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Penn[sylvania] on the picket line-- 1917.

[Detail] Penn[sylvania] on the picket line-- 1917

Understanding Portraits

Many of the photographs in the Women of Protest collection are portraits of women involved in the suffrage movement. A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. Some portraits show only the subject’s face; others show part or all of the subject’s body. Some are very formally posed, while others are more informal, showing the subject in a natural setting. A good portrait not only captures the person’s appearance but also conveys something about the subject’s character and personality. The photographer can convey character and personality through lighting, the subject’s pose, props, what the subject wears, backgrounds and where the subject’s gaze is directed.

Below are links to a number of portraits from the Women of Protest collection. These portraits represent various poses, different backgrounds, and varying degrees of formality and informality.

Study these portraits or another group of portraits that you select from the collection. Examine the portraits carefully before reading the captions. Consider how the subjects are posed, where they are looking, which features are most dominant, and the expressions on their faces. Study the backgrounds, what the subjects are wearing, and any other objects shown in the pictures. Then read the captions and answer the following questions.

  • What, if anything, can you determine from examining the facial features and 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 photographer was trying to suggest about the character of the subjects by photographing them in profile (facing the side)? Facing the camera but looking away from it? Facing the camera and looking into it?
  • Do any objects or details in the background suggest something about the subject’s character?
  • How do the captions tend to influence the reader’s opinion of the individuals? What clues in the captions may indicate a bias?
  • Which portrait do you think does the best job of conveying the subject’s character and personality? Why? Write a caption for that portrait explaining what you believe it shows about the subject’s character and personality.