Before the rush

Before the rush
by evan-pak

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Can we talk about a portrait photograph if, let's say, a grandmother and her 3-year-old grandchild are in the picture? Or, must it be only one person in the photograph?

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What about the long history of animal portraiture? See Art History for numerous race horses, prize bulls and dogs for references. – user32505 Sep 19 '14 at 11:13
@Ian that has been discussed here: Can the subject of a portrait be an animal? – Imre Sep 19 '14 at 14:04
up vote 8 down vote accepted

The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography includes an article by Kathleen Francis on the subject, which says in part:

Portrait photography produces pictures that capture the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses. A portrait picture might be artistic, or it might be clinical, as part of a medical study. Frequently, portraits are commissioned for special occasions, such as weddings or school events. Portraits can serve many purposes, from usage on a personal Web site to display in the lobby of a business.

One can find other more or less "official" definitions of portrait photography, but this one captures several aspects that are important to portrait photography (or to portraiture in the visual arts overall) which may not be explained in detail in a general-purpose dictionary.

A portrait:

  • Captures the personality or essence of a subject. Not just a picture with a person in it. A "clinical" portrait might not attempt to reveal the soul of a person, but it still needs to capture something of that person's uniqueness — or else it's not a portrait.
  • Is staged. While portraits can be candid, even those tend to have some intentionality. The lighting, backdrops, and poses are important, even if they are ad hoc. (Or maybe especially when they are.)
  • Is commissioned. While this isn't necessary in a literal sense, in a larger sense portrait photographs are made for the purpose. Someone — the subject, or the artist, or some organization — wants a portrayal of a certain person (or group of people). Even a street portrait of a stranger can fit, based on the photographer's intention.

By the very existence of the term "group portrait", clearly such a thing exists. One can also say "individual portrait", but generally the implication of the term alone is that a single person is portrayed. However, if there are multiple subjects — the grandmother and granddaughter, for example — the picture isn't automatically a portrait without some of the above.

A successful photograph of a grandmother and granddaughter might be thought of as two portraits in one: first, a portrait of the grandmother, showing her personality through her relationship to the child; second and simultaneously, a portrait of the granddaughter, showing her personality through her relationship with the older woman.

A lesser photograph might succeed at just one of these, being effectively a portrait of one person with the other person as a prop. Or, if the focus is on the activity of the two subjects, or on their surroundings, it's probably not really a portrait.

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In your explanation, you seem to imply that the subject has to be a person or a group of them. This isn't directly expressed in the linked article, although all the examples are of people. Can the subject be an animal, or perhaps even inanimate things/phenomenons? – Imre Dec 30 '11 at 13:47
Asked my previous comment as a separate question. – Imre Jan 22 '12 at 9:35

I'll go slightly beyond the simple "a picture of one or more people", because there are differences between portraits and pictures that include people.

There are lenses intended as 'portrait lenses' - but the focal length or perspective or f-stop doesn't make an image a portrait.

I'll argue that if the 'focus' of an image is a person (or group) then it is a portrait. Hopefully it will in some way inform you the subject(s).

A portrait may attempt to highlight a relationship between people, or with an environment or an object.

This is opposed to another image which simply happens to contain people.

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Voting down seems petty so I didn't (not even sure if I can), but this is a simple dictionary question. A portrait is a representation of a person or group of people.

EDIT: clarification to remove unintended snark: A representation of an individual or of a group (say a sports team) are recognisably portraits whereas a street photograph which happens to include people is not. If there is a distinction it is in intent, if the principal subject is one or more people it is probably a portrait, otherwise not. Whether photography, pencil sketches or paintings.

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Sometimes, dictionary defintions, which are meant to cover the use of a word in general English, do not completely cover the nuances of a word in a specific domain (e.g. photography). – mattdm Dec 29 '11 at 18:22
Even in photography a representation of an individual or of a group (say a sports team) are recognisably portraits whereas a street photograph which happens to include people is not. If there is a distinction it is in intent, if the principal subject is one or more people it is probably a portrait, otherwise not. Same for pencil sketches or paintings. – epo Dec 29 '11 at 19:46
Exactly! And you won't find that in a dictionary definition. Put that in your answer and I'll vote it up! – mattdm Dec 30 '11 at 2:33

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