On portraiture and self portraiture in photography

Column 3 with my short opinion on current (photography) affairs or just another short thought related to photography. In any case they all only express a personal opinion. Today’s column is on portraiture and self-portraiture in photography.

On portraiture and self-portraiture

When Minor White stated that all photographs are essentially self-portraits then how does this apply to portraits and self-portraits if all photographs are already self-portraits? How would he explain that idea to portraiture? I can’t say I know what he would make of this, but I have my own thoughts on this.

But first, when Minor White states that all photographs essentially are self-portraits, then I am assuming he’s referring to fine-art photographs, as that is the only type of photography that has a different meaning (subject matter) than what you concretely capture in the frame (object matter). More concretely, the clouds that Stieglitz photographed for example and called Equivalents weren’t meant to be clouds, they were meant to symbolize specific emotions or experiences he’s had. A mirror of the psyche.

Before continuing, I need to segue into a brief explanation of my own use of words and phrases related to fine-art photography of which I believe make it easier to understand fine-art as opposed to non-fine-art and it’s something I wrote about some time ago here. In essence, every visual depiction has an object matter and a subject matter and not just a subject matter, contrary to how most people would usually refer to visual depictions. I came to this after seeing/reading (I forgot exactly) an interview with painter Barnett Newman, attempting to explain abstract painting that doesn’t have a clear ‘subject matter’. Newman then replied that an abstract painting has a subject matter, namely what the painter wanted to convey as a meaning with the abstract painting, but there’s no concrete and defined object matter. In other words: the thing you capture in your frame, be it through painting or photography, is the object-matter, the thing you want to convey, the message or meaning, is the subject matter. My premise is then that a fine-art photograph always has a subject matter that is not equal to the object matter. So, for example, Stieglitz’s cloud photographs have as object-matter the clouds but his subject matter, the meaning of it, as he stated himself, is something entirely different. An emotion. A photograph that is not fine-art on the other hand, for example, a product photograph or a news photograph has a subject matter that is equal to the object matter/ E.g. in a beautiful photo of the latest iPhone, the phone is the object matter and the subject matter. After all the photo is meant to show the latest iPhone. There’s no other meaning. A news photo of a car crash has an object matter, the factual car crash, and a subject matter, a car crash, that are exactly the same. No other meaning behind it. Talking about subject matter and object matter is more than just semantics: use of those words imply a basic understanding of the essence of fine-art and how it should be approached.

Back to the topic at hand.

One might hope that we’ve already come to the point that we all know that fine-art is more than just a beautiful photo. Consequently, this part is not about the glamour-portrait, the fashion portrait, the editorial portrait, the corporate portrait, the news or documentary portrait, but about the fine-art portrait. What separates the latter from all the former portraits? All non-fine-art portraits have but one goal and it’s not a fine-art one: to capture a person for a specific purpose – sometimes commercial, sometimes documentary – other than the purpose of the artist’s self-expression. The sitter is then to be taken literally the way the sitter wants to depict him/herself or the product the sitter is promoting. In other words object matter (what is captured in the frame) = subject matter (what is conveyed). Whereas in fine-art portraiture the sitter is nothing more than a symbol for the artist, a concrete object in the artist’s frame, for the artist to depict the artist’s ideas and emotions.

Let’s dig deeper into what a fine-art portrait really is. If the philosophy behind fine-art in general is something along the lines of Stieglitz’s Equivalences, that what you capture shouldn’t be taken literally but is a symbol of a feeling, an emotion, an experience you want to express, and therefore the object-matter (the object photographed) is not equal to subject-matter (the intention of the photograph) then how does this apply to fine-art portraiture?

Can one say that what you capture is just a concrete symbol of what you’re trying to say and if so, then what is it we’re trying to say as artists and how?

When hearing or reading the explanation to a fine-art portrait, one almost always reads something along the following lines: I’m trying to capture the soul of the sitter, or: I’m trying to capture his/her essence and her specific character.

That doesn’t sound as if we’re trying to take the sitter in a symbolic way, and that also sounds as if what we as artists are trying to say, is completely irrelevant because here the sitter becomes important and is both object matter (the thing photographed) and subject matter (the intention of the photograph). No matter if we’re trying to capture the sitter’s ‘soul’ or ‘essence’. And then it simply becomes the same thing as the commercial or documentary portrait where what you see is what is meant, not so much by the artist, but by the sitter.

Personally, I don’t believe that you can capture someone’s spirit, or soul or essence, by just merely looking at someone’s physical features and deriving someone’s internal personal traits by how we perceive their physical traits. The way a person looks, the way a person looks at you and behave, the emotion the person seems to show, they may not be what they really are and are all subject to interpretation, and often wrong interpretation. If a person looks beautiful with a soft look in the eyes, then that says nothing about the person’s character. Just like you can’t measure someone’s intelligence by how high the forehead is. Those are principles that are outdated, and even politically incorrect. Someone’s external physiological features say nothing about the person’s internal features. About the person’s character.

