Photographic portraiture: props and staging

Learning objectives

  1. Analyse the message or purpose of a photographic portrait.
  1. Analyse how identity can be portrayed through photography.
  1. Explore how photographers use props, background and settings in portraits to show identity.
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    Grace Lau,    by Grace Lau,    July 2005,    NPG x128064,    © Grace Lau 2005
Grace Lau
by Grace Lau
chromogenic print, July 2005
13 7/8 in. x 14 in. (352 mm x 355 mm)
NPG x128064
© Grace Lau 2005
On display in Room 29 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Our Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. is what makes us who we are. It’s made up of the characteristics, feelings or beliefs that make us different from others. It can be shaped by our nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, job, hobbies, family and many other factors.

Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. in photographic portraits can be placed purposefully by the Sitter The person in a portrait. or photographer to convey something about the sitter’s identity. Objects can also be included by chance as part of the portrait’s setting or location.

Staging refers to the process of setting up a portrait. For a photograph, this might involve:

  • selecting a location
  • deciding on the sitter’s Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made.
  • deciding which objects will be included in the composition and arranging these
  • deciding on the lighting and camera angle.

Staging a portrait helps to create an atmosphere or mood. It can also be used to tell us about the sitter’s identity.

First impressions

Look carefully at these photographs. Take your time – look at each one for at least a minute. Notice the room and the objects (or Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. ) that surround each Sitter The person in a portrait. .

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    Olive Morris,    by Neil Kenlock,    January 1973,    NPG x199645,    © Neil Kenlock
Olive Morris, by Neil Kenlock, January 1973
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    Grace Lau,    by Grace Lau,    July 2005,    NPG x128064,    © Grace Lau 2005
Grace Lau, by Grace Lau, July 2005
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[IMAGE] A white woman with short curly hair and wearing a smart blue shirt holds a photograph in her hands. She is surrounded by a gold frame and various random props. These include a blue butterfly, lightbulbs and fruit.
Yevonde, by Yevonde, 1940
  1. What are your first impressions of these women?

Look closer at Olive Morris by Neil Kenlock

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    Olive Morris,    by Neil Kenlock,    January 1973,    NPG x199645,    © Neil Kenlock
Olive Morris
by Neil Kenlock
modern bromide print from original negative, January 1973
15 in. x 10 in. (381 mm x 254 mm) image size
NPG x199645
© Neil Kenlock
I am proud of the images that I took back in the 60s and 70s. I didn’t understand how significant they would be and that today they would illustrate our struggle and determination.
Neil Kenlock, 2017

Olive Morris

Olive Morris was a political Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. and community leader who campaigned against oppression, racial injustice and sexism in Britain. Morris joined the British Black Panthers The British version of the American group that fought for equal rights for African Americans. movement, a political organisation that fought against discrimination across the UK. She became a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group An organisation for Black women that was formed in Brixton in South London in 1973 and aimed to raise awareness around issues specifically affecting Black women. , which was set up to offer advice and support to the community. Morris died from cancer aged just 27.


Neil Kenlock

This image was taken by photographer Neil Kenlock. Like Morris, Kenlock was born in Jamaica and moved to London as a child. He also joined the British Black Panther movement and became their official photographer, taking portraits of key figures in the group and documenting their actions and causes. His photographs play a key role in representing Black British history.

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    Olive Morris,    by Neil Kenlock,    January 1973,    NPG x199645,    © Neil Kenlock
Olive Morris, by Neil Kenlock, January 1973
    • Olive Morris’s Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. is informal. She sits on a mattress or cushion on the floor and seems at home. She is holding a cigarette.
    • She looks relaxed and is smiling at the camera. She seems comfortable with having her photograph taken.
    • She is casually dressed in jeans, jumper and what appears to be a fake-fur coat. She has taken her shoes off.
    • She is warming her hands over an electric fire. This and her coat suggest that she is cold. There are also some gloves behind her on the mattress.
    • The room in which Kenlock has chosen to photograph Morris is sparsely furnished.
    • The wall behind her is bare except for a poster pinned to the wall, while the plain carpet looks functional – like the type of flooring we might see in an office.
    • We see no furniture, only a mattress, a blanket and an electric fire. This suggests that she is not wealthy.
    • The poster behind Morris is for a demonstration against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War A long war in Vietnam in which the US army, and other US allies, fought against Communist forces. . This shows that she supported this cause and may even have joined the demonstration.
    • Behind her, we can just about make out a notebook or a diary. Is she perhaps writing a speech, or planning a march?
    • The photograph was taken at 121 Railton Road, Brixton. This was a Squat A building or land where people live without permission and without paying rent. that became a centre for community groups fighting for the same cause. Morris lived at the squat with her friends and fellow Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. .
    • Morris was central to the campaign led by Squat To live in a building or on land which is not yours, without the owner's permission. in the 1970s to Protest The expression of strong dislike of or opposition to something; a statement or an action that shows this. at the lack of affordable homes for people like her.
    • By photographing Morris in the squat, Kenlock documents her lifestyle, beliefs and Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. – as well as showing us what she looked like.
    • The setting shows us that Morris was prepared to live simply and put up with hardship in order to focus on the causes that she supported.
    • Olive Morris dominates the composition.
    • Although we see enough of the background to learn something about her Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. , the main focus is her physical presence.
    • Kenlock seems to be sitting across from her, also on the floor. This means that we see Morris as he saw her – as a friend and fellow Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. . It is as if we are sitting there too, chatting to her.

