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Historical and Critical Studies One: Origins and Histories

Portraiture

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Portraiture has been a
main element throughout art and photographic history, beginning with paintings
of the royal family, kings and queens and upper class citizens, as the art allowed
them to showcase their wealth and high social status. Paintings involved a long
process of the model sitting incredibly still, some even using poles and clamps
to keep their posture and stance upright. This helped the artist paint their
proportions correctly, and make them look even more beautiful, which is what
they wanted to portray. Portraits
have been a central part of the history of art, for instance, one of the most
famous portrait paintings is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da’Vinci. This painting
has been admired and celebrated since it was created in the 16th
century, and is incredibly well-known. Leonardo Da Vinci purposefully smudged
the facial expression of Mona Lisa so that she neither looks happy nor sad.
This is a technique still used today, to leave the context completely up to
viewers interpretation, it allows everyone to infer the mood and emotional
background of an image themselves. However, as
technology became more advanced, so did photography. Photographic
processes quickly became cheaper, easier and faster to create with new
developments consistently being made, such as the daguerreotype, designed to
create a permanent image using a drawing aid called the Camera Obscura, which
uses light sensitive materials to form an image on a glass plate. The first known portrait photograph was made by
Robert Cornelius in 1839 with the use of a daguerreotype plate, of himself, which
he titled “The first light picture ever taken”. Following this, In the
1850s Andre-Adolphe-Eugene Disderi’s invention of the carte-de-visite became incredibly
popular amongst the upper class, as it was a way for them to boast about their
wealth and class. Even so, the middle class were also able to afford these
portraits themselves as a carte-de-visite miniature photograph was cheap to
make. These mini portraits were small enough to be carried around, and many of
them could be made at once as they were small enough to fit more than one on a
daguerreotype plate. Portraiture was and still is, a means of identification,
for example, the driving license, passport,
student card etc. These images are well structured and easy to produce, as the
main purpose of them is to show what the person looks like. Portraiture enabled
police to form a systematic
identification imaging system, which helped to identify suspects and criminals.
Portraits were and sometimes still are, a technique for a witness or victim to
identify a criminal. A modern use for the portrait is facial recognition, which
is a device that recognises someone based on their facial features. This system
is used to unlock phones and to tag people in photographs on social networking
sites. Nevertheless, for thousands of years,
people have also used the portrait as a way to express themselves, such as
their personality, wealth, homes, background and social status. For
years, a studio was used for a practical and technical convenience for the
artist, scenes were easy to construct, and clients were able to visit easily,
ready to produce portraits of how they wished to appear. Clients were able to create
their ideal portrait in regard of the background and how they looked – such as
position, facial expression, their clothing, their pose etc. The photographer
had more time to adjust the scene and the model, and create an image which
conveyed a certain concept such as an emotion like happiness or despair, unlike
a painting which took hours of concentration and work. Within contemporary
photography, artists can edit and manipulate a final image, in comparison to
what is seen through the camera. There a lot more advancements within technology,
like computers, cameras and Photoshop that allow the artist to convey the ideal
portrait they want.

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry 1984

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In
1984, Steve McCurry visited a refugee camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border, where
he captured a striking portrait of a young child refugee, which was published
on the front cover of the June 1985 National Geographic. The image was taken on
a film camera, and it wasn’t until after McCurry developed the film, that he
knew it was an incredibly powerful photograph that had to be shared. The
‘Afghan Girl’ has become incredibly popular, and has urged many people to help
and donate to refugee camps, and is the fundamental reason for the National
Geographic setting up the Afghans Child Fund. The Afghan girl was only 12 years
old at the time the photograph was captured, and her incredible green eyes draw
the most attention because, despite being in a vulnerable and dangerous
situation, the Afghan girl is powerful. The girl is looking directly into the
camera, and is therefore looking at anyone that looks at her, whichever angle
you look at this photo from, she is staring right at you. However, the
wide-eyed stare, adds an element of terror and vulnerability, and viewers feel
pity towards her, which is why this image has made such an impact on those that
have seen it. This image also has cultural and religious connotations, as the
girl is wearing a headscarf to commemorate where she comes from and belongs. To
begin with, Steve McCurry planned to document the life of refugee’s in their
camps, and approached the Afghan girl last as she seemed shy, he had no idea
the image would become such an international phenomenon, and because of its
success, wanted to discover her story. The image leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Until 2002 when the National Geographic and McCurry searched for her and shared
her incredible, but tough life story in their magazine. McCurry discovered that
her name is Sharbut Gula, and she grew up surrounded by wars, she is full of
angst and anger, shown through her piercing green eyes,
and wanted to express this emotion through the photograph McCurry was taking.
The day McCurry found Sharbut Gula again, he photographed her once more, and
within that image are the same pair of green eyes that people could not look
away from.  Her skin has grown old, as
well as her facial structure, which is much softer. Steve McCurry produced an
image that is not easily forgotten, and those that have seen it feel the power
of the sorrow they feel for Sharbut Gula when she was just a child, living
through the wars and invasions. The original photo of the Afghan Girl tells her
story, portrays her anger and as a result, has influenced many people to help
and contribute to those that are suffering
like her as a child as well.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange 1936

