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From the Front and in Profile: Expectations and Approaches in the Processes of Portrait Photography

Text: Nadja Brečević


"N" is Nadja (me) and "S" is the person being photographed.

In photo studio 4056 at Valand

S: What should I do?
N: You could sit on that chair and just look straight into the camera.
N: Now you could turn to the side and look towards the window.
N: Change sides and look towards the wall.
N: Look back at me again, but sit just as you are.


This is roughly how a conversation can look when I work in the photo studio. It might look similar elsewhere, but I find it most evident within the studio walls. A dialogue between me and the person in front of me, but also with the camera. The person in front of me responds by following my instructions, and the camera emits a clicking sound, capturing an image. The studio functions as an isolated space, where neither I nor the other person have any contact with the outside world. In this context, I often reflect on my relationship with the person I'm photographing and sometimes why we are where we are at that moment. When photographing a person, I don't want to force anything that they can't stand for. Usually, I have an inner image of what the result might be, and I know how I want the person to be positioned within the frame. But I don't really want to control how my subject behaves; rather, my instructions are a way for me to guide us in a certain direction. Almost every time I have a photo shoot scheduled, I have an uneasy feeling in my body. A feeling I don't have when photographing landscapes or other subjects that don't look directly into my eyes. Or rather, directly through the camera eye.

It's been a long time since I met Nora. When we met outside the entrance to Valand, I barely recognized her. Shortly after, she sits on a stool in front of me and my large camera, and I was almost surprised by the calm she radiated. The face has many different functions that we instinctively try to read and interpret. It is through the face that we communicate with each other, perceive scents, and listen. Maja Tabea Jerrentrup, a professor of media and photography, writes: "Appearance influences the way a person is seen by others, and therefore also how he himself experiences the many encounters with other people." Portrait is something that we easily recognize; the slightest hint of a face and we automatically project all sorts of emotions onto it. Philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas reflected on the "ethics of the face," and he spoke of the other's face as representing nakedness and vulnerability to the encounter. According to Lévinas, the face is the most expressive aspect of the other's presence, and one who faces the other's face immediately poses the question of their own responsibility. He argues that the meaning of the face is therefore ethical.

In this essay, I aim to explore various approaches and processes that I and other portrait photographers work from. The essay is based on the subject of portrait photography, and although I mostly photograph people, I find it to be a complex subject to approach. I will examine portrait photography from a historical perspective, take a closer look at other photographers' works and their positions on the subject, and contemplate the concept of 'authenticity' and what it means. Additionally, I will focus on self-portraiture and the difference between being photographed by someone else. By examining the ethical dilemma of directing a camera towards another person, as well as reflecting on agreements and arrangements, the main question I want to answer is: what methods and approaches are there to handle the expectations that I believe both I and the subject have in the encounter between photographer and subject?

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From a historical perspective on portrait photography.

Photo historian Mary Warner Marien writes about how portrait photography was used from the very beginning for anthropological and medical purposes. The idea of using portrait photography in various scientific studies, including psychological reasons and for the purpose of categorizing people by social class and origin. Hugh Welch Diamond (1809–1886), a physician, suggested that mentally ill individuals could look at photographs of themselves and thereby gain a better understanding of their own suffering. Around the same time, photography was also employed to describe, compare, and "rank" people based on ethnicity. Scientist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) commissioned photographs from photographer J. T. Zealy in a deeply problematic manner. The photographer used different lighting setups to highlight various physical attributes of his subjects with the intention of ranking people accordingly.

In the introduction to "Portraits: the portrait in contemporary photography," art historian Peter Weiermair refers to philosopher Dolf Sternberger: "Dolf Sternberger has remarked that the main emphasis in 20th-century portrait art has shifted from the subject of the photograph to the person of the photographer." Sternberger suggests that portrait photography in the 20th century has evolved from solely focusing on the subject to also encompassing the photographer themselves. Later in the history of photography, the photographer has become more present, partly because the relationship between photographer and subject has become even more important. The genre of portraiture, initially described as a commissioned work, has later shifted its focus to the relationship that emerges between the one capturing the image and the one being captured. Perhaps a different type of interest is aroused in relationships, but also in the sphere that exists between the subject and the photographer—namely, the act of photography itself, the interpersonal. This sphere becomes intriguing to explore when the encounter no longer consists of two individuals, but when one is confronted with oneself.

