Critical Review – outline of intention and photographers/work to be reviewed

Posted on September 27, 2012


As part of my Advanced studies I have to prepare a critical studies text within my chosen genre – in my case portraiture. The exact description of the work in my  Advanced Learning Contract is as follows:

“Contextual Studies Text:

2 – 3000 words, illustrated and fully referenced. 

Define the areas of interest for your critical study. This should involve a discussion of the work of a single or several practitioners in a related field. Your study should be relevant to your own practice, and you should describe how this is so, but the emphasis of the text in on the analysis and evaluation of the work of other practitioners.’ 

The starting point for my work is the following extract from Barthes Camera Lucinda:

“The PORTRAIT-PHOTOGRAPH is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.”  (Barthes)

I am particularly interested in the image-repertoire ‘the one I want others to think I am’. This is the domain of posing and theatrical display by the subject. My work will explore the strategies photographers have used to limit conscious self presentation by the subject. Much of my own work during the Advanced module has been following a path of investigating such strategies.

I intend to focus on portrait photographers who have worked in series and have deployed approaches grouped under the headings set out below. Where I have already identified source material I have provided the relevant references. These are by no means complete at this stage.

  1. Candid portraits where the subject is unaware of the photographer which I will cover under the title ‘The Unseen Photographer’ a title used in the 2010 Tate Modern Exhibition Exposed (Phillips). Photographers/work I shall review under this heading are Walker Evans/Subway Portraits (Evans), Harry Callahan/Women lost in thought (Callahan), Philip-Lorca DiCorcia/Heads and Streetwork (DiCorcia) and Thomas Struth/Museum Photographs and Audiences (Struth). My ‘Museum Portraits’ fall into this category.
  2. Portraits where subject is aware of the photographer but is fully absorbed in another activity. This will be covered under the heading ‘The Absorbed Subject’. In this area I shall be reviewing the work of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin/Trust (Broomberg), Paul Graham/Television Portraits (Graham), and Lee Friedlander/At Work (Friedlander). My ‘Urban Artists at Work’ series falls under this heading.
  3. Situations where the photographer deliberately tries to distract the subject or where the subject is tired/distracted as a result of emotional or physical stress immediately prior to the portrait sitting. I cover this under ‘The Distracted Subject”. Here I will be reviewing the work of Bettina Von Zwehl/Various (von Zwehl) , Elina Brotherus/Self Portraits (Brotherus), Rineke Dijkstra/Self Portrait (Dijkstra). This is the strategy I deployed for my ‘I am an Ironman’ self portraits.
  4. Portrait subjects come to a sitting with ideas about what might be expected of them which are conditioned by social conventions. Photographers sometimes de-rail their subjects by requiring them to present themselves to the camera in an unexpected way. This might be as simple as asking them to stand very still, not to smile or requiring them to wait for a long time before the shutter is depressed.  The section “The Uncertain Subject” will deal with this. Photographers who have worked in this way include  Rineke Dijkstra/Beach Portraits and others (Dijkstra),  Judith Joy Ross/Various (Ross),  Albrecht Tubke/Portraits (Tubke),  Thomas Struth/Family Portraits (Struth). This is the approach I have been taking with my ‘Ironman Family’ portraits.
  5. Early Calotype portraits were thought by Walter Benjamin to cause the subject to ‘focus his whole life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it’. The reason for this was that the portraits required the subject to remain still for exposures of up to a minute. I plan to review the portraiture of David Octavius Hill (Hill) under the heading The Suspended Subject”.  I will be experimenting with the effects of long exposure times on the portrait pose through my ‘Portraits after David Octavius Hill’ series.

There is much to do and I am a little concerned that I have too much ground to cover with some 15 photographers listed, several with more than one series to be reviewed. I will start to post my reviews to this blog as I work my way through. I have already covered the work of Rineke Dijkstra, so the good news is I have made a start.


Barthes R. (1982) Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang

Phillips S. (Ed.) (2010) “Exposed voyeurism, surveillance and the camera” London: Tate Publishing

Evans W. “Subway Passengers New York City”, 1 February – 14 May 2000, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Exhibitions, , Available from: [Accessed on 19th March 2012]

Callahan H. “Women Lost in Thought”,  Dec 1, 2005 – Jan 14, 2006, Danziger Gallery, Available from:  [Accessed on 19th March 2012]

DiCorcia P.   “Exposed: Surveillance, Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera”, Exhibition, Tate Modern, Available from: [Accessed on 19th March 2012]

Struth, T. (2010), ‘THOMAS STRUTH Photographs 1978-2010’, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel Publishing

Broomberg A. & Chanarin O. (2000) ‘Trust” London: Westzone Publishing

Graham P. (1996) “Paul Graham” London: Phaidon

Friedlander L. (2002) “lee friedlander at work” New York: Distributed Art Publishers

von Zwehl B. (2007) “Bettina von Zwehl (Photoworks Monograph)” London:Steidl

Brotherus E. (Interview 1999) Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe (1997-1999) Available from: [Accessed on 24th June 2012]

Dijkstra R. (2012) Rineke Dykstra: A Retrospective New York: The Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation

Ross J.J. (1995) “Judith Joy Ross” New York: MOMA

Tubke A. (2006) “Albrecht Tubke: Portraits” Vienna: Verlag fur Moderne Kunst

Stevenson S. (2002) “The Personal Art of David Octavius Hill”  New Haven: Yale University Press