The Portrait in Photography by Graham Clarke


Portrait in photography is one of the most popular genres in the field of photography. A considerable number of people will define it as the kind of picture that captures the identity of a person or a group of individuals who in this case are the subject matter in the image. Good portraiture in photographic shots encompasses the use of sufficient lighting, backdrops, and distinctive poses. Over the years, this type of photography has been occasionally used in special events such as weddings. In modern society, it functions to advertise one’s attributes or businesses. Alternatively, some photographic critics like Graham Clarke view portrait photography to be an irresistible type of images that result in people expressing their mixed feelings. However, Clarke thinks that the same genre “is one of the most problematic areas of photographic practice” (101). The reason for such a sentiment is because sometimes, the captured photos portray ambiguity as it tends to reveal the personality of the displayed individual and distorts the perceived notion of the character. In this case, Clarke presents some photographs created by various people in the history of photography. Nonetheless, it is apparent that the same author in his discussion hardly represents other cultures except that of the white folks. In this context, the paper describes the various portraits by different photographers who are mentioned by Graham Clarke and compares them to that of other individuals who depicts different custom and belong to a particular ethnic group contrary to what is demonstrated by Clarke in his essay.

Part 1

The discussion will begin by analyzing one of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph illustrating Sir John Herschel. It is known that Julia Cameron was among the famous British photographers, born in 1815 and according to Clarke (105), the photographer majorly displayed the myth of the male dominance and identity in her portraits. In this particular picture of Sir Herschel, she captures the personality of the character who was one of the eminent Victorian Scientists practicing astronomy at that period during which the photograph was taken. Consequently, Graham Clarke in his book states “the body has been reduced to the head only, without any sense of background or external reference: the head becomes an iconic presence implying intelligence, individualism, and above all, genius” (Clarke 105). In this case, it is agreeable that the photographer has captured the character’s upper side of the torso and his head. Moreover, the same author goes on to illustrate how Sir Herschel’s sharp gaze into space encompass his nature of examining the matter of the universe (Clarke 105).  Therefore, Cameron intended only to showcase the essential details of the person, and that is, his attributes on the astronomical work he conducted. In this image, the photographer perceives the persona as a magician, an alchemist, and the back and white presentation capture his flaming white hair and the eyes blazing in the light. Hence, from the way Cameron portrays Herschel, one can conclude that she sees the individual as a mysterious figure with a unique personality. As a result, her photographic illustration is barely an example of a picture that praises the male supremacy which was apparent at the time.

On the other hand, the portrait photograph of Queen Alice of the United Kingdom, taken in the year 1871, portrays a different perspective on the theme of male dominance. Instead, the picture depicts the power of the female characters in the patriarchal world which perceived men to be the superior gender. The ideology behind this photograph represents a distinctive shift in notions regarding gender relationships whereby the traditional viewpoints on male influences moved towards the modern idea of gender equity. Alternatively, the picture of the queen is somehow similar to that of Sir Herschel’s in terms of the staring part. It is perceptible that the gaze also depicts the same qualities as those describes by Cameron. Hence, judging from the overall representation of Queen Alice, one gets the idea that the character showcases the symbol of power and beauty. Therefore, this signifies the female attribute that contrasts with the male stereotypic concepts that only men influence society. Moreover, the same portrait photography contradicts Julia Cameron’s photographs that treated the male personality as the active characters with unique attributes such as being powerful, showing strength, and exhibiting the intelligence.

Part 2

The other photograph of interest is the one taken by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Graham Clarke describes this image of baiting the line of the year 1845 as the kind that captures the physical aspect of a person regarding their day to day activities (106). Therefore, unlike other visible portrait photography which captures prominent individuals, the two photographs took another approach of representing the ordinary people in a society such as the fishermen. As a result, Clarke (107) implies that Hill and Adamson’s photographs encompassed the existence and historical background of unique personalities. Moreover, the first impression one gets from the initial view of this particular image is the presentation of the full body portrait photograph. Thus, the character has both his arms and legs included within the picture, and he appears to be seated. In this context, Clarke argues with the statement “the photograph’s use of the whole figure is suggestive of how the whole space of a body’s presence is given value” (107). What the author implies, in this case, is that the technique gives the picture enough details on the portrayal of social, cultural, and individual features. Thus, this describes the uniqueness of the photo as it does not illustrate the idealism of a man but depicts their individualism.

Another picture of the year 1840s with a similar representation of a seated man in portrait photography is the one encompassing Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Thomas Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States of America, and he became one of the most influential personalities in the world. However, despite all the power he possessed, this picture that was taken in the year 1846 showcasing him as an ordinary man. Alternatively, the portrait was among the first photos captured during the time daguerreotype was initiated. Therefore, it is agreeable that Lincoln’s unique features are more profound than the idealism of the male supremacy. Besides, his facial appearance which looks thinner in structure depicts the occurrence of aging. Consequently, when comparing the image of Lincoln and that of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, it is apparent that the social content of the two people is in favor of a declared signature depicting the unique features of men of the ancient periods.

Part 3

Regarding the photograph of Daguerre produced in the year 1846 by Charles Richard Meade, Clarke argues that the picture became part of the new technology which encompassed the daguerreotype portrait. In this case, it was a style of portrait photography developed in the 19th century and became popular with time since people were now more interested in acquiring their images through photography. Hence, there was an increased demand for this kind of photographic portraiture. Moreover, the photo of Daguerre is an ideal representation of the style since the term daguerreotype directly relates to the character’s name and thus, deemed to be the creator. Also, when analyzing such a photograph, it is evident that Meade depicts the possible illustrations of a person’s essence in regards to their identity and attitude. Furthermore, Clarke asserts that “… a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity” (102). Therefore, the image of Daguerre shows not only his physical attribute but also his pose which renders the picture compulsively ambivalent.

