Train Your Gaze – The Process of Portraiture Photography

This section of my blog will be used to emphasizes the situational elements in various kinds of portraiture photography in particular the presence of the photographers gaze, which is an integral part of what the picture is about – ‘The activity of one person looking, manifested in a moment that can feel as transitory as the blink of an eye or as durational as small eternity’ – Roswell Angier

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About Looking

“I want to take your picture”

This question may be a casual declaration or as Roswell Angier puts it may express your desire to extend the momentum of an initial glance, a spark of fascination that has already occurred.

According to Angier, If you ask politely for permission – “May I take your picture?” – the chances are that you are speaking to a stranger. If, on the other hand, you say  “I would like to make a portrait of you,” the circumstances are entirely different. First of all you probably already know this person.

Secondly, and perhaps of more importance, is the fact the word “portrait” has special meaning – it reassures the subject about the seriousness of your intentions. It may influence the behavior of your subject, creating anxiety.

Angier states that a portrait depends on the subjects agreement to be photographed. The subject usually faces the camera, and that the ‘contract between subject and photographer hangs palpably in the air that separates them’. That means that It is across this agreed distance that all sorts of power relationships and tensions between the people involved are negotiated. The picture itself records this exchange.

What ultimately makes a portrait come alive is not visible, it is the photographer’s thoughtful regard for his/her subject. This characteristic, this something that inhibits a great picture, it is the felt activity of someone looking, the photographer in person, embedded in the photograph.

Richard Avedon Portraits

In the late 1960s, Richard Avedon published a series of portraits in Rolling Stone magazine called “The Family”. The pictures were mainly of powerful people. They seemed uneasy, many of them uncertain what to do with their hands. Angier observes that when you look at these portraits that one can feel the silence, which had been an element of their making as it was rumored that Avedon did not speak with his subjects. For the entire session, Avedon would reportedly walk around the room, tethered to a cable, and just be staring.

The result was a series of portraits in which the subjects own presence was engulfed by the intensity of the photographer’s gaze. Sometimes the subjects would stare back aggressively. In a subsequent portrait project, ‘In the American West’- Avedon directed his camera towards ordinary people. In the pictures, they often look haunted or intimidated.

Whatever these pictures suggest of the social fabric of the society at the time, the portraits are not documentary in nature but rather aggressive personal statements. In an introductory comment to this work, Avedon said that he thought all portraits were “opinions”. The photographer’s eye here does not seek to merely present. It looks to persuade.!


Richard Avedon Portraits – Screenshot from googleimages

Consider the below two photographs, both are about looking. One by Julia Margaret Cameron and one by Cindy Sherman.


Julia Margaret Cameron – Train your gaze, Roswell Angier

In the above image taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, we see a women and a girl, according to Angier the look of these two figures, by themselves suggests a Victorian cultural value, female modesty coded as an averted gaze. The subjects show their profiles. They do not confront us, and they do not confront each other. The girl’s eyes gaze downward. The gaze of the lady is not directed as us however it includes us as her looking suggests an attitude of cautious interception. Angier’s observation suggests that the girl is aware of the viewer’s presence.

This is very different to Avedon’s strategy, which is to allow us to completely possess the image he presents us with. In another respect, Camerons portraits are similar to Avedon’s as they too are “opinions”. She was one of the first photographers to state that she had psychological intentions.


Cindy Sherman – Image is taken from – Train your gaze, Roswell Angier

Cindy Sherman’s work employs similar strategies. Her work is about female identity. The image above presents us with a women in a tight top standing in the kitchen. There is a suggestion on dirty dishes. A sharply focused bottle of detergent intersects the out of focus handle of a pot. The implication is that she is looking towards someone else in the room, Angier suggest that she is possibly gazing at her husband.

There is an axis of sight here. We, the spectators, see the subject-Cindy Sherman posing as a character in a hypothetical film-from one axis. She looks at her husband from another axis. There is no acknowledged contact between the subject and us, the viewer. The way in which she presents herself-no mater to whom-generates complex questions about the act of looking and being looked at.

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