February 2009 Archives


Oliver Cromwell famously insisted on being depicted 'warts and all'. This portrait, by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), painted in 1654, demonstrates that Cromwell's ideal was not so dissimilar from what portrait painters were already doing. Although most of the people purchasing portraits will always have done so with a fair degree of what we would today call vanity — rather like getting personalised number plates for your car — painters themselves were drawn to unusual figures. Pieter Brueghel's depictions of peasants, for example, or Jeroen Bosch's famous depiction of Christ carrying the cross, shows the degree to which painters have looked for distinctive faces.


Lely probably thought that his 'boat had come in' (as we say in Flemish, and no doubt he did too, since his original name was Pieter van der Faes) when Cromwell instructed him to paint 'warts and all'. Here was the single most remarkable political figure of the past thousand years, a man who overthrew the king, and, instead of making himself the new king, proclaimed a commonwealth, desiring not to be modelled as a god, which was the pattern of the Roman emperors, nor as an athlete, like many of the portraits of Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I's favourite, nor yet as a man of exquisite manners and sensibilities, in the way that Charles I and later Charles II insisted on being represented.

You may not be able to see it in the rather poor lighting I had to capture this image (more paintings presented under glass, after the lamentable British tradition), but Cromwell has a big wart between his mouth and his chin. He looks downwards, and to our right, not quite along his nose, but as if he has seen something which troubles him, and demands his attention.

Cromwell is presented in this picture in a combination of a puritan's humble collar, and the plate steel cuirass which he wore into battle as captain of his Ironsides. The light glinting off it takes the eye to the point of intersection with his gaze, which is just on the edge of the picture, inside the artificial frame. What is Cromwell looking at? We will never know, but it is part of the mystery and compulsion of this particular picture.

As photographers, we face many of the same problems that Lely and his contemporaries faced. Someone commissions a portrait. Good. How do they want to look? They may say 'photograph me as I am', but when they arrive in the studio, they have had their hair elaborately done, make-up is perfect, clothes are their best (not always the most flattering) — evidently, what they are saying is "make me look very good indeed — I want to believe that that's the real me". Or, alternatively, you turn up at their place of work, and are shown into a sumptuous office, which has evidently been tidied and polished for your visit. A variety of trophies and awards are neatly displayed on the shelf. The sitter wants them in the picture, whether they make photographic sense or not. Again, the words say 'warts and all', but the actions speak louder.

Meanwhile, we are fiddling with the lights (always an issue when you go on location), which are stubbornly refusing to work, checking the camera settings, finding the focus, setting the aperture, attempting to get the person to pose in a natural stance for them. By the time we are ready to take the shot, we are nervous, and so is the sitter. The temptation is very great at that point to play it safe, and capture a pleasing image, rather than a revealing one. But portraiture is all about revealing the person — and simply clicking the shutter with them present does not automatically catch them in a characteristic way.

Cromwell, as I say, must have been a relatively easy prospect. He really did want the wart painted (how many of us would have felt tempted to remove that particular facial feature?), he chose to put on his armour along with his puritan collar, he looks pensive, rather than triumphant. Of course, he was also a man who had personally killed many, had led the regicides, and was more than capable of making his displeasure felt…

What do we take away from this painting? It (and others like it) are iconic. Like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles II, anyone who knows English history can instantly identify them from their pictures. We might struggle rather more with King John, Richard III, Henry V, and William the Conqueror. Very few people could identify any of Charles II's successors from their pictures, right up until the time of Victoria, another iconic portrait sitter. 

To a very large extent, Cromwell knew exactly what he wanted in his portrait. We can imagine him turning up, on time, ready dressed, standing patiently while the painter made the preliminary sketches, and then leaving until the next session. Probably a dummy was used to support his clothes in the mean time for reference purposes, but Cromwell is on record as exactly describing the stye that he wanted. Far from depriving Lely of the freedom to paint the way he wanted to, the discipline enabled him to create a masterpiece and an icon.

Understanding what the sitter really wants is crucial to a portrait which is art, rather than merely a piece of optical flattery. The portrait of John Ash, the first in this blog series, flatters by surrounding him with his accomplishments. Cromwell, whose battles are still famous, does not have a background of smoking buildings, or the palace of Westminster. Simplicity is his goal. 

