Expression

Bart commences this final section of the chapter with a discussion of the “enigmatic” expression on Da Vinci’s painting the Mona Lisa. He states that the expression comes from a painting technique called sfumato, whereby the features are slightly smudged. Apparently, this technique encourages us to project our own feelings onto the image and to “see” them reflected. Bart states that the painting draws us in to an “intimacy” which is caused by what we want to see. 

In the photographic world, there are techniques such as soft-focus or selective lighting which also increase ambiguity of meaning so that the viewer is somehow free to impose their own meaning.

Bart argues that the opposite can also apply. He cites the large, high resolution portraits of Thomas Ruff which provide too much information. His point is that when overloaded with information, we don’t know what is important and what isn’t – we don’t know “what is signified and even less, what the subject is thinking”.

He ends with stating that the meanings of portraits are always “corrupted” by the process of viewing. The viewer always imposes their own interpretation, based on their relationship (identification) with the signifying elements in the image.


The four elements discussed by Bart: face, pose, clothing and location form a useful framework for discussing a portrait. They form the basic organising idea. Building on these elements, the different forms of identification are useful analytical tools which relate to the elements. For example, we can say things about how just changing the position of camera can change our interpretation. Finally the general categories of people (familiar, unfamiliar and known) give us ways of thinking about locating subjects and also give us ways to play with these boundaries by placing people outside of common context (for example: presenting George Clooney at home as the family man).


Bate, D. (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts. At: https://ia800402.us.archive.org/31/items/david-bate-photography-the-key-concepts-2009/david-bate-photography-the-key-concepts-2009.pdf [Accessed 25 January 2018]


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