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[Detail] A French officer and his British ally at the front read the New York Times.

The Art of the Photographic Portrait

A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. While many portraits show only the person’s face, some portraits show part or all of the person’s body. A good portrait captures the person’s appearance and conveys something about his/her character. Lighting, the person’s pose and where his/her gaze is directed, clothing, props, and backgrounds are some of the ways in which a photographer can convey character.

The Newspaper Pictorial collection includes many photographic portraits, as well as reproductions of painted portraits. Several pages of portraits of women can be found in the December 7, 1913, and December 14, 1913, editions of the New York Times. Photographic portraits of political and military leaders during the war can be found in pages 3-89 of The War of the Nations, beginning with a portrait of President Woodrow Wilson. Examine several photographic portraits. Notice the lighting in the photographs. Consider how the subjects are posed, where they are looking, which features are most dominant, and the expressions on their faces. Study their clothing, as well as the backgrounds and any other objects shown in the pictures. Then answer the following questions.

  • What, if anything, can you determine from examining the facial expressions in the portraits you studied?
  • What do you notice about the lighting in the photographs? How does the lighting influence your response to the pictures?
  • What do you notice about the ways in which the subjects are posed? What do you think the photographers were trying to suggest about the character of their subjects when they photographed them in profile (facing the side)? Facing the camera but looking away from it? Facing the camera and looking into it?
  • Are there any objects or details in the background that suggest something about the subject’s character? How does a subject’s manner of dress influence the way in which you view the portrait and the subject?
  • Which portrait is your favorite? Why? Write a caption for that portrait explaining why you think it is an excellent example of the art of portraiture.