Last time we talked about the importance of a preliminary study before going on to extensive postprocessing. This reflects the practice of the portrait painters — first a sketch, then the portrait. But we would be wise to also invest in an intensive conversation with the sitter before they ever sit for the portrait, perhaps in a format similar to how a journalist would interview them. There are three key things to be understood: first, what the sitter is really like. Second, what they think they are like, and, third, how they want others to think of them as a result of the portrait. Not every beautiful woman wants to be photographed as if she were a model. Not every athlete wants the focus to be on his physique. These are stereotypes we easily fall into. It is up to us, as portraitists, to climb out of them.

Not everyone should be painted warts and all. But every sitter deserves to be represented in the way that they see themselves being seen by others — modified a little, if you will, by how you, the artist, perceive them.
I'm going to try to put some of the lessons from the classical portraitists together now, by looking at a 'snap-shot' or candid image taken under natural light, and how it can be worked over in post-processing.

This picture was taken in Birmingham Botanical Gardens on a day out with no special preparation, and no access to fill lighting or even a reflector.

Here is the image as shot:


There are some strong aspects to this image which make it suitable to look at further. The camera angle gives a pronounced angularity to features, making the face distinctive. The angle of the face, chin slightly sticking out, hints at a determined character. This could be fortuitous and misleading, but, in the case of this subject (actually, my wife) it reflects character accurately. Blonde hair, blue eyes and this facial bone structure typically attracts the photographer to shooting a portrait which emphasises natural beauty, idealising the sitter into little more than an object of beauty. This may be fine for a glamour or model shoot, but it misses the point of portraiture, which is to represent the sitter, not to create a sensuous image for its own sake.
But, equally, there are some issues with this image which have to be thought about. The background is visually confusing, and does not say a great deal about the subject: although a reasonably attentive gardener, this sitter is also a translator, a musician, a traveller, and a speaker of six modern languages. A studio composite might attempt to bring these together into a single image, but this particular background, in as much as it communicates at all, misleads.

Also, this particular image is just a little bit too candid. the artefacts of lighting throw the skin into unnaturally sharp relief. Likewise, the wind blown hair introduces too many sharp edges, taking the viwer's eye down to the middle right of the picture.

The following picture represents a preliminary study for how this image might be treated:



I say this is a preliminary study for an important reason. It's tempting to launch straight into Photoshop and work to produce the finished image in one go. But doing so almost always leads to the postprocessor applying his 'standard' workflow. This would lead us in the direction of the Dr John Ashcroft portrait, where the artist applies all the usual rules to produce an image which, three centuries later, could be a picture of any doctor. For preference, we would rather go in the direction of the 'Portrait of a collector' which, despite our lack of information on who the collector was, has the power to fascinate us with the man's character.
When I'm shooting an image for advertising, I will do some preliminary post-processing, and then pass it to the Art Director, who will perform sometimes quite radical surgery on it in order to make it work for the advertising campaign. For a portrait, I will often post-process a 6 megapixel JPEG file, before returning later to the full sized Raw image.
Let's look at the image in more detail:
The first thing I want to do is to get the focus right. In the old days I would have used a capture sharpening routine, such as Photokit Capture Sharpener. However, I now use a true deconvolution filter which actually restores focus.
This is the result:
The upper image is the JPEG - Small - Fine downloaded from my D3. The lower image is the result of refocusing. I tend these days to refocus the skin once, and then do two more passes over the eyes only. I want to be able to actually read off the reflections ? this is something you can do in real life as you stare into someone's eyes. Eye reflections always appear sharp, even when we are so close to the face that everything else is blurry.
The next thing I want to think about is the skin. On a bad skin day, skin can be blotchy, reddened, and full of imperfections. A week later, the same person's skin may have cleaned up. What's more, because of the way that digital cameras capture images, the harshness of skin is emphasised, whereas in real life, our eyes rove across the face, returning again and again to the eyes and, to a lesser extent, to the mouth, teeth and nose, and to the aura of backlighting around the hair.
I now typically use a plugin called Portraiture to speed up this the process of fixing skin. There are many other processes you can use, but I like Portraiture because it is essentially a skin cloner, rather than a blurring routine. If you don't want to shell out for Portraiture (Nikonians get a discount), you can accomplish the same thing using the clone tool at a relatively low opacity and flow rate. You then keep going over the skin, so that texture is retained, but wrinkles and other irregularities are smoothed. Portraiture also sorts out the larger areas of shadow which give skin a structurally 'tired' look. You can sort this out with the dodge and burn tool and low levels. If you are going to do this, I would recommend doing everything on separate layers, so you can blend them in more or less.
In all this, this trick is to keep looking at the picture. No plugin or technique, when applied automatically, will achieve the results you actually need.
Here is the skin 'before and after'


