Studio Workshop One

The first session since the Digital module sees our small group of eight move into the Studio.

We were given a presentation on the practice of portraiture by Dr Euripides Altintzoglou and then an introduction to Bowens and Broncolor Lighting Systems by the superb technician Dan Collins.

The brief for the Studio component of this year’s Media And Methods module sees each of us producing two images, one of myself and one produced by myself. We will be selecting a painted portrait with an eye to replicating it with some changes to make it about the artist/subject rather than just being a straight facsimile of the original . We are able to use digital or film but it must be on Medium or Large Format cameras.

Portraiture: Fictions Of The Self

Euripides, our course leader led with his lecture; “Portraiture: Fictions Of The Self”

“Think about the picture asking questions and not giving the answers” (Dr E Altintzoglou)

Appropriation is taking and making the image your own, if you change nothing it becomes a study of the original.

First thing first: Research into the artist and subjects.

Why was the painting created? By who? When and How? What drove the artist to create it as it is?

Matthew Pillsbury and Richard Avedon represent Time in their photos, some images show a longer time than the others so it can be interesting to capture a portrait that isn’t a snapshot of the moment. Indeed it may be that to create a portrait of someone may need to show their dynamism.

In terms of retouching, altering a photo to create an idealistic image is not always wrong but the questions about what’s been changed need to be asked and an answer provided.

We discussed Marcel Duchamp and the changes he brought about in the art world with taking something and putting on a plinth taking away its function and utility. He was one of a number of people who played with peoples’ expectations to get them to question what they were seeing.

We were then shown portraits of Marcel Duchamp by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon whose styles were different leading to Penn’s full length portrait of Duchamp standing in a tight corner whilst Avedon’s was a close up of Duchamp’s face whilst he was possibly wiping his eyes. It shows us that a Portrait isn’t a fixed format or idea but can be representative of the subject without fitting into a standard model.

We examined a 2007 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Annie Liebovitz and discussed the symbolism included in it.

  • Land in the background to show she’s wealthy and owns a lot of land.
  • Low camera angle to look up to her, in reverence to her regal being.
  • Dramatic Sky to show that it’s been a tough time but the monarchy still exists.
Queen Elizabeth II wearing the Admiral’s Cloak by Annie Liebovitz 2007

The next slide showed a 1990-1992 portrait of Brent Booth by Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, this was a staged photo with the subject painted to appear as a male prostitute waiting at a service station. The lighting and layering of the photo make it look like a snapshot but it’s a cleverly designed set up.

What is  A Portrait?

Euripides asked us the question and I answered that it was capturing the subject and letting the viewer know who the subject was. This is not particularly accurate as a portrait does not capture the subject but showing the subject to the viewer so that questions are provoked.

A page on Philosophy for photographers helped us further understand that we try and acknowledge the “nature of being” in our work by using “adoption, transformation and development” of the components of portraiture.

Why are artists still around today?
There is no real evolutionary benefit of being an artist, it might seem. But often art produced can provoke questions, reasoned arguments and discussions about what is being represented. Being a group of people that ask questions or persuade others to have an inquiring mind helps the human race evolve.

“It’s a journey of learning to understand the subject or contexts.”

Symbolism In Portraits

Sometimes Hidden sometimes overt and obvious.

Contain information or clues as to:

  • Biographical References, background, family.
  • The subjects allegiance to a cause, principal or ideology.

Identity Politics

We discussed Identity Politics (things that can be changed/swapped/altered) in our images and how they alter the message of the final resultant image.

  • Age
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Nationality

Clash Of Subjectivities

Richard Brilliant : ” portrait might reflect a conflict, a “struggle of dominance between the artist’s conception and the sitter’s will”

This means that whatever the idea of the artist and the idea of the sitter/subject about what the portrait should represent it is always a mixture of both.