What I believe is that in fine-art portraiture we try to portray something in the other, what we as artists think we desire, miss, or recognize in ourselves. The sitter then serves as a mirror of those qualities in the other we deem important for ourselves. Every portrait then becomes essentially a self-portrait.

What we capture is not really the sitter, but oneself and that is what we try to express: one’s own desires, one’s own grief, one’s own imperfections, one’s own mortality, one’s own privations, and shortcomings. The sitter is the symbol, the meaning is ourselves.

And what if we take a real self-portrait of ourselves?

Here again, there are 2 versions: the fine-art self-portrait and the one that is not fine-art. To start with the latter: what we actually try to express when we consciously take our own portrait, where the taker and the sitter are one, is the idealised or self-deprecating version of oneself – no matter the fact that the idealized version of oneself is more common than the self-deprecating version of oneself – the one we are not but only imagine to be. This is the type of self-portraits that don’t reveal the internal self, not even an imaginary internal self, but an idealized external self of the type that has become ubiquitous on the Internet to the point it has surpassed being even more superficial than the corniest cliche.

When we talk about a fine-art self-portrait, on the other hand, then the difference between every fine-art photograph, that is essentially a self-portrait and the fine-art self-portrait is that the fine-art photograph, any fine-art photograph, is the result of a subconscious process, while the fine-art self-portrait is the result – that result being us – of a very conscious process. You could argue then, what is better or more useful? The subconscious self-portrait (every fine-art photograph) or the conscious (every fine-art self-portrait) self-portrait? I believe we shouldn’t talk in terms of better, or worse here, but only in terms of two separate processes and results that are complementary. Each result contributes to the full image of oneself.

Which brings me back to something I said around 10 years ago, I believe it was on my Flickr photo profile on self-portraits and fine-art photographs, even though I didn’t make that distinction between fine-art and not fine-art yet:


Self-portraits are in my view quintessential for how an artist views the world. The photographer captures the world around him and shows us how he views the world. But this world also consists of the artist him(her)self. Any world without a view on the artist himself through his own eyes is not a complete view of the world. Show me a thousand beautiful photos by a photographer of the world around him, and I will only know half the person. But show me also one self-portrait, and I will know the complete person.”


On a side-note: Isn’t it strange that back then, without having the knowledge and experience I have now, I intuitively came to the same conclusion I come to now in a largely rational way?

I would state though, that it is more difficult to create a fine-art self-portrait without trying to idealize (or self-deprecate) oneself, and not only be honest and courageous enough to show one’s weaknesses, sins and vulnerabilities in a very conscious way, but also to have the awareness that you even have them. And when it happens, it is a very powerful self-portrait, more powerful than the subconscious self-portrait. Aren’t the most powerful portraits ever not the iconic self-portraits from Rembrandt and Van Gogh?

So this is what a good fine-art portrait or any other fine-art photograph should be: a subconscious self-portrait. And this is what a fine-art self-portrait essentially is: a conscious self-portrait.

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4 Responses

  1. Dear Joel,

    We discussed ‘on portraiture and self-portraiture’ comprehensively the previous years. As you know, I am an advocate of approaching fine art portraiture, through ‘introspection, reflection, mirroring.’ Your discourse on this fascinating topic is well argued although it is a complex and difficult topic. I read it with interest and pleasure. What amazes me is that so many ‘fine art portrait photographers’ on FB did hardly respond to your post yesterday, where are the LIKES???. Hopefully, many are still reading it, are impressed by the way you discuss a complex, not common subject and enrich our understanding of fine art. Or are they enjoying this lecture before replying, or is it too dull or too humdrum?
    I hope that one knows to treasure this valuable information.
    To me, it is another Piece of Fine Art Literature, and I enjoy(ed) reading it.

    Best regards,


    1. Henk,

      Many thanks for your comments. Yes, I know about your views on fine-art portraiture and it’s those discussions we’ve had about this that helped me form my thoughts and conclusions on fine-art portraiture for this article. As you said, this is not an easy topic, a topic of which I know doesn’t have the priority of many fine-art photographers. What the reasons are, I don’t know, perhaps I could’ve worded it differently, but it’s not easy to simplify it. Anyway, to me it’s definitely as important as techniques for example.
      Thanks again Henk,


  2. Hello Joel.

    A friend pointed me to this post. I’ve been shooting (on and off) for over 60years now. It’s interesting to me that fine art photographers, as time goes on, pretty much arrive at the same way-points, this being mine for the past 7 years or so. When teaching or lecturing, I usually say “Do you remember Weston’s ‘Pepper #30’?. Why is it so famous? Because it’s not a photograph about fruit.”

    Tolstoy, in “What is Art” defines fine art as the direct communication of a human experience, from one soul to another, and that a success artwork causes all the viewers to enter not only into that experience with the artist, but with every other viewer as well.

    To me, this is why fine art, of any type (painting, sculpture, music… all the traditional Fine Arts) is so essential to the human experience of life itself.

    Your description was clear, concise, and elegant. Nicely said. Thank you.

    Tracy Valleau

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