It's not very nice to look at this close, and without context. But what you should see is that skin texture is preserved, so that the result is not blurry skin, but skin that looks in better condition. This is important, because not all portraits benefit from the 'soft focus' look.
For the preliminary study, the final phase is to mask out the distracting background. This is easy to do, but takes a little time. It is vastly simpler if you use a graphic pen rather than a mouse.
Photoshop now includes a convenient 'extract' tool. We used this extensively when it first came out, but we've reverted to old fashioned masking. To create a mask, double click the background layer in Photoshop, to turn it into a regular layer, and then click on the create mask tool. which is at the bottom of the layers palette. Set the paintbrush tool to black, and start painting away, until you've painted away all the annoying background. I usually prefer to paint too far in, and then change the tool to white and paint out. The trick when masking is to ensure that your mask is never sharper than the image is. If you have a sharp mask on a softer image (and all photographic images are softer than sharp masks), the result is an unnatural 1970s TV style cutout. If you end up with this, use gaussian blur on the mask to soften it.
Finally, create a new background layer, and fill it with something. A gradient will usually work better than a flat colour, and using a colour which is similar to the original background will help conceal any shortcomings in your technique.
My preliminary study now looks like this:

Actually, there's one more stage I haven't told you about. When I was finished, I went back with the history brush to introduce a bit more of the original skin tone into the picture, limiting the effects of the skin treatment we did with Portraiture.
Where now with this image? Assuming I'm happy, there are two ways forward. I can go back to the Raw file, extract it at a size as close to my final print size as possible, and do the process again. This doesn't take very long the second time through, provided you have kept a record of your stages. Or, alternatively, I can note the pose and recreate it in a studio environment, with more controlled lighting, and perhaps a pre-designed background.
In the fourth in my series on learning from Old Masters, I want to look at active faces and postures. I see some very creative portraits from time to time, but the vast majority of photographic portraits are static, serene, inactive. There is certainly a place for this kind of portraiture, and there are a lot of old master examples of it. But, as a photographer, if I find that all my portraits are of this kind, then I have evidently missed a lesson from the old masters. Wandering round an art gallery shows that life, activity and vigour were in the painter's palette of techniques.

Here is a fourth image from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.


It's simply called 'Portrait of a Collector', and it's from the early 17th century. What I take to mean by that is that the original title and artist information have been lost — and, indeed, there is nothing in the title that we couldn't have deduced from the painting itself.

So, we have an undated painting by an unknown artist of an unknown person in an unknown country. And yet, this still gets to be hung in an art gallery. If you're desperate enough, you can pick up old oil paintings at junk shops and antique shops. You're unlikely to find anything especially cheap these days, because anything as old as this becomes valuable simply because of its age — but — there are still a lot of paintings out there which will never make it into art galleries, simply because there is so much for curators to choose from. A painting by a famous artist will always be treasured, and a painting of a famous subject, for example, Oliver Cromwell or Henry VIII, but, generally speaking, an unattributed portrait gets into the gallery on its own merits, or not at all.

So, what is it about this portrait that attracted the curator's attention?

We can look at the various aspects we already discussed in the earlier blogs — use of differential focus, use of light, use of environmental elements to express personality. But the curator could have found these in thousands of paintings. They are of interest to us, because they are things that photographers can learn from, but they were all part of the stock of techniques that portraitists shared.