Alternatively, a similar portrait to that of Daguerre produced in the year 1847 encompasses an African American individual known and Frederick Douglass. The person in this picture was regarded as an essential person of the 19th century who became famous through his literary works. They included numerous speeches and autobiographies. Douglass like Daguerre impacted American society with his inventions and creativity. In this case, the photographer behind Douglass’ picture intentionally wanted to depict the essence of this person as a hero of his time. The serious feature and the direct gaze to the camera showcases the physical nature of a person. In the picture, Douglass is wearing a jacket, a waistcoat, and a bowtie. Thus, his type of clothing signifies the individual’s perception of the impact of photography. In this case, they show powerful but silent influences of a person’s ideas and sentiments regarding the present and future generation.  Moreover, in the same picture, there are the sense of growth, intimate thoughts, and feelings. Therefore, a significant number of viewers will likely agree that both the photographic portraits of Daguerre and Douglass are a mere representation of their celebrity status and their characteristics which involves the urge to pursue their beliefs.

Part 4

Another unique feature of photography demonstrated by the author, Clarke, is the picture of the Blind Woman that was presented by Paul Strand. Just from looking at the picture, most viewers will develop a sense of pity to the person in the image. Alternatively, Clarke (112) claims that this snapshot was by Strand in the streets of New York and was different from other portrait photographs which illustrated the social and cultural relationships between status and power. Instead, the Blind Woman is an ideal representation of the people regarded as outcasts, marginalized, stigmatized, and ostracized group in society. Moreover, Clarke (113) implies that the picture depicts the feeling of denial, despair, absence, and pain. All of these attributes originate from the fact that the woman in the portrait seemingly avoids looking directly at the camera. However, the other perceived notion is that since the person is blind, she probably did not know the location of the camera, or was captured by the photographer unawares. Either way, due to the placard around her neck, she is a certified blind woman who in this context, demands the public to recognize her significance and existence. Also, with the kind of attention created by the blind woman, it is difficult for one not to notice her presence. Thus, she would probably achieve the passersby’s’ sympathy, and they will consequently give her a coin.

Nonetheless, the same photographer produced a photograph which he named, Seeing the Blind. The photo is presumably the image of August Peter MacIntyre, of South Uist, which is an island in Scotland and was created in the 20th century. The title of the photograph contrasts with the other picture that entails the blind woman. Moreover, the way Strand represents the features of the image; it is perceptible that it contradicts the characteristics of the first picture. The persona in the image, Seeing the Blind gazes directly at the person taking the photo. Thus, one perceives that the person is aware of the camera and he can see the photographer. Also, there is a difference in the depiction of gender where one is a blind female character while the other is a male persona who can view his surroundings.

Part 5

In regards to his discussion, Graham Clarke presents various self-portraits and one picture that appears striking, in this case, is the untitled photograph done by Cindy Sherman. In the image, the exhibited person who presumably looks like a woman is seen to be naked. However, despite the character appearing like a woman, her physical aspect also portrays a masculine nature. Thus, according to Clarke (119), the photographer merely wanted to represent the existence and concepts of heterosexuality. In this light, such portrait photographs were purposed to illustrate the standard features that surround social and sexual stereotyping. It is perceptible that Sherman’s image possibly implied a particular narrative which she acted herself. Moreover, it seems like her style of depicting her pictures that involves a sense of eroticism tends to showcase the significance of her notion toward sexual freedom. Besides, Clarke (112) indicates that the image presents a certain undescribed amount of power possessed by the illustrated character in the picture. As a result, the portrait in its social context displays the extent to which fierceness of this particular woman has been demonstrated.

Moreover, some photographs of another artist known as Allan Tannenbaum express the similar ideologies as Cindy Sherman’s. The photographer saw the height of personal liberations in the 1970s. Thus, produced several photos encompassing sexual revolutions, and the women and gays’ freedom to express their profound desire for pleasure, self-expression and the need to connect. Alternatively, some of the pictures include the people of the color and hence, illustrate diversity in terms of social setups. Ideally, Sherman’s self-portrait reflects the same concepts presented by Tannenbaum. In this case, they both try to depict how the field of sexuality commenced being an open space for men and women and this was a transformation from the previous heavy-handed controls which limited such perceptions. However, Sherman’s picture portrays more of the female nature that seeks to find out the truths about its identity, vulnerability, and power.


In summary, it is evident that Graham Clarke describes some of the photographic portraits occurring during the daguerreotype period. The style of photography became popular as people began to demand photographic portraits. Moreover, the name of this technique, daguerreotype relates to the initiator who was Louis Daguerre and whose self-portrait was captured by Charles Richard Meade. Alternatively, the 19th century was marked by several photographers. They included Julia Margaret Cameron who majorly portrayed the male dominance, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson who took the pictures of people who did fishing, Paul Strand, the artist behind the controversial photograph of the blind woman, and Cindy Sherman who showcase the female nudity. In this case, Clarke describes all of these people in his discussion. However, it is perceptible that the author does not showcase other ethnical domain and thus, the paper describes some of the photos that are similar to Clarke’s portrait photography descriptions. For instance, the portrayal of the African-Americans in some portrait photography indicates that they also played a significant role in this field of photography.

Work Cited

Clarke, Graham. The photograph. Oxford University Press, USA, (1997): 101-121.