Advanced Studio Practice 2A – ‘Considering Concepts within Studio Practice’ – Self Portrait

Relates to Outcomes: All – (see research folder 3)


Following on from our research on conceptualisation (word and object), the aim of this study is to create a self portrait demonstrating a high degree of planning and pre-visualisation involving only one prop. The portrait can be designed not to necessarily include the self as presence through absence can give meaning. However, the ‘portrait’ should include lighting techniques where necessary and research.

Definition of Portraiture:

For the purposes of this research, I will be referring to the Oxford Dictionary for a clear description of my working definition.

‘The art of painting or taking portraits, and ‘portrait’ being a painting drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders’

Online Oxford Dictionary [date accessed 22.10.2014]

Research into Conceptual Portraiture:

According to Clarke (1997:101-119):

‘’Portrait in photography is one of the most problematic areas of photographic practice, as, at virtually every level and context, the portrait is fraught with ambiguity.’’

The conceptual portrait photograph can refer to anything, from symbolic gesture to a prop, to an ideal or myth, to history or modernity; revealing some characteristic of the subject or a moment of stillness showing traits of a person, or persons and what they reveal in front of the lens. The challenge of the photographer in creating a self portrait is to develop a strategy using secondary elements (or symbols) that are specifically associated with the individual. For example a figure half in darkness may suggest Existentialism. Additionally, the external space surrounding the self portrait can be an indication of a ‘symbolic objective correlative’ (Clarke:1997, 109), that is, a signifier which demonstrates status and personal philosophy. The mood of the composition, dress and objects in the setting of the conceptual portrait combines as a whole to create resonance and understanding of a person’s ideology, ambitions and knowledge, in other words their ‘frame of reference.’


Overall, I have turned to Penn as an influence on my work and in particular his photograph of Picasso in 1957. Penn established throughout his career a significant number of artistic portraits developing ethnographically documented approach to his preoccupation with ”strong, creative personalities, ” according to  (Ed) Stepan:2005, 126-127) – see research folder for more information. Focus on the late portrait of Picasso is restricted to the face, concentrating on the eye and wears a hat with a coat hunched up covering his mouth.

Brandt’s images (for example) have a compelling intensity and a distinct visual style that questions the development of the mimetic and representational: (Bill Brandt: Nude, Seaford, East Sussex Coast, April 1957) and in the case of Robert Mapplethorpe his self portrait raises the question of his sexual identity (see example: Lisa Lyon (A body builder: Mapplethorpe challenging feminist aesthetics: 1980 onwards).

Research and Development:

In examining through research (Learn the ‘rules’ of the Film Noir and How to Light it: – date accessed 11.07.2014) I established that the character within the photograph needs to have a ‘‘sense of melodrama and for the image to be influenced by the novels of the ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction, using low key lighting.”  The classic Hollywood cinematography film noir used harsh shadows and contrasts of black and white, taken in a large part from German Expressionism.” (according to the article). In film noir, you never quite know who your friends are so there is a rather nightmarish hue to the situations in which the protagonists find themselves.

Challenging the aesthetics:

Portraits whether conceptual or non conceptual are associated with social identity both for the photographer and the seer. We acknowledge, interrogate and subject our own ideals on everything we see and do and address the major issue in any portrait that asks ‘who are we?

The conceptual portrait has historical and commercial associations which are used to identify in a unique way by including clues or semiotic/symbolic features which projects something appertaining to the subject.

I have addressed the above issues in order to unpack my understanding of the conceptual portrait so that I may begin to creatively visualise what a conceptual self portrait of my own might contain taking into account my artistic influences. In my mission statement (see first page of blog) I have expressed a need to capture ‘one to one exclusive moments’ that require focus and direction, almost as if I am making my own mini movie. I additionally claim to be an exhibitor and artist, capable of thinking creatively and able to develop my own ideas with consistency. I see no reason to alter this mission statement in fulfilling the requirements of this assignment; however, I have to consider what will reveal my personality to the best of my ability (remembering that this will become a self portrait on my website) while having a limited time to produce this work.

Time always appears to be a factor in my life, so I need to decide how best to represent that in my self portrait. According to Bate (73-85) the elements of a portrait are: ‘face, pose, clothing and location.’ I therefore concur with Bates’ definition of what constitutes a conceptual portrait/idea and confirm that I will need to identify an element of time in my composition.