What makes this image instantly memorable is the actively quizzical expression on the sitter's face, supported by the askance body posture. Face-forward portraits generally try to engage the viewer by creating eye contact with the sitter, but this sitter seems unable to look at the viewer, and is instead intent on something at waist level, and a little to our right. Are we standing next to some object he would like to collect? Is there something on his sheet of paper which he has just glanced at, and is now checking again? Or is there some buckle or item of our clothing which fascinates him?

The activity of the man's face is supported by the gazes of the two statues at the left and right of the canvas, and to a lesser extent by the more dimly illuminated statues which are both behind his left shoulder (our right). Normally speaking, one would avoid having any gaze looking out of the frame, as it leads the viewer away, but, combined with the powerful effect of the sitter's slanted gaze, they create a strong impression of three people who refuse to make eye contact with the viewer, and instead are caught up in the interest of the other objects around them.

The effect of this painting is rather like the 'stereo-wide' you get on some films, where the sound seems to be coming from beyond the left and right speakers. We are left with an impression of being in a space where there are many other things to look at. One almost has the unnerving desire to turn around and see what it is they see.

Interestingly, I blew up the image and tone-mapped it, to see if there was anything discernible on the sheet of paper. There isn't — although there is the glow from light reflected from the hand, which makes it clear that the painter had not forgotten to complete the sheet, nor has it become degraded in some way. For whatever reason, we are not meant to read or see what he reads or sees.

In its early days, photography struggled to be taken seriously alongside oil painting, although, interestingly, the Impressionist painters abandoned naturalistic painting on the grounds that photography could do it better. This, coupled with the very long exposures needed, tended to push photographers towards very formal, stylised portraits. Although, since the 1930s, great photographers have moved away from this style, there seems still a tendency among portraitists to retain the same few static poses. The art of posing a subject is certainly worth learning, and an image taken with no understanding of posing and no attention to it does not become more 'natural' or 'spontaneous'. Rather, it tends towards messy, stilted, disorganised and uncomfortable. But there is also an important place for going beyond posing, into capturing the habitual stances of a person, getting them (with all the skill of the experienced pose photographer) 'as they are', and making use of their refusal to engage with the camera, or whatever else it is that makes them a hard subject to shoot.


In my third look at what portrait photographers can learn from the old masters, I want to look at the power of deliberately introduced colour, and, particularly, the colour red.

This portrait of Antonio Canal (1647), attributed to the Flemish painter Daniel van den Dijk (1610-1670), is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.



Like the previous images in my series, this is a portrait which would be almost considered "environmental" by modern standards. More exactly, Canal has been carefully placed, surrounded by objects which illustrate his life and person, and other elements which improve the composition of the painting.

Once again, the main centre of attention is the face. The painter (we will assume it was van den Dijk) has carefully used both light and focus to ensure that our eyes go straight to the face, and linger there. Interestingly, van den Dijk doesn't so much use blur, as Strozzi did, but chooses soft furnishings and clothing which are intrinsically less 'sharp'. The hard furnishings and features are so much dimmer than the main subject that they do not form competing interest.

But look at the secondary interest: that extraordinary robe is a little reminiscent of John Ash's academic gown in my first blog, but it is so much richer and more life-like that it captures the attention — or does it? The largest area of bright red forms an approximate triangle, leading to the upper arm, which inevitably leads… back to the face. 

One of the most elementary tips worth passing on to budding portraitists is: get the subject to wear something red! Visually speaking, there is something about the colour red which instantly attracts the eye, but, crucially, does not retain it. A red scarf can draw the eye to the picture, and then allow the eye to follow other cues to the true centre of interest. In other words, it is an attraction which does not them dominate and rob the image of its centre of attention.

There are a number of explanations for why red does this more than any other colour. Culturally, we can argue that red is the colour of attention, of warning. We are used to having to pay attention when red is around. Biologically, we can argue that, since red is the colour of blood, we have associated it since the dawn of mankind with danger, with life, with importance. When blood is spilled, we have to take note, and quickly. A ruddy complexion is associated with health, with love, with blushing.

Optically, however, the answer is probably simpler: red is the lowest frequency of light that the eye can interpret, and therefore hits us with the longest wavelength and, hence, in the normal spectrum, with the greatest power. 

