Research: People in Photography – Fine Art

Within this post, I intend to discuss and reflect upon my research of people and portraits in relation to fine art photography. I want this research of portraiture to act as a continuation of some of my work produced as part of my editorial module last year.

For this post, I have considered a variety of contemporary examples of fine art portraiture.

Upon researching fine art portraits, I discovered the work of contemporary photographer, Amy Arbus, who has produced a variety of distinctive portraits.

Amy Arbus- homepage

The homepage itself left a fairly defined impact upon me, immediately we question the context and nature of the main image, the model position and expression represents a powerful sense of emotion and almost reinforces a sense of innocence. We can also see a very strong influence in historical fine art painting.

For further context, I visited for bio page as a means of gauging her practice and the response to her images.

Photographer Amy Arbus has published five books, including the award winning On the Street 1980-1990 and The Inconvenience of Being Born. The New Yorker called The Fourth Wall her masterpiece. Her most recent, After Images, is an homage to modernism’s most iconic avant-garde paintings. Her advertising clients include Chiat/Day, Foote, Cone and Belding, American Express, Saatchi & Saatchi, SpotCo, New Line Cinema and Nickelodeon. Her photographs have appeared in over one hundred periodicals around the world, including New York Magazine,PeopleAperture and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches portraiture at the International Center of Photography, NORDphotography, Anderson Ranch and The Fine Arts Work Center. Amy Arbus is represented by The Schoolhouse Gallery in Massachusetts. She has had twenty-five solo exhibitions worldwide, and her photographs are a part of the collection of The National Theater in Norway, The New York Public Library and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

I then decided to visit her portfolio and start to gain inspiration from her images. This page was divided by various projects, personal and commission examples. I began by looking at ‘actors’, a series quite literally based upon portraits of actors.

The series itself is quite creative in its approach, especially in regards to lighting, often ambient and low key, almost reminiscent of dramatic examples of cinematic/ theatrical portraits such as the work of Angus McBean, although less surreal in their approach.

Flora Robson, by Angus McBean, 1938 - NPG P374 - © The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Angus McBean, Flora Robson, 1938.

One of the most distinctive aspects of this was the distinction between the subject(s) defined character/persona and their real identity. Within the context upon which they act these roles, they are immersed within the set guidelines of this environment, when we place the subject outside of this situation, we end up with a very different representation of the people behind their cinematic/theatrical mask. The result reinforces an uncanny visual contrast.

I then resolved my research of Amy Arbus by reviewing some of her commissioned work, which generally offered a different aesthetic approach to her actors series. I decided not to focus too much upon this aspect for now, as I intend to discuss editorial portraits in more detail within my next post. However, I have highlighted a couple of examples of commissioned portraits that stood out to me based upon their aesthetic approach, composition and audience. Both were used in popular print publications, yet the absence or application of colour, location and framing all contribute a very different representation of the featured model.

I then continued my research, looking for examples following different approaches to people as fine art subjects. I came across the work of Phil Borges, a photographer who produces powerful and reflexive portraits within social documentary projects, focusing upon indigenous and tribal cultures.

Phil Borges - Homepage


For over twenty-five years Phil Borges has been documenting indigenous and tribal cultures, striving to create an understanding of the challenges they face. His work is exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and his award winning books, which have been published in four languages, include Tibetan PortraitEnduring SpiritWomen Empoweredand Tibet: Culture on the Edge. He has hosted television documentaries on indigenous cultures for Discovery and National Geographic channels. Phil also lectures and teaches internationally.

Phil’s recent project, Inner Worlds, explores cultural differences with respect to consciousness, mental illness and the relevance of Shamanic traditional practices and beliefs to those of us living in the modern world.

Phil’s program Stirring the Fire has produced several short documentaries, a book and an exhibition highlighting some of the extraordinary women worldwide who are breaking through gender barriers and conventions in order to enhance the well being of their communities.

In 2000 Phil founded Bridges to Understanding, an online classroom program that connects youth worldwide through digital storytelling in order to enhance cross-cultural understanding and help build a sense of global citizenship in youth. He also co-founded Blue Earth Alliance, a 501c3 that sponsors photographic projects focusing on endangered cultures and threatened environments.

Phil graduated from University of California as a Regents Scholar in 1969 and was honored with their prestigious University of California Medal in 2004. He lives with his family in Seattle.

I admired the intentions of Borges practice and his desire to represent the struggles and viewpoints of often unspoken subjects, whose way of life is sometimes uncertain or misrepresented through the view of our western ideology.

From this, I decided to focus upon his portfolio of images.

Of this, one series I found particularly interesting was Tibetian portrait.

