Photographic portraiture: the artist, the sitter and the gaze

Learning objectives

  1. Explore the concept of the gaze.
  1. Analyse the relationship between sitter and photographer.
  1. Investigate how identity can be portrayed through photography.
  • View larger image
    Riz Ahmed,    by Sharif Hamza,    2018,    NPG x200374,    © Sharif Hamza
Riz Ahmed
by Sharif Hamza
digital pigment print, 2018
21 3/4 in. x 17 7/8 in. (554 mm x 454 mm) image size
NPG x200374
© Sharif Hamza
  1. Who is this person looking at?
  1. Is he looking at you?
  1. What might this say about him and his identity?

In portraits, the ‘gaze’ describes the way the artist and sitter look at each other, and the way we as viewers look at the person portrayed.

In exploring the gaze, we analyse:

  • The sitter’s gaze: where the sitter is looking and what their expression is. Are they looking out at the artist and at us? Are they looking down or to the side or into the distance? Do they look confident or unsure?
  • The artist’s gaze: how did they see the sitter when making the portrait? How do they want us to see the sitter? How does this affect how they present the sitter?
  • Our own gaze as the Viewer The person looking at an artwork. : how do we look at the person in the portrait? What information can we gain by looking at them? Do we interact with them, returning their gaze?

Contemporary photographic portraits are often created through a dialogue between sitter and photographer. They decide between them how the sitter should appear in the photograph and how their identity should be reflected. This includes deciding on their gaze in the portrait and how the viewer sees or interacts with them.

Look closer at Riz Ahmed by Sharif Hamza

  • View larger image
    Riz Ahmed,    by Sharif Hamza,    2018,    NPG x200374,    © Sharif Hamza
Riz Ahmed
by Sharif Hamza
digital pigment print, 2018
21 3/4 in. x 17 7/8 in. (554 mm x 454 mm) image size
NPG x200374
© Sharif Hamza
  1. What is your first impression of Riz Ahmed?
  1. Who is he looking at?
  1. What if he was looking down or off to the side?
  1. In what way would that change your impression of him?

Riz Ahmed

Rizwan Ahmed, known as Riz, is a British Pakistani actor, rapper and Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. . He has worked on many independent and Hollywood films, including Jason Bourne and Rogue One. In 2021, he became the first ever Muslim to be nominated for a Best Leading Actor Oscar for the film Sound of Metal. In 2017, Ahmed gave a speech at the House of Commons, highlighting the lack of diversity in the film and television industry and is an outspoken critic of stereotypical representations of Muslims.

Sharif Hamza

Sharif Hamza is a fashion and documentary photographer recognised for his innovative use of light. A British person of mixed heritage (his mother is Filipino and his father is Egyptian), he is interested in identity and culture. It is important to him to have diverse casting in his work.

The portrait

This portrait is the result of a photo shoot for the front cover of the New York Times Magazine. It was taken a year after Ahmed won an Emmy An award given every year in the US for achievement in the making of television programmes. . Hamza was chosen to photograph Ahmed because of their shared interest in cultural identity.

  • View larger image
    Riz Ahmed,    by Sharif Hamza,    2018,    NPG x200374,    © Sharif Hamza
Riz Ahmed, by Sharif Hamza, 2018
    • Ahmed faces forward with his head at a slight angle. He gazes at the artist Sharif Hamza and the camera, and therefore at us the Viewer The person looking at an artwork. .
    • His expression and steady gaze urge us to look back at him.
    • The plain background and close Cropping To cut off part of a photograph, picture or image. of the photograph focuses our attention on Ahmed’s face, expression and gaze.
    • Hamza placed the camera directly in front of Ahmed, just below eye level. This gives the portrait a ‘no-nonsense’ quality, like a document or record.
    • We see Ahmed’s face clearly, despite the shadow. It seems as if he is looking straight at us, perhaps about to speak.
    • By focusing on Ahmed’s face and photographing him at just below eye level, Hamza has allowed Ahmed to own the gaze and take control of his image.
    • Ahmed chooses to look directly out at us, inviting us to return his gaze.
    • The relationship between Hamza and Ahmed appears collaborative. We are also invited in.
    • Ahmed looks confident and at ease. He is an actor so is used to being in front of a camera.
    • He is also an Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. who has raised awareness of the lack of diversity in film and television.
    • His direct, even challenging gaze can perhaps be interpreted as reflecting his mission to engage others in this important debate.