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This
photo by Dorothea Lange is called the ‘Migrant Mother’ and was taken in 1936,
during the Great Depression of America, but wasn’t printed until 1971. The Great Depression was an economic regression that began in 1929 and lasted until
about 1939. It was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by
the industrialized Western world, and affected millions of lives. In this
iconic black-and-white photograph, the mother is shielding and
protecting her children which evokes real sadness and fear, as we pity the children
for feeling that way. People, especially parents sympathise with the mother, as
her children hold onto her for comfort and safety. The mother appears worried and
is obviously deep in thought, as seen from her prominent frown lines. She is not
considering the camera, as that would increase her vulnerability. Similarly, to
the Afghan Girl, the Migrant Mother portrays the anxiety and terror of what she
is currently going through in her life. Lange says that at the time the Migrant
Mother wanted to help her with her photographs, as she thought it might benefit
her own situation, so Lange took advantage of the opportunity and captured lots
of different images at different angles, and believed this one was the best.
The mother and her children during this time, had been scrounging for food, to
the point where the mother had to sell the tires of her car to afford food and feed
her children. In this image, the children are hiding behind their mother, shying
away their faces. The mother is protecting them, from the cameras and the real tragic
world. There were a lot of families like theirs, living through poverty and
starvation, which Lange wanted to make people aware of. The mother was alone, without
a husband, her main objective was to care for her children. Despite the tragic story
behind this image, the mother stands proud, tall and self-assured. After this
photograph was printed, it became famous and the most familiar photograph in
the twentieth century.

To
compare the two photographs, both Steve McCurry and Dorothea Lange have
produced powerful images that tell the story of the women in them, but still
leave many unanswered questions for the viewer to interpret and decide for
themselves, such as who the woman is, where they are, what their lives are like
etc. Both photographers attempt to spread awareness for what they are
photographing. For instance, McCurry’s Afghan Girl spreads awareness about
refugees and the horrors of war. Whereas, Lange’s photograph of the Migrant
Mother portrays the distress poverty causes on people’s lives, especially
children who do not understand. Both women in these photos are under-privileged
within their lives. Both images have had a huge impact historically, by making
people sympathise with the women’s lifestyles. The Afghan Girl influenced so
many people to involve themselves in charity work, and the Migrant Mother
reminded people that poverty is a well-renowned problem in the world, that many
people suffer living through. Mothers can relate to the Migrant Mother
protecting her children from their disastrous lifestyle, as parents will do
anything for their children. Photography is an art form that allows its
creators to spread awareness for social, cultural and political issues, such as
poverty and war, shown in these two images. War photography is an extremely
popular genre as it is powerful, and full of lots of emotion. Many
photographers also shoot homeless people to present the lives of the poor and
what they deal with daily, like living in the cold and dirt. However, even
though both these photographs have encouraged people to help the disadvantaged,
some may think that these types of images are glorifying the subject they are
trying to present. For example, Ingrid Sischy wrote in an essay about his
photographs stating that: ‘This beautification of tragedy results in pictures
that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To
aestheticize is the fastest way to anesthetize the feeling of those who are
witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.” Which highlights
that people want to see beauty, not tragedy, and therefore try to find the good
in a photograph that is trying to promote awareness for something corrupt.
Therefore, these photographs may result in the opposite of what they intend,
and instead of raising awareness, they give the advantaged more power and an
upper-hand on those that are show-cased in the image, such as those in poverty.

In
conclusion, Portraiture has been an incredible breakthrough for photography,
and has enabled the industry so much success. To this current day, we are still
using portraiture to express ourselves personally, emotionally, or to identify
ourselves. Photography is a quick and easy art form that continues to grow and
progress, which allows artists to portray important issues within the world, as
well as being a creative way to express their opinions and point of views. Both
portraits from Steve McCurry and Dorothea Lange are influential and striking
images, that have influenced the public for the better. Both photographers’ goal
and inspiration were to create awareness for what they were photographing, the
refugee’s and the poor, and influence people to help the lives of the less-advantaged.

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