Categories: Essays, Photography, University

How is Pose used in Portrait Photography?

To finish my Master’s Degree I chose to write a dissertation (as opposed to a Final Major Project). This was initially daunting as the limit was 20,000 words (excluding quotes), but good guidance and planning meant this was filled relatively easily. I chose to write about portrait photography as this was one area that I, despite not being a portrait photographer, have always found fascinating from both an art-historical and theoretical photography point of view. Portrait photography is a very large subject to look at so I decided to concentrate on pose, and how pose is used in photographic portraits.

This was expanded to discuss how pose can form a representation of the subject and problems that can arise though manipulation of the pose. This could be intentionally from the photographer, or unintentionally from the reading of the pose by the viewer, based on their cultural, geographical, or social background. Furthermore, how pose and the use of pose has developed and changed over time in response to art history and wider visual culture.

To underpin my dissertation, I used philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of Parergon, using the pose as a device to frame the subject, which I took further and developed within the theorist Roland Barthes’ ideas of Studium and Punctum.

My dissertation began by discussing Victorian photography and how pose could relate to class and status, before using content analysis on online archives of photographs by Isle of Wight Photographers. I am a Volunteer at Carisbrooke Castle Museum on the Island, where I work in the archive researching and adding accessions, with a specific interest in Victorian and Edwardian photography. I had hoped to conduct my analysis there but as Covid-19 prevented this, I used the Castle’s online archive supplemented by my own Victorian portrait photography collection and the Royal Collections online archive. The findings of my analysis aligned with contemporary ideas on pose, showing that certain ideas around pose and how pose is used in relation to representation in portrait photography may have formed much earlier in art history.

I further developed my argument to look at fashion photography in the 1950’s, discussing gender stereotypes that had formed in Victorian photography. Using theories by sociologist Erving Goffman I looked at the move away from using pose to advertise a product to an aspirational lifestyle, and how the use of pose was developed to reflect more on real life, becoming an important part of visual culture. I considered the influence of wider post-War visual culture in the form of recruitment posters and Hollywood Glamour. For my case study I discussed photographs by Richard Avedon and used semiotic analysis to read deeper into the images.

Looking at contemporary photography, I used portraits by Reinke Dijkstra as my case study, and discussed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s Gaze theory and how it was developed though Laura Mulvey’s application of Gaze in film theory. I continued to reinforce the idea that wider visual culture is a catalyst to the continued development of the pose in photography. To continue with contemporary portrait photography, I looked at social media, and how pose is used to represent the self, introducing digital cultures and discussing how people subconsciously choose to pose in a certain way. To back up my research I conducted online interviews with two portrait photographers, Clare Hewitt and Jason Alden, to see how they approach pose and its influence on the representation of their subjects.

Lastly, I looked at my own family photographs and how they could form a representation of myself. I considered author and academic Marianne Hirsch’s idea of post-memory, using family photographs to create memories of family members that we’d never met, except though how we see and read their pose though photographs.

As always, looking back on it there are a lot of avenues I could have taken and concentrated on, and if I were to re-write it I would exclude some parts and go into a lot more detail. I’m especially wanting to re-visit the idea of Parergon in relation to Barthe’s Studium and Punctum.

20,000 words is a lot to post in one go, so please download my dissertation if you’re interested in reading it.

As a post-script, I submitted my dissertation for a research distinction from the Royal Photographic Society, which was approved in May 2021, giving me the distinction of Associate of the Royal Photographic Society.