I find the concepts of national and cultural identity in relation to fine art photography quite compelling, the images themselves tell a broad and developed narrative of national ideology whilst relating the contribution of the individual in focus. The result is often more interesting than the exploration of a single person’s characteristics/story.

Purpose/outline of project:

TIBETAN PORTRAIT The Power of Compassion

Beginning in 1994 Phil traveled to Tibet as well as northern India and Nepal to interview and photograph Tibetans and Tibetan refugees in an effort to understand what had happened to them, to their country and their culture. These are some of the people he met in this deeply spiritual culture—everyone from the nomads of the remote Himalayas to the Dalai Lama himself—each committed to their unique Tibetan culture and to the practice of compassion while coming to terms with the aggressive occupation of their homeland. In partnership with the Tibetan Rights Campaign and the International Campaign for Tibet we created the exhibition and book TibetThe Power of Compassion.

Featured portraits:


Sisi and Norsum had just stayed up most of the night trying to save a premature baby goat. Unfortunately the goat died and they still had the early morning responsibility for the care and irrigation of this rapeseed field. Even with the extremely short season at an altitude of 12,500 ft their families are able to farm highland barley, beans, corn and rice.


Born to a peasant family, he was discovered to be the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion at the age of two. At four he was installed as the 14th Dalai Lama and then as a teenager he faced the invasion of his country. Eight years later he was forced to flee to neighboring India. For consistently advocating the policy of non-violence and compassion in response to the aggression that has befallen his country he was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.


These women are old friends who had fled Tibet with their families shortly after the Dalai Lama left in 1959. Dolkar’s husband was killed during the uprising leaving her with a family of six to raise. She said “although it was a very hard and sad time, having to leave and come to India brought these wonderful friends into my life.”


Dolkar and Tashi live in the Tibetan children’s village in upper Dharamsala along with 2,000 other Tibetan children that have been orphaned or sent out of Tibet by their parents. I was told that Dolkar was an extremely sensitive child but has adapted rather well since her arrival at the children’s village over a year ago. Tashi who was orphaned as a baby has come to be known as the joker of their class.

The impact of such simple, yet visually striking portraits is found within its emotional drive and ‘heart’, we are asked to look beyond physical individual and consider the ‘soul’ of the person and sometimes spiritual sentiments that define tibetan culture. This is complemented by the toned down, gradient approach in terms of colour coding, the viewer will not distracted by other elements of the environment or clothing of the subject, leaving them with the subject’s expression and body language.

I continued to research other examples for inspiration, which resulted in me finding the work of photographer, Elinor Carucci. For the purposes of this post, I will focus upon her personal work.

Elinor Carucci - bio


Throughout much of her personal practice, Carucci has explored the life and stories of her featured subjects, often delving into raw and unconventional compositions with portraits that represent a very defined and emotional sentiment. Sometimes this can be considered to be controversial in the extent of its honesty.

When reviewing her portfolio, I started by looking at her older series, diary of a dancer, which follows women and their profession as an exotic belly dancers.

One of the images that held the most impact upon me was the first establishing image, defining our main character and starting the visual journey of the narrative. The audience is made to feel as though they are part of the scene, focusing predominantly upon only a part of the dancers face creates a mysterious atmosphere, a woman whose appearance holds significance within her lifestyle.

Elinor Carucci - diaryofdancer1


From this, we begin establish an insight into the preparation and demand to appear as an figure of desire, to be looked up as a glamorous object upon which certain individuals begin to ascribe fantasy and sexuality.

Elinor Carucci - diaryofdancer2


However one of my favourite images of this series offers a more ambiguous interpretation.

Elinor Carucci - diaryofdancer3

All of emphasis can be found within the spotlight, the realisation that although there could be sense of empowerment behind the act of exotic dancing, there is the potential seed of exploitation and financial need.

I also considered her more recent work, mother.

The nature of this body of work is of a very personal reflection of motherhood and the various aspects involved within the process itself; pregnancy, birth, nurture, intimacy and responsibility.

Elinor Carucci - mother


Pregnant, 2004

Elinor Carucci - mother2


Induced, 2004

Elinor Carucci - mother3


My belly after giving birth and c section, 2004

Elinor Carucci - mother4


Emmanuelle crying, 2006

Elinor Carucci - mother5


Dragging, 2010.

This series left a very profound impact upon me, the sheer commitment and connection that motherhood holds upon a woman is unrecognisable to someone like me. At times, I was made to almost feel invasive for sharing this intimate view such definitive point of Carucci’s life.

During my research of fine art portraits, I also came across the creative work of Pieter Hugo, a documentary photographer.