Art historian Max Kozloff writes about the invention of the photo booth in New York in 1925. This invention provided individuals with the opportunity to easily take their own portrait without a present photographer. He argues that this invention is part of the history of photography when it comes to self-representation. The photo booth is a closed space where the subject independently explores their own self, similarly when the subject positions themselves in any other space, accompanied only by a camera. Photographer Verdi Yahooda has been working on a project since 1974 that involves using the photo booth to create a systematic documentation of herself. Her work raises questions for me about identity politics, where the photographs focus exclusively on one person's life over time, and I can see similarities in mug shots and really in all types of photographic 'accounting' of someone.

In the act of self-portraiture, the meeting between photographer and subject essentially disappears, and instead, it becomes about the relationship between the camera and the person in front of the camera. Philosopher Dawn M. Wilson writes: "Self-portraiture is uniquely important for my purposes because in this art form, an artist self-consciously and self-critically explores her relationship with the medium in which she portrays herself. This is particularly true of self-portraits in which the artist portrays herself as an artist, though an artist may choose to portray entirely different aspects of her identity." What Wilson says makes me think about my own self-portraits and the emotions that arise when I place myself in the role of being the subject. When I compare my self-portraits with someone else's photographs of me, I often see two completely different sides of myself. Where my self-portraits resemble how I see myself in the mirror, while someone else's images of me depict 'me,' but from another person's perspective. A perspective I cannot experience until it is presented to me in the form of a photograph.

In the book "Camera Lucida," theoretician Roland Barthes writes about his experiences and thoughts on being photographed. He discusses the discomfort he could feel when he saw "himself" on paper. In the portrait of himself, he encounters four imaginary forces. In front of the camera, he is simultaneously who he believes himself to be, who he wants others to believe him to be, who the photographer believes him to be, and who the photographer uses to showcase their skill. He writes about photography as the moment when he is neither a subject nor an object but rather a subject feeling transformed into an object, likening this to an experience of death. According to Barthes, the photographer is also aware of this fate and suggests that the photographer themselves feels anxiety about the experience that photography evokes. In almost everything Barthes writes, I can recognize myself, especially in the role of the subject, which in turn may lead to the uncertainty I can feel about the subject's interest and expectations.



In photo studio 4056 at Valand

N: Thank you, I think we can wrap up now.

I rewind the film, take out the roll, and seal it with the small paper strip.

S: It'll be exciting to see the pictures when you're done.

N: Yes, I hope they turn out well.

I detach the camera from the tripod and start dismantling the lights I've used.

S: You must send them to me later, I really want to see.

N: Absolutely, we'll see when I have time to work on them.

I raise the white backdrop and pack my camera into the bag, hearing myself say:

N: I think the pictures will turn out great.

S: I think so too, you make such beautiful pictures.

I wonder why I said that when I'm actually worrying at this moment if I had the right settings on the camera.

N: Thanks again, see you soon.


In an interview for Art in America, photographer Rineke Dijkstra responds to how she prepares for a photoshoot: "I think it’s better if it happens by accident somehow. I never have a fixed idea when I photograph someone. Of course I have a preconceived notion of the background, and the light, but never the person. I don’t like to give too many directions. For me it’s important that a pose arises sort of unconsciously or naturally." Dijkstra waits a while before pressing the shutter, allowing the subject to settle into their pose. As they slowly relax and perhaps start thinking about something else. Dijkstra's desire for everything to happen so naturally makes me ponder authenticity and what a "natural portrait" really is. Philosopher Charles Guignon and researcher Somogy Varga write about authenticity; "To say that something is authentic is to say that it is what it professes to be, or what it is reputed to be, in origin or authorship. But the distinction between authentic and derivative is more complicated when discussing authenticity as a characteristic attributed to human beings. For in this case, the question arises: What is it to be oneself, at one with oneself, or truly representing one’s self?" Considering the questions Guignon and Varga raise, I wonder if it's possible to create a completely "natural portrait." I ponder what it truly means and what determines whether it is such.