Aida Overton Walker and Stormzy

Look at these portraits of Aida Overton Walker and Stormzy and compare the gaze.

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A head and shoulders black-and-white photograph of a Black woman who is facing to the side but looking directly at us, the viewer. She wears a scarf on her head and a highly embroidered jacket.
Aida Overton Walker in 'In Dahomey', by Cavendish Morton, 1903
  • View larger image
    Stormzy,    by Olivia Rose,    2016,    NPG x200706,    Olivia Rose
Stormzy, by Olivia Rose, 2016
  1. What are your first impressions of each portrait?
  1. What do you think the sitter’s gaze tells us about them and their identity?
  1. How do the sitters’ pose and the composition of the portraits affect our gaze and how we interact with the sitters?

Look closer at Aida Overton Walker by Cavendish Morton

Aida Overton Walker (1880–1914) was an actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. She was popular with audiences, respected by critics and financially successful. In this portrait, she is shown dressed in costume for a role she was playing.

Although this photographic portrait was taken over one hundred years ago, in 1903, the image could almost have been taken yesterday. Aida Overton Walker seems to connect with us, looking back at us through the lens.

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A head and shoulders black-and-white photograph of a Black woman who is facing to the side but looking directly at us, the viewer. She wears a scarf on her head and a highly embroidered jacket.
Aida Overton Walker in 'In Dahomey', by Cavendish Morton, 1903
    • Aida Overton Walker is Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. sideways to the camera, but she looks at the camera and at us the Viewer The person looking at an artwork. .
    • This is unexpected as her Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. suggests that she will be looking away from us and thus become the object of our gaze.
    • Her expression is difficult to read. It could be seen as confident, curious and defiant. But it might also be seen as if she is looking with caution or even fear.
    • Her unexpected gaze makes the portrait look less formal and more human, giving it a surprisingly contemporary feel. It seems as if she is challenging our expectations.
    • She wears a theatrical costume and her hair hangs loosely around her face. This adds to the informal look of the portrait.
    • This portrait was part of a series taken of the actors performing in the American Satirical Criticising people or ideas in a humorous way. musical In Dahomey whilst on tour in Britain.
    • Overton Walker takes control of the image by gazing sideways at the camera and at us – she appears to be giving us the ‘side-eye’.
    • She seems to disrupt the photographer’s plans as well as our expectations.
    • Being on the stage at that time was not always considered a respectable profession for women.
    • Many photographs of actresses and dancers from the early 1900s were made for viewers to gaze at, as if the The person in a portrait A person who sits or stands somewhere so that somebody can paint a picture of them or photograph them.  were Exotic Something exciting and unusual because it seems to be connected with foreign countries. curiosities.
    • The power lay with the (mainly male) Viewer The person looking at an artwork. . Overton Walker takes back the power with her engaging gaze.
    • The plain background and close Cropping To cut off part of a photograph, picture or image. of the portrait focus our attention on Overton Walker.
    • This approach to composition is one that we still see in actors’ ‘ Headshot A photograph of a person’s face or head and shoulders. ’ photographs today. Perhaps this format adds to the contemporary look of the portrait.
    • Overton Walker comes across as strong, confident and in control of how her identity is presented.
    • She was a respected and financially successful actor, and her accomplishment and sense of pride is reflected in the portrait.
    • The confidence shown in this portrait challenges racist ideas and imagery that were common when the photograph was taken, more than 100 years ago. At this time, Black Americans endured widespread discrimination. Although she is dressed in costume and photographed as the character she was playing, we have the sense that this portrait captures who she really was. In wearing the costume, perhaps she felt more liberated and able to express her true identity?

Look closer at Stormzy by Olivia Rose

Stormzy

Stormzy (born 1993) is a British rapper, singer and songwriter. He has helped Grime A style of British rap music that started in the early 2000s in east London within young, multicultural communities. become one of the largest British cultural, fashion and musical movements of the early 2000s. This contemporary Black British musical genre has enabled many to create a sense of belonging, and to connect to an audience beyond Britain. Stormzy is also an Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. , who has spoken out repeatedly against racial inequality and injustice in Britain.