Defining Portraiture

Harry Berger Jr. stated “the portrait presents – performs, displays, stages – not a person but a representation, and the representation not of a person but of an act of self-presentation”

Harry Berger Jr., Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 13.

For me this sounds a little like the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment , by the act of observing, changes are made.

Strategies of Appropriation

•re-vision & re-evaluation

•variation & version

•interpretation & imitation

•supplement & increment

•improvisation & pastiche

•paraphrase & parody

•homage & mimicry


Newly created work has a meaning that is antagonistic or antithetical to the original. This could be something that has a political message or something that is a straight parody or satire of the original.

Before this lecture I had never heard of Detournement but I’ve been busy over the years in photoshop and more recently carried out some of this style of work on a piece of graffiti in my home town of Shrewsbury.

After these discussions about the definition of portraiture, we looked at some examples of portraits and how some of the most recognisable images created for a portrait have some historical lineage back to classical sculpture and art. Some poses that appear are considered as natural body stance because that’s how a human stands when they’re waiting patiently to have their photograph taken.
A quick example of this was a photo from Rineke Dijkstra from Poland in 1992 which the subject poses on a sea shore in a similar pose to Botticelli’s Venus from 1490.

Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26 1992', Rineke Dijkstra, 1992 | Tate
Rineke Dijkstra, Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26 1992

The same was noted when looking at a Nan Goldin picture from 1991, “Jimmy Paulette & Misty In A Taxi” The tilted head of one of the subjects is a traditional pose, akin to statues of Alexander The Great from c.325-300 BC. It’s a standard, maybe one that was selected knowingly by the photographer from the contact sheet of different images but possibly due to a sub-conscious template of how a head should be posed for greatest effect.

We finished off by looking at some of Fairlie Atkinson’s works showing a recreation of great paintings such as The Girl With The Pearl Earring by Vermeer, but using a medical headscarf and face mask to alter the image to reflect the current situation of the Covid Pandemic.

We then talked further on the subject of appropriation and detournement before moving into the studio lighting demo.

Studio Lighting Introduction

Dan showed us the lighting units that are available for us Level 4 (1st Year) students to use in the Scoops at the university and explained the difference between the Bowens and Broncolor heads and accessories.

We saw how the flash heads can have modifiers to target the light in a specific and targeted location and these can be made up of snoots, soft boxes, umbrellas and beauty dishes.

The Bowens heads were powered directly by IEC Power leads (kettle leads) and the Broncolor use a special cable with a connector that plugs into the power supply units. We had some hints and tips of how to place cables in the working space, such as not having them suspended off the floor or if it can be plugged in another socket to remove a trip hazard it would be better. It saves people tripping over in the studio and also prevents bringing some expensive lighting gear crashing to the deck.

We learnt how the heads have modelling lights to show the shadow structures on the face of the mannequin and Dan suggested to check the layout by looking through one eye whilst squinting. This removes the detail of everything in the image and allows you to see the blocks of light and shade and was a remarkably useful tip.

Euripides (l) and Dan (r) demonstrating Flash in the studio scoop.

Moving the heads closer or further away from the subject also changes the power of the light on the face, thinking back to the inverse square law. It was also interesting to see that light from a softbox can be steered around the side of the face onto the unlit side if not controlled carefully. A reflector or piece of white canvas is also useful to reflect some light from the Key Light to the other side of the face or even under the chin of the subject, rather than employing another flash head unit.

There is also a chart on the wall showing different lighting setups and the effects that result from their use, which I will take a photo of tomorrow when I’m next in the studio.

Lots Left To Learn

Overall this first week of introduction to Portraiture and studio lighting has been interesting and enlightening (pardon the pun) and I’m sure that we all have much to learn over the next five weeks, before we are to submit our portraits for review.

For next week we also have to select some portrait paintings we want to look at interpreting using some appropriation or even detournement into a photographic portrait. We’ll get together in our small groups to discuss methods and what our plans are for the next few sessions in the studio..

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