Documentary photographs

Photographer Neil Kenlock is known for documenting the Black experience in the UK. While Documentary photography Photographs that provide straightforward and accurate representations of people, places, objects or events, and that are often used in journalism. record people and events as they happen, they also make decisions that affect how the scene or person will appear in the photograph. They decide:

  • which moment to capture in a photograph
  • where to take the photograph from
  • the camera angle and lighting
  • the composition and what to include in the photograph.

Kenlock chose to photograph Morris in the Squat A building or land where people live without permission and without paying rent. rather than outdoors or in a more neutral interior setting such as a café. He also chose to photograph her in an informal Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. , sitting on the floor, and chose the angle from which to photograph her. As for the composition, he decided on a full-length portrait instead of just showing her face and shoulders, allowing us to see more of her pose and clothing.

Kenlock also made decisions about which Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. to include in the portrait. The mattress, electric fire, poster and notebook may already have been in the room, but he made sure that they were included in the picture rather than Cropping To cut off part of a photograph, picture or image. the image more closely to exclude them.

Look closer at a self-portrait by Grace Lau

Grace Lau is an artist, writer and lecturer who describes herself as a Feminist Having or based on the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. photographer. She was born in London and her parents were Chinese. As an artist of Chinese heritage and aged over 70 (she was 66 when she made this self-portrait), Lau says that she feels ‘outside of the mainstream’ of art in the UK. This has made her interested in representing people who are marginalised.

Research is a vital part of her work, and she likes to delve into the personal stories of her The person in a portrait A person who sits or stands somewhere so that somebody can paint a picture of them or photograph them.  . She sees making a portrait as a collaborative process and one of dialogue and interaction with the Sitter The person in a portrait. . For her, the portrait is a ‘staged event between us’.

My intent is to raise awareness of stereotyping and prejudices, to encourage questions and debate; and to respond as an artist to social issues.
Grace Lau’s artist’s statement
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    Grace Lau,    by Grace Lau,    July 2005,    NPG x128064,    © Grace Lau 2005
Grace Lau, by Grace Lau, July 2005
    • At first glance, the setting for the portrait looks like it could be a room in someone’s house. We can see furniture, ornaments and a picture on the wall. 
    • But the location is staged. Lau Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. for the portrait in a studio called the Chinese Portrait Studio. This is a pop-up studio that she takes to different locations and invites people to have their photographs taken in it. 
    • The studio is based on photography studios that Western photographers established in China in the 1800s. They used them to photograph Chinese people for a Western audience.  
    • The photographs presented Chinese people as an ‘ Exotic other Someone who appears exciting or unusual to a western viewpoint because they look different or have a different culture. ’ (someone who appears exciting or unusual to a Western viewpoint because they look different or have a different culture). 
    • Lau is sitting in a chair with her legs crossed. Although her Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. looks casual, the objects she is holding make it seem staged – as if she wants to highlight them.
    • She is smiling but her expression appears to be one of resignation. She seems to be saying: ‘this is how you see me, so this is how I am going to present myself to you.’ 
    • Lau’s clothes and the Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. she includes in the photograph reflect Chinese history, its rich culture, religion and traditions.
    • They reflect her Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. as a woman of Chinese heritage, but they are also objects that could be seen as Stereotypical Based on a fixed idea or image that many people have of a particular type of person or thing but which is often not true, and may cause hurt and offence. Chinese.
    • Lau includes objects that display the skills of Chinese artists and craftspeople.
    • The objects include a lamp with a base in the form of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of Mercy, a large blue and white porcelain dish, representing China’s famous pottery, and a red lantern, a symbol of wealth fame and prosperity, widely used around the world to reference Chinese culture.
    • In her portraits, Grace Lau explores the way in which we see ourselves and the way we are seen by others.
    • Although this self-portrait reflects her Chinese Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. , she has not done this in a straightforward way. She is almost making fun of the way Western photographers took photographs of Chinese people and culture for Western audiences in the late 1800s – and since then.
    • She has staged a fake room as the setting for her self-portrait and used Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. to present a Stereotypical Based on a fixed idea or image that many people have of a particular type of person or thing but which is often not true, and may cause hurt and offence. version of herself. Although she was born in London, she feels that she is seen in relation to the culture and traditions of China.
    • All the Western photographers in China in the late 1800s were white men who controlled how people were shown in their photographs. In this self-portrait, Lau is a woman of Chinese heritage, creating an image over which she herself has had full control.