Photoshop beginners like to saturate colours as far as they will go. Those slightly more experienced protect skin tones, so that people don't turn into lobsters when they pump up the saturation. But van den Dijk, in this image, carefully holds back the red. He allows it to shimmer, in darkness and light. This combination of reds is infinitely more appealing than a flat, blown out red.

For van den Dijk, this is all the more important, because he invests more of the luminance in this portrait in the red gown than in any other element, except the face and hand. This means that all the environmental elements — which in the John Ash portrait are pushed so much to the fore — are held back, in what photographers would refer to as Zones I, II and III of the Zone system. But these are exactly the elements for which Canal would have been paying — his credentials, and the symbols of his importance. The master painter clearly knows his art: he invests in showing us, rather than telling us (which is what the background elements are doing), and he invests in colour to bring in the attention of the viewer, before leading us to the face and features of the subject.

I have purposefully kept the images in this series small, because I want to introduce the pictures the way that they are first seen in a gallery — from a distance. We appreciate photographs in magazines, on the internet, in catalogues, and on screen. To a certain extent, we are already committed to viewing the image before we see it. Gallery portraits, as well as photographic fine prints and anything which is considered 'art' enough to hang on a wall, have to compete for our attention in the same way that billboards do. We see it small, from a distance. Only if it attracts our attention from a distance do we approach it for closer look. Of course, an image which doesn't stand up to close inspection is a disappointment, but an image which cannot draw our attention never gets that attention in the first place. This is a dynamic which van den Dijk clearly understood well.

In my second look at what photographers can learn from the master portrait painters, I want to look at a portrait of a Genoese nobleman, by Bernardo Strozzi, 1581-1644, oil on canvas. Like the other paintings in this series, it's in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, and must not be reproduced for commercial purposes.