Pieter Hugo-homepage


What first caught my attention to Hugo’s work was the ambiguity of his homepage, he offers us one image and extracts of basic information. Although this alone was enough for me to want to research further.


Pieter Hugo was born in 1976 in Johannesburg and grew up in Cape Town,
where he continues to live. His survey exhibition, This Must Be the Place,
opened at the Fotomuseum Den Haag and travelled to the Musée de l’Elysée,
Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2012; the exhibition continues to tour. Solo shows have
also taken place at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia (2010);
Le Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse, France (2010); the Australian Centre for Photography
in Sydney (2009), and Foam_Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (2008). Group exhibitions
include The Global Contemporary: Art worlds after 1989 at ZKM Center for Art and
Media Karlsruhe (2011); The Endless Renaissance, Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach,
Florida (2009); Street & Studio: An urban history of photography at Tate Modern,London
(2008); An Atlas of Events at Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon (2007);and the 27th
São Paulo Bienal (2006). He was titled the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art in 2007.
In 2008 Hugo was the winner of the KLM Paul Huf Award and the Arles Discovery Award
at the Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival in France. He won the Seydou Keita Award
at the 9th Rencontres de Bamako African Photography Biennial, Mali, in 2011,
and was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse photography prize 2012.

From this, I found an article featured upon the Guardian which discussed his newest project, Kin. This included a series of portraits based in South Africa with the desire to confront issues of race and injustice in his native country.

The format and narrative flow of images varies throughout the body of work, sometimes the subject is familiar, others are simply random encounters. Within this series, we asked to consider each individual and value their contribution to the story equally. The nature of the subjects themselves appears to be quite natural and expressive. The first image for example frames the subject within a pensive moment which is far more engaging than staging and controlling a models body language.

The impact of the portraits themselves comes from the defying conventional forms of beautification, embracing the natural form and complexion of the subject, every wrinkle, bruise, tattoo, imperfection is a strength, not a weakness. All of this speaks a greater story of the experiences that have shaped these people’s lives. This allows the subject’s to decided how they want to represented and understood.

Pieter Hugo - Kin: Ann Sallies, Douglas, 2013

Ann Sallies, who worked for my parents and helped raise their children, Douglas, 2013

Pieter Hugo - Kin: Daniel Richards, Milnerton, 2013

Daniel Richards, Milnerton, 2013

Pieter Hugo - Kin: Daniela Beukman, Milnerton, 2013

Daniela Beukman, Milnerton, 2013

Pieter Hugo - Kin: Mandy Matlala, Langaville, Ekurhuleni, 2012

Mandy Matlala, Langaville, Ekurhuleni, 2012

Pieter Hugo - Kin: Thoba Calvin and Tshepo Cameron Sithole - Modisane, Pretoria, 2013

Thoba Calvin and Tshepo Cameron Sithole – Modisane, Pretoria, 2013

I have also considered a new aspect of previous research, Simon Denison’s Quarry Land. Within this, Denison not only developed a series of thoughtful environmental landscapes but he also expanded his topical insight into interviewing and photographing subjects who work within the local community of Clee Hills.

This juxtaposition of harsh, rural landscapes with relevant fine art portraits reinforced the resolve of his intended narrative. The inclusion of text from the interviews further reinforces a sense of place and context.

The priority of portraits often still represents a dominance in relation to the subjects environment, however, this inclusion of the subject adds a human face to the story, making us aware of the significance of human interaction and influence within this area.

This is certainly an aspect to consider within my own work, especially in terms of my final major project.