When I'm photographing someone else, I want both the subject and myself to feel comfortable in the space we've created together. I imagine the "space" as the act of photographing itself, the interaction between me and the subject. The encounter between us is an event and process that can look very different depending on who is involved. In an interview with ArtReview Asia, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans says, "I needed to know that I wasn’t intruding, that she was willing to give me her picture. You have to be given a picture. I don’t take a portrait, I receive a portrait. It’s only what people are prepared to give you that you can capture." According to him, it's a matter of what the subject is willing to give, and that's precisely what the photographer can capture. Tillmans' words make me think about the action of "taking" and the sometimes negative connotation of "taking a portrait." I ponder whether, in this case, one might consider it inappropriate to "take," so one chooses to receive instead.


I have previously worked with portrait series, where I took pictures of the subject in different positions. Frontal and in profile. When I think back to the moment when I photographed Alessandra in the studio, I can remember that we didn't say much to each other. I asked her to look into the camera and then to sit in profile. It was right then when I started photographing with a large format camera, and there were several concerns, such as whether I had loaded the film correctly in the cassettes and if the connection cable to the shutter release was properly connected. The photo shoot was quite influenced by my relationship with the camera, but I believe that relationship, in turn, contributed to me directing a different kind of attention towards Alessandra. I waited a long time before pressing the shutter release and could discern every breath. Until, in 1/125th of a second, I took a picture, when she perhaps least expected it, but also myself.

Every photo shoot is different from the next, but I usually don't experience a significant difference in the result depending on whether I know the subject or not. However, I'm not sure if it's just something I imagine, but I feel that more is expected of me when I photograph someone I know well. Philosopher Cynthia Freeland writes: "Matisse was one of the first artists to do portraits with clear contracts specifying conditions for their execution. Sitters had to agree to his requirements during the process; their protection was that in the end they could reject the painting. Even so, Matisse remained frustrated by the expectations of sitters in portrait painting, and stopped painting portraits after 1924." Freeland's text makes me think about the contractual aspect of creating someone else's portrait. I believe that there is always an agreement, whether explicit or implied. When I photograph, I am very aware that there is an agreement underlying the process, but this agreement is usually most evident when I am working on commission for someone I personally don't know. In Matisse's case, I contemplate what would happen if I photograph someone and the subject then disagrees with the result, and how I would personally deal with it.

Art historian Jan Von Brevern writes: "Expectations appear to be states of mind, much harder to grasp than material facts. More often than not, they are unspecific and vague, bearing little relation to the actual state of the world. Yet despite all that, expectations seem, in some powerful way, to be capable of shaping thoughts and actions and of changing the course of history." Von Brevern suggests that expectations are perceived through our senses and are often difficult to understand specifically how or why they are created in the first place. Personally, I draw parallels to the agreement formed between photographer and subject and whether it is explicit or implicit. The more both parties know beforehand, the clearer the picture of expectations becomes.

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, in an interview with The Oregonian, says: "You have to be yourself, especially in a portrait. You have to take control, even if it's the person you are most scared of, a famous person or someone like that. Similarly, in a nonportrait situation where you want to speak to someone in order to take their picture, you can't be scared of them. I tell people who are scared or embarrassed by taking pictures, that they just aren't documentary photographers. They should go photograph still lifes or landscapes is what I tell them -- stay away from people." Mark suggests that the photographer must have control over the situation and not feel any fear towards the person they are photographing. Given that Mark worked from a documentary perspective, I interpret that she didn't want to convey any insecurity, which could then affect the subject. Mark demonstrates a form of professionalism, where she essentially says, "I take responsibility for the situation."

Often, I'm looking for a specific expression or feeling that may only be visualized through a particular person. While the person remains themselves, they serve as a sort of "stand-in" for something I want to convey. In this case, I asked Èmilie if she would be willing to stand in front of my camera. Author Maja Tabea Jerrentrup writes: "'This is me,' we tend to say about photographs of ourselves—which is remarkable given that the image with which we identify is a two-dimensional visual taken from a very specific moment in our past. And yet the image is interpreted as an icon or an index of our present being." Jerrentrup's quote connects back to what I've previously written about both my own and Barthes' experience of seeing oneself in a photograph. It makes me ponder what Èmilie feels when she sees the image of herself. Does she recognize herself in the image, or is it, as Jerrentrup suggests, merely a two-dimensional representation of something that has been? In any case, I notice how these reflections become more palpable when Èmilie is someone I feel I know well.