Here's the image:
This is quite different from the portrait of John Ash which I looked at last time. In fact ? although this is just a crop from the painting, this is very like a modern photographic portrait in many respects. First, Strozzi isolates the sitter from his environment. It's interesting to notice that many painters choose to isolate by setting the sitter on a very dark, near black background (though never entirely black), whereas photographers often choose a white background. You can' see it here, but there is more to this picture, where some environmental background is introduced.
Second, the lighting is very carefully controlled. The face seems entirely three dimensional, almost leaping off the page (if faces can be said to leap). Like the Dr John Ash portrait, the painter has chosen to use short lighting, with the shadow on the side closest to the viewer. By this method, Strozzi is also able to create an almost perfect triangle, from forehead to chin, with the neckline completing the shape ? a clever use of a simple geometrical shape which makes instant sense to the eye. This also emphasises the fashion of the day, as indicated by the choice of beard.
Third, and most important for us today, is the way Strozzi uses differential focus to bring our complete attention to the eyes, while withdrawing attention from the body. We tend to think of differential focus as a result of lens choice ? long lens, wide aperture. The reality is that painters have been using it for centuries. This is because of the way the eye builds up a picture of a face. Nobody stares at the same portion of the face for long. Studies have shown the way the eye darts around, returning with greatest frequency to the centre of interest. In faces, this is the eye. The memory of the face, then is always sharpest around the eyes, as we've spent the most time focussing on them.
Because he is painting, Strozzi can have everything in utterly sharp focus, or have as much defocus as he likes wherever he wants it. In fact, the use of less focused areas is highly sophisticated, because one thing you do when you are studying someone for a portrait, as a painter, is see absolutely everything in sharp focus. Strozzi goes beyond this (as did many great painters) to produce the effect of a spontaneous view, despite the many long hours it would have taken him to paint this.
Back in the old days of manual focus and film, the eyes were always razor sharp in all of my portraits. I used to focus on the eye with the split-prism focusing aid, and then recompose the shot, very often at the camera's maximum aperture. When I moved to auto-focus digital cameras (I never used auto-focus on film) I noticed that I never got the sharpness on the eye that I was used to on film. This is largely because autofocus doesn't happily lift its centre of attention from something as soft as the eye, preferring the hard contrast of the eyelashes, eyebrows, nose or even the teeth. I've seen no end of images presented to me for comment where the moustache or beard, or stubble, are razor sharp and the eyes are soft. I improved this a little with my D2X by fitting a split-prism focusing screen, but haven't yet got round to doing this on the D3.
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One of the most common questions on the Glamour & Portrait, Commercial & Studio Photography forum is 'how do I soften skin'. There are lots of ways of softening skin, but none of them really work unless the eyes are sharp. An image in which everything looks soft is simply a soft image ? in the old days we would have put that down to poor camera technique or poor darkroom technique. Differential focus, as epitomised in the Strozzi painting, is about having some parts of the image tack sharp, while other parts are soft.
I recently posted some suggestions for post-processing about an image that someone had asked for advice on, and someone else came back and said I had 'robbed the original image of its authenticity', and made it look like any other image from a fashion magazine. I didn't reply, as I don't really think it helps to get into an argument with someone on this kind of thing. Certainly, an image shot with no particular attention to differential focus, and then no post-processing to amend this, will retain a certain 'candid freshness', but, equally, it will never look any better than a snap-shot.
People often ask for advice on softening skin because they want the airbrushed magazine look, but, looking again at Strozzi's image, it's clear that this is something which predates magazines and fashion PR (though not, of course, fashion). The truth is, that when you talk to someone, you don't stare at their skin. A digital image captures far more skin detail than you would ever see, but, unless done carefully, far less eye detail. If you are romantically close to someone, you will still see the eyes as sharp, because you can see the reflections of distant things in them (in the same way that objects in a mirror do not become blurred if you get close to the mirror), but the skin and everything else will be very soft indeed, especially if the lights are low. Hard skin, soft-eyes is an artefact of the camera. The photographer, in general, should work to represent through the image what the eye sees, and the eye is not a static optical device, but a roving one, driven by the brain, focusing on what the brain finds most interesting.
This brings me back to Strozzi. There was no Photoshop in Strozzi's day, but, in a very real sense, every image was a Photoshop image, because all were built up by the will and skill of the artist, not captured by a shutter opening and closing. Strozzi will have spent far longer perfecting this image than anyone ever does in Photoshop. And yet, this is a highly 'authentic' image, much more so than the slightly self-aggrandising image of Dr Ash from last time.
How to apply all of this to an image today? Most lenses perform best a couple of stops down from their maximum aperture. A portrait photographer may well do better shooting at f4 (on an f1.8 prime lens) in order to maximise chances of getting the eyes really sharp. This, of course, limits the amount of blurring provided by the lens, but, seriously, it's a lot easier to introduce postprocessing blur than it is to introduce sharpness.
If I'm really working hard on an image, I will do three things. First, assuming the capture is good, I will want to refocus the eyes. For this I use a plugin called FocusMagic which is a true deconvolution filter. In other words, it refocuses, rather than just sharpens. I'll run it on the entire image, and then I'll run it a couple of times more on the eyes alone, until just before the point that they would be oversharpened. I want to be able to read the reflections in the eyes, as well as see the irises clearly.
I'll then run some kind of skin utility, usually Portraiture. I'm not doing this to produced an airbrushed look, but simply to overcome the camera artefact that skin is captured too sharp and eyes are captured too soft. I may go on to do some actual softening or blurring on the rest of the image ? for example introducing lens blur on clothing and other elements. Remember that the camera will take everything in sharp focus which is in the same focal plane, whereas your eye creates the sharpest focus on the things in which it is most interested. Depending on the camera angle, you may find that buttons, a necklace or a collar are as sharp as the eye ? this is not 'authentic', but a result of the difference between camera and human vision.
Finally, I'll use light, in much the same way that Strozzi does, to dim areas which are unimportant, but to brighten areas on which the viewers eye would concentrate. Precisely optically, the eyes, being set deeper within the skull, are generally more in shadow than the rest of the face. But we don't notice this in real life, because when we look at them, our pupils dilate to let more light in. When we flick to the rest of the face, the pupils contract very slightly. If you've ever taken a picture of someone in strong sunlight, without the benefit of fill-in flash, you'll recognise the disappointment of all the eyes being in deep, dark shadows. This can be fixed easily in Photoshop, using dodge and burn brushes.
Does this make the image less authentic? I would argue that it makes it more authentic, because it is more like what I see, and less like what a machine sees. A portrait, with the implication of collusion between sitter and artist, is never a photojournalistic picture of the world 'as it is'. Rather, it's authenticity comes from the fact that it presents the person as they really appear to be, with all their characteristics as we experience them.