Jim Parker, quarry worker’s son, Brown Clee from Quarry Land

Dad left school at 13 and went straight to work in the Abdon quarries – this was in 1914. They’d start work at daybreak, and from Abdon it was an hour’s walk up the hill to the quarry before he’d even started to swing a big hammer and a shovel. Dad was a ‘face-man’, breaking the stone up with a 28lb hammer for eight hours a day. And they’d be out in all weathers – it was one hell of a job.
Practically everybody who lived around here worked in the quarry. My grandfather, my three uncles, they all worked there. A lot of them had other jobs as well. If they were smallholders, they’d have to deal with the stock before they went up, or work on the land after they’d done a day’s graft on the hill. Dad had a big allotment and he’d walk down the hill and do a couple of hours digging of an evening. They were hard men.
People walked to the quarries from all over the area, from as far away as Ludlow and Bridgnorth. Some of them lived rough, in old buildings or anywhere, and used to go home weekends.
In the quarry they’d blast the rock first. They’d drill holes into the face, tamp the black powder in, put the fuse in, seal it with clay, light the fuse – and run like hell. Then it would be broken up by hand into manageable pieces, so it could be lifted into the rail trucks. Then it all went into the crusher.
Dhustone is very hard stone. The newer types working in the quarry would just thrash at it with their hammers. But the old quarrymen would roll a big stone over, and look at the grain; and perhaps with one or two really good bumps on the top it would split open.
The quarrymen wore no protective clothing, nothing whatsoever. Not even gloves. There’d be stone chips flying about, and they’d always have nicks and cuts on their hands and arms. The chaps who were sett-makers – chipping the stone into blocks for paving or building – they used to have metal-mesh goggles; but I never saw anyone else wearing them.
It was a hard life but I never knew the quarrymen to go on strike or have any real problems with their employers. They were on good money. When farm workers were getting 15–25 shillings a week (just under or over £1), Dad was coming home with £5 or £6. They were on piecework – they’d get so much for a truck of stone, and so much for a truck of soil – so the more they did, they more they earned. If they was on a good face that was all stone with very little overburden, they were on a good thing.
The Abdon Clee quarries closed in 1936, when I was 11, but as a kid I used to go up there and roam around, because everybody knew me, and ride around on the ‘whizz-bangs’ – the little locomotives moving the stone from the quarries to the crusher. They were ex-War Department jobs, from the First World War. I knew the drivers and I used to sit up on top of the engine cowling, with my legs dangling down by the driver’s seat. It was great fun.
After the quarries closed, a lot of the quarrymen went to work at the Cockshutford quarries on the other side of Brown Clee. But the dhustone there wasn’t as good quality as over the Abdon side and that quarry didn’t last long. So most of the men came back and worked at the naval ammunition depot they’d set up at Ditton Priors at the start of the war.
It’s very rural around Brown Clee now, but it was an industrial place before the war, because there was the concrete plant and the tarmac plant in Ditton Priors, plus the railway – and the quarries. If the wind was coming down over the hill you could hear the crusher at the top crunching away, even down in the village.
The quarries were all finished by the time I started work – so I drove lorries and coaches most of my life. But I’m glad I never had to work up there. I never fancied grafting like that.

Jim Parker, 14.10.1925 – 13.3.2004

Remains of ‘whizz-bang’ locomotive shed, Abdon Burf, Brown Clee

Di Bryan, local historian, Brown Clee from Quarry Land

I was a social worker in Birmingham before I took early retirement and moved to Shropshire in 1998. When we came here I became secretary of our local history group and I have since become fascinated by the history of the hill.
We know there was medieval mining on the summit because there’s one reference to the Prior of Much Wenlock giving someone a license to dig coal as early the 14th century. The whole hill was thickly wooded in the Middle Ages – it was a royal hunting forest. Only the eastern side is wooded now.
I walk up the hill once or twice a month. Getting to the top makes you feel really exhilarated; there’s so much of awe and beauty up there. You can’t walk anywhere without seeing bell-pits from medieval and later coal-mining, remains of quarrying, even plants that provide evidence of the hill’s earlier history.
I can understand people who say it can be eerie on the hill, with all the gaunt ruins on top and the conifer plantations on the eastern side. You peer into these plantations and it’s dark – there’s nothing underneath the trees, and very few birds that you can hear.
But you have to see the hill for what it is. There’s one track we often walk down through the conifers, and all the way down there is dhustone from the quarries that has just been dumped there. I like to think of people coming down this route in Victorian times or later, dropping this stone off as they went, perhaps to make the heavy wagons more manoeuvrable or to stop them slipping on the steep and sometimes boggy slope.
The two Clee Hills, Brown Clee and Titterstone, are very different, even though they are next to one another, have the same geology and a very similar industrial history. The summit of Brown Clee seems somehow cut off and remote from the surrounding villages, which are all medieval in origin.
On Titterstone the houses where the workers lived are much more a part of the hill – they are there because of the industry, and they are much higher up the slope. On Brown Clee industrial history
has become archaeology, but on Titterstone, at least on some parts of it, it is still everyday
working life.
A lot of the difference between the hills is probably to do with the landowners. The owners of Brown Clee were always as interested in hunting, forestry and agriculture as they were in mining and quarrying. One gets the impression that the people who had Titterstone quarry were simply there to exploit the quarry – building a massive railway from Ludlow, along with their other heavy
Lord Boyne, on Brown Clee, surrounded his big house at the bottom of the hill with beautiful gardens and built carriage drives around the hill, even after the incline railway was built to the quarries. One gets the feeling that carriage drives would not have been quite so important on Titterstone.

Crusher building, Abdon Burf, Brown Clee

To conclude, this area of research has expanded my knowledge of fine art portraiture and the various ways in which people and are represented within such formats.

I will continue my research through the consideration of editorial portraiture.


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