The subject in this case is my friend Ana-Marija's father, Dragan, outside their house in Kragujevac (I have never met him before).

N: Mogu li da te slikam? (Can I take your picture?)

S: Da, naravno. (Yes, of course.)

We can only speak a little with each other, and instead, I move my legs to photograph him from different angles.

N: Pogledaj me. (Look at me.)


S: Imaš lepu kameru! (You have a nice camera!)

N: Hvala vam, hvala lepo! (Thank you, thank you kindly!)

I reflect a bit on how easily he took the situation, even though we don't know each other.


Meeting other people is everything. In my case, this meeting often happens through a camera. There is a duality in the feelings that arise within me when I meet another person. I appreciate the fact that I can never predict what will happen and how someone else will act. At the same time, it is precisely this that makes me feel uncertain, but in some way, I believe that the balance between wonder and uncertainty is what drives me forward. I think that the uncertainty I feel is relieved by the presence of a camera. The camera plays a central role in the event of a photograph, and no matter what I do, one cannot ignore that a camera is also present. Both in the role of photographer and as a subject, I am constantly aware that I am photographing, but also that I am being photographed. When it comes to encountering the other (in this case, the subject), essentially through any artistic technique, the camera limits the full encounter. It delimits my full attention and prevents me from focusing solely on what or who is in front of me, thus becoming a type of limitation. It acts as a filter, and through this filter, I can encounter the other, whose presence might otherwise be overwhelming. Sometimes I wonder if art is a need to find just such a limitation. Since the world as a whole seems entirely impossible to confront, perhaps artists, through their specific limitations, can venture out into the world and encounter it.

When it comes to the historical aspect of aiming a camera at another person, I believe this is something that is difficult to completely overlook. The categorizing and classifying reasoning that photographers used early on is something that has shaped how we look at portrait photographs even today. Perhaps it is something that should make us think twice when we look at photographs, but also when we photograph someone else. To avoid ending up in a place where portrait photographs are created to worsen the life of someone else.


To loop back to the self-portrait and when I place myself in front of someone else's camera; where I write that my self-portraits resemble how I see myself in the mirror, while someone else's images of me represent 'me', but from a different perspective. It's an insight that I believe I should always carry with me when photographing another person. Because it's both about being able to relate, but also because it helps me ease my unreasonable demand to portray someone else exactly as they would portray themselves. Because I don't think you can see yourself through someone else's perception, or at least not until the photograph is presented to me afterwards. In my self-portraits, I create a completely different image of myself, an image I'm used to - as self-portraits are something I work with a lot. While in someone else's image, I learn something completely different about myself.

In the example with Matisse, he entered into a specific agreement with his models and made it clear to them what they could expect. If the result did not turn out as they had imagined, the models had full permission to destroy the paintings. If it were me as a photographer and if my subject were to express dissatisfaction with the image afterwards, I think I might have acted similarly. Or at least not use the image in any way that my model would not approve of. I have never experienced anyone disliking an image I have taken of them to the extent that I couldn't show it in my work, but I think there is a chance that it could happen someday. I wondered why I feel most strained when photographing someone I know, but I can't say that I come to any absolute answer. What I imagine could matter is how explicit the meaning behind the photography is. Something that I think falls away to some extent when I have some kind of closer relationship with the person I'm photographing - as it's easier to just do it.

All photographers have their own way of interacting with their subjects. Dijkstra, Tillmans, and Mark, along with many others, have their own approach when it comes to approaching another person with a camera. There is not just one way to meet one's subject, and each way appears in completely different forms of results. I don't ask which approach is better than the other, but rather what different methods exist and to compare these with my own practice. In Dijkstra's case, it may be about discussing the importance of the "natural", where one can ask what the natural is and whether an 'authentic' portrait of someone else can be created. In Tillmans' case, I could interpret it as a way of de-subjectifying oneself as a photographer. I read in a way a desire to make oneself less responsible. All photographers create their own manageable aspects in the encounter with the other.


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