What Is A Portrait ?

I’ve just been looking through the Portrait Salon 2018 entries and have to admit to being a little disappointed , I was hoping to see more works that challenged the traditional definition of portraiture, instead I was met with too many very competent formal editorial style pictures of people created by authors who appeared to be thinking deep “inside the box” ?

I thought this show was about contemporary portraiture and maybe it is, although if this is representative of creative British contemporary portraiture in 2018 I am saddened by the lack of progress, as I see few new approaches here.

The generic fine art flat portrait lighting is well represented here , the cliche lives on and is thriving.

This is what the Oxford English Dictionary definition has to say .


  • 1A painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

    ‘a portrait of George III’

    as modifier ‘a portrait painter’

    More example sentences


    1. 1.1 A representation or impression of someone or something in language or on film or television.‘the writer builds up a fascinating portrait of a community’More example sentencesSynonyms

  • 2usually as modifier Denoting a format of printed matter which is higher than it is wide.

    ‘you can print landscape and portrait pages in the same document’

    Compare with landscape (sense 2 of the noun)

    More example sentences


Mid 16th century: from French, past participle (used as a noun) of Old French portraire ‘portray’.




As modern creatives I would expect a more informal approach to be adopted , especially by those who are shooting in a Street Photography style. Definition 1.1 appears to be the most useful to those of us hoping to adopt a interpretive less literal approach , dare I suggest a abstract interpretation ?

Remember that a few carefully selected sentences are capable of creating a descriptive portrait , portraiture does not even have to be a visual work , does the subject of the portrait have to be present at the shoot in order to capture a “successful” likeness / representation ?

Let me put my cards on the table I’ve made more than my fare share of portraits in the past, motivated by money , as soon as a portrait becomes a commissioned work the creative visual cuffs are on , especially if your client is the subject ! Portraiture is weighed down with the expectations of formality, history and vanity, we need to shake this off in order to explore and realise the creative potential of contemporary portraiture.

Some of you will be familiar with the picture below, it is a genuine street capture and features a passing stranger , the surprise for me is that I see / interpret this as a selfie ?

A4 bookprint5_edited-600.jpg

Self Portrait Of A Stranger , 2014

I have entered one of my more challenging portraits into the Portrait Salon , not because I’m in search of glory, but because I hope to motivate myself & others to explore the definition of “Portrait” and help redefine how we approach the photographic representations of others, our efforts do not have to be reflective as huge opportunities of interpretation and representation exist in this field.

A portrait could define a country, a group or a moment in time , the ambiguity of definition should be seen as a opportunity to investigate the gendre, photography describes how things look by default , therefore as photographers we should be bringing more than photographic description to the party , we should be bringing more of ourselves to our photographic interpretations of others , or conversely learn from the John Myers school of portraiture and maybe bring substantially less of ourselves ?

We have a obligation to move things on for those who follow, we can’t go on producing and consuming portraits that are still influenced by the visual sensibilities of Renaissance Art and aesthetics that existed before photography was invented. We are living through a time when photographic depictions of others and ourselves are part of everyday culture, this frees serious photographers from having to record the mundane and should create opportunities to make work with a deeper significance .

I apologise to those of you who came to this blog expecting a answer to the “What is a portrait” question, as I have no answer to that question, although I’m having great fun exploring the question with my Street Photography . I’m not sure I have ever written a piece that contains more question marks !

Good luck to my fellow contributors and organisers at Portrait Salon for the 2018 project.

I have deliberately not added my entry here as the vote is still open .

I hope your next portrait shoot helps you to rethink, reshape & redefine your personal contemporary portrait definition .

Keep it real .