Olivia Rose

Olivia Rose is a British director and photographer. She is interested in reflecting authenticity and character through her photographs, aiming to capture people at their ‘most human’.

The portrait

This is one of a series of photographs of grime musicians Rose made for the book This is Grime. Before photographing the musicians, Olivia Rose spent time getting to know them and the grime scene more broadly. She did this so that she could put 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.  at ease and get rid of any preconceptions she may have about them.

I think it’s my shamelessness of being my silly human self ... that allows me to open twenty seconds of time when the subject is at their most human and jump in that moment to photograph them.
Olivia Rose, 2021
  • View larger image
    Stormzy,    by Olivia Rose,    2016,    NPG x200706,    Olivia Rose
Stormzy, by Olivia Rose, 2016
    • In this full-length portrait, Rose shows Stormzy sitting informally on a chair looking down at the ground.
    • He appears deep in thought and his gaze is one of Contemplation The act of thinking deeply about something. . This is not how we expect to see a successful musician posing in a photograph. It is as if we have caught him off-guard.
    • We perhaps feel a sense of trust and intimacy at being able to see Stormzy captured in this quiet moment.
    • Although Rose – with her camera – and we – as the Viewer The person looking at an artwork. – are doing the looking, Stormzy seems comfortable with being looked at.
    • Rather than standing to take the photograph (and looking down at Stormzy), Rose placed the camera at the same height as him. This suggests that she was also sitting or crouching down.
    • We view the portrait as if we are at his seated height, perhaps sitting in front of or next to him.
    • Rose hasn’t placed Stormzy centrally in the composition but towards the bottom of the photograph with his foot touching the bottom edge. She has left space above his head, which emphasizes his seated Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. .
    • Stormzy is casually dressed in an Adidas tracksuit, socks and sliders. These are ordinary everyday clothes that are popular among young people.
    • His clothes help us to see him as relatable rather than as a detached superstar.
    • The background also has an ordinary appearance. Stormzy sits in a run-down alley or backyard on a simple folding wooden chair. There is none of the luxury that we might associate with him.
    • This reflects Stormzy’s upbringing and identity. He grew up in a working-class family in south London.
    • The setting also reminds us of the urban, gritty nature of Grime A style of British rap music that started in the early 2000s in east London within young, multicultural communities. music.
    • The yard is behind his recording studio, reflecting his identity as a rapper and musician.
    • By choosing this setting for the portrait Rose and Stormzy suggest that despite his fame and success, he has stayed humble and close to his roots.
    • At first, it seems that Olivia Rose with her camera and we as the Viewer The person looking at an artwork. hold the power in the portrait – as we are doing the looking and Stormzy is being looked at.
    • But despite Stormzy’s contemplative, downward gaze, his Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. is confident and relaxed. With knees apart and arms resting on his knees, his body forms a strong rectangular shape that dominates the composition. The shape is emphasized by the geometric shapes of the architecture that surrounds him.
    • This portrait is not the type of portrait we expect to see of a successful man.
    • Stormzy does not gaze out of the portrait confidently, demanding attention and expecting praise.
    • As well as being a musician, Stormzy is an Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. who speaks out against injustices. It is perhaps this thinking, caring side of Stormzy that Rose got to know and wanted to reflect in the portrait.
  1. What have you discovered about the gaze in portraits?
  1. How can analysing the gaze help us to read a portrait and understand the identity of a sitter?
  1. How does a sitter’s gaze affect the dynamic between us and them and how we interact with a portrait?

Explore further

Choose a photographic portrait that interests you from below and analyse the gaze.

  1. What does the portrait suggest about the sitter’s identity and the relationship or dynamic between the sitter and the photographer?

Reflections

  1. Historically, artists and viewers were usually men. How do you think this might have affected how women appeared and were looked at in portraits?
  1. Try exploring the gaze in your own photographic portraits.

    Photograph a friend or family member looking at the camera and then photograph them looking away from the camera.

    How does this change the portrait and how you respond to the sitter and their identity?