In order to adequately address my concept, I have investigated the subject of film noir in looking at how people of the 1940’s were represented, following on from the aesthetic and influential photography of Mapplethorpe and Brandt, I have allowed my conceptual thinking to flow. I would like to depict myself in a classical way to show that my photography has a specific ‘art’ style and flair to it, that it has a resonance with these artists and period of time. I have been drawn to this era in terms of the music, clothes and the romanticism that has defined the era. I especially like the film noir detective and additionally have been strongly influenced by Jack Vettriano.

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon) is the quintessential noir private detective. He has seen the world for the wretched, awful, corrupt place that is, but still remains positive and idealistic.

Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, Murder, My Sweet, Lady in the Lake)
To put it bluntly, there is no better example of the noir detective than Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Played on the screen by a variety of actors, Marlowe was cool, calm and collected in the most egregious of situations and, most importantly, never faltered in his resolve. He would not fall for the femme fatale, would not double cross a good cop and worked on his own all the time.

As well as making a stunning photograph, I envisage that it will say some interesting things about my personality that will hopefully resonate with the seer.


  • Technical Information:

Working in my own home environment with a solitary lighting system, shooting in RAW with an ISO of 100 and an aperture of f/2.8 using a 40mm lens with an exposure of 1/100th of a second. I developed a way with which to capture a self portrait without the use of a timer or tripod, focusing instead on the aesthetic composition overall, to create a mood.

  • Prop:

The clothes and specifically head gear of the era I will choose is the fedora and a simple overcoat with the collar turned up. I additionally decided to include my camera in the shot to demonstrate that I am a photographer and that this is a fun, yet conceptualised idea and that portraits in photography can have an element of make believe about them.

  • Lighting:

Using the method of chiaroscuro and key (Freeman: 2007, 110-111) the schematics of the proposed photograph will be low key with one shaft of illuminating light. I will be working in monochrome, using caustics and reinforcing pattern to establish an idea of ambiguity to give the image an appeal to fans of this genre and era, thus demonstrating that I am a mature photographer who isn’t afraid to be challenged and will work to achieve in a way that delivers and that I can show both creative and studious flair, even though my chosen specialist area is landscape photography.

I achieved this lighting simply by putting my face over a light so that it cast shadows, allowing a mirror to reflect back at myself and used the different markings in my fedora hat (and the ribbon) to contrast with the flecks in my overcoat, demonstrating use of caustics and reinforcing pattern. The contrast of the camera works well against the complexion of the face which counterbalances the fair hair.

Overall Analysis with Evaluation:

What were my aims and have I achieved them?

My aim was to conceptualise a self portrait to show my character and background and my interests in photography. I have achieved these aims by shooting two separate photographs one which depicts me as a film noir fan and subsequently a fan of black and white portraiture and the other as a landscape photographer where I have worked to combine my idea of the portrait with the landscape using light and shade to emphasis an aesthetic feeling. I believe that the two photographs reveal my intentions as a photographer and interests.

What have I done?

I have conceptualised a self portrait photograph using personal influences that enabled me to look at myself and what it is I want to achieve with my photography:

The overall composition will reinforce that I am a woman in a male dominated patriarchal society that has been empowered to show that I am not afraid to use creative flair and imagination. However, the symbolism in the photograph (i.e. the light on her face, the positioning of her hat, her careful make up and the shrug in her shoulders suggests that she does not necessarily care for other opinions about herself, she is happy to be who she is. The modern twist is that its a visual narrative of a woman depicted as an investigator of a bygone era yet clearly is in a contemporary setting (depicted by the camera).

What did I get from it?

This was a different kind of exercise for me as I prefer standing behind the camera rather than in front of it. It has given me an essence of a look that examines who I am as a person and what it is I would like to say in my photography overall.

2657What is next?

I will be carrying out further experiments in creating a self portrait as I have other ideas as to how I might be portrayed (see below)

I have additionally portrayed myself as a landscape photographer by taking an image of myself and my camera on the beach at Bamburgh where the light was golden which cast a long shadow. The photograph clearly depicts that I am a landscape photographer who is interested in capturing the best quality light and who loves where the land meets water – i.e. naturally beautiful scenes.



If I can convey all of the above in my profile photography then my image will be a successful one for all who identify or show interest in the era but also for all who have an interest in photography both in portraiture and landscape.

Please find additional notes in the research folder with suggested lighting settings for composition of film noir in a studio setting.

Personal Website, Blog, Business Card, Social documentary, 1940-50’s nostalgia, fine art exhibition.

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