Explore the objects in more detail

Look closer at a self-portrait by Yevonde

Yevonde was the professional name of Yevonde Cumbers. She was an innovator in photographic technique and Pioneer A person who is the first to do, discover, or study something. colour photography at a time when it was not taken seriously. She specialised in portraits and Still life A work of art showing arrangements of objects such as flowers or fruit. and experimented with backgrounds, Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. , composition and lighting to create dramatic photographs. Her catchphrase was ‘be original or die!’

Yevonde was a Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. who campaigned for women’s rights. She set up her own successful business as a portrait photographer in 1914, aged 21, attracting wealthy and high-profile clients. She continued to experiment with photographic processes and techniques throughout her 60-year career.

Be original or die would be a good motto for photographers to adopt … let them put life and colour into their work.
Yevonde, 1936
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[IMAGE] A white woman with short curly hair and wearing a smart blue shirt holds a photograph in her hands. She is surrounded by a gold frame and various random props. These include a blue butterfly, lightbulbs and fruit.
Yevonde, by Yevonde, 1940
    • Yevonde sits behind an empty gold frame, like those used in traditional paintings.
    • She is sitting side-on but facing the camera. This is a Conventional Following what is traditional or the way something has been done for a long time. and familiar Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. for a photographic portrait. (Have you ever Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. like this for a school photograph?) However, nothing else about this portrait is conventional.
    • Yevonde has staged the portrait with a creative arrangement of objects and dramatic lighting. Her use of the empty gold frame seems playful. This all makes the photograph look like a piece of Contemporary Following modern ideas in style or design. art.
    • It is very different from the portraits of people in stiff Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. which we might expect to see from this time.
    • Yevonde has surrounded herself with the tools of her trade, as a photographer, including camera lenses, bottles of chemicals and photo-developing equipment. There is also a protective glove to show her hands-on approach to photography.
    • These Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. reflect Yevonde’s career and her passion for photography, and reveal her in-depth knowledge of its processes and techniques.
    • Yevonde wears a heavy chain and key around her neck. These perhaps symbolise that – as a successful photographer and businesswoman – she found the key to unlock the chains that often hold women back.
    • A butterfly is attached to the shutter-release cords around the gold frame. As well as adding a pop of bright colour, the butterfly may symbolise freedom or transformation.
    • Above Yevonde, attached to the gold frame, is her portrait of the Duchess of Wellington, an important client. It is from an inventive series of portraits in which Yevonde Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. her The person in a portrait A person who sits or stands somewhere so that somebody can paint a picture of them or photograph them.  as goddesses, making a positive statement about the power of women.
    • The gold frame suggests historical or Old Master A skilled and distinguished artist, active between the 1200s and 1600s in Europe. paintings. By placing herself within the frame, Yevonde is perhaps implying that she too is part of that tradition.
    • Yevonde has used a strong light source behind the frame, placing it low in order to light up the background. This creates a dramatic mood with contrasting areas of brightness and dark shadows. Her figure appears sharply outlined.
    • The light also creates the illusion that the space within the frame is separate from the rest of the photograph, demonstrating Yevonde’s playful approach to portraiture.
    • She has also lit the set-up from the front, with softer lighting. This enables us to see her face and the various objects placed in front of the gold frame.
    • The dramatic backlighting and gold frame ensure that Yevonde is the focus of the portrait. Nonetheless, she has carefully arranged the objects within the composition so that our eyes travel around it, taking it all in.
    • The loop of cables dangling from the frame encircle Yevonde’s face, highlighting the circular composition.

Explore the objects in more detail

Reflections

  1. Have your first impressions of the sitters in these photographs changed after analysing the portraits? If so, in what ways?
  1. What have you discovered about how photographers use staging and props in portraits?
  1. Think about selfies or photographs you have taken of friends. What props did you include in the photographs? Did you make any decisions about how you staged the photograph (perhaps without even realising it)?

Photographic portraits: exploring further

Choose a photograph that interests you from below and analyse how the photographer has staged the portrait. How have they used Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. , setting, composition, lighting and camera angle to help convey the Sitter The person in a portrait. ’s Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. ? What do the clothes or Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. included in the portrait tell us about them?

Next steps

  1. If you were to surround yourself with objects that reveal something about your identity or culture, what would they be?
  1. Pick a piece of clothing, a favourite food, an ornament and other significant objects, then arrange these into a still life and photograph them.