I spent an afternoon in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery a few weeks ago looking at portraits. Not photographic portraits, but old fashioned oil paintings. I wanted to get to grips with what the painstaking craftsmen of the past thought made a great portrait, and how to apply to this to our digital point, compose, click era.

The first picture I want to look at is a Portrait of Dr John Ash, 1788, by Joshua Reynolds. 

Here it is: 

This portrait is interesting for three reasons. First, it's a heavily coded painting. I don't intend to go into this here, but, if you're interested, this site goes into some detail about what all the various elements mean. The second reason is that it's a very typical image for its time, by Joshua Reynolds, an extremely prolific and popular portraitist. The third is that it has a lot to teach us about portraiture — or, at least, it lays down some important challenges to our modern photographic style.

First, let's look at the frame and the mounting. This image is taken 'as is', without any special lighting. I've deliberately shown it relatively small, because I only want to discuss the main features. Oil portraits from the great period of portrait painting are almost always elaborately framed. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have to say I really can't get excited about this particular frame. However, as well as holding the canvas taut, a frame is an expression of the value attached to an image. Having your portrait painted was something only the very wealthiest could afford. These days we snap away, and place images just anywhere. It's worth considering if there's a different context we can put an image in which would give it more resonance.

You'll also notice there's a good deal (actually a bad deal) of reflection on the glass. This comes from the British habit of displaying oil paintings under glass. Why? Continental European galleries don't do this. It's a reminder, perhaps, that the way an image is presented can take away much of its immediacy. 

Now to the image itself. You'll notice two things straight away — Dr Ash, and the amount of other stuff in the picture. This is absolutely typical of this era of portrait. Ash is presented with things around him that express his personality. This is not an 'environmental portrait', where, for example, an artisan is photographed in his workshop. Each of these elements has been carefully selected and carefully placed to express something about him as an individual, and yet placed in such a way that they look like it <i>could</i> be his study.

Let's look at Dr Ash. To us, the wig and gown make him look like just any other person of his era. To the original viewers, they would have expressed his seriousness, his academic qualifications, and his status in society. Actually, a doctor was a relatively low status, and perhaps this portrait makes rather too much of Dr Ash.

But look also at the colour of the gown, and the colour of the chair. Why has Reynolds chosen to put him in a red gown, and a red chair? Clearly, the gown is that colour because it is his academic gown. But why the chair? It could be any colour, and, unlike a photographer, Reynolds could have painted it any colour. Look, though, at how it changes the shape of his shoulders. The figure of Ash is far more imposing than it otherwise would have been — but Reynolds has not had to distort his actual shoulders at all. Normally we teach photographers to avoid having two objects become visually one object, but this is a case where it is used to very significant purpose. 

We should also note that, despite all of the added elements, this is a highly naturalistic picture of Ash's face. Even the lighting is 'as is' — it would not have been difficult for Reynolds to lighten the eyes, but he keeps them dark, as well as allowing the shadow to fix on the hollow of the right cheek. 

So, is this a great portrait? Not really. Reynolds must have churned these kind of pictures out by the hundred (a very good rate for an oil painter). And yet, far more attention to detail has been lavished on it that many photographers ever put into a modern photographic portrait. We are often mostly concerned with making the sitter look nice, getting them relaxed in a pose which looks good but they can hold comfortably, getting the lighting right (note that Reynolds here uses 'short' lighting), making sure the eyes are sharp, and so on. Technically speaking, Reynolds's job was a lot more demanding than ours — just try painting in oils and you'll see how hard it is — but he lavishes great attention on symbolic objects, such as the scroll, and character-revealing background.

Portraiture is supposed to reveal something about the character of the person being photographed. Most photographic portraits just try to make people look nice. We have — I would suggest — something to learn from the jobbing portraitists of the past.