Research: Studio Lighting – Portraits

Continuing from my previous post, I intend to explore examples of studio photography in relation to portraits. This includes various photographers modern or contemporary.

For each of my examples, I have highlighted images which I feel were particularly successful in their aesthetic and/or conceptual approach to studio portraiture.

The first example I would like to focus upon is Richard Avedon.


Richard-Avedon-hero.jpgPhotograph by Irving Penn. Published in Vogue, February 1994.

“Photographer as auteur”[1] was how Vanity Fair described the late Richard Avedon in 2009. And, indeed, one of the most famous chroniclers of the twentieth century brought such a distinctly personal vision to his portfolios and portraits that he did no less than remake the landscape of postwar fashion photography.
Avedon poured his own nervous energy into his images, coaxing and controlling his subjects to conjure the magically heightened moments he sought. A writer once dubbed him “Svengali as Santa Claus”[2]: He danced along with his models in the studio to create beautifully kinetic fashion shots; he conducted portrait sessions of such psychological intensity—standing next to his 8 x 10 view camera, meeting his subject’s gaze—that one sitter said, “He sucks your soul out through your eye sockets, and leaves you utterly drained.”[3] The force of Avedon’s personality is so strongly discernible in his most potent frames—from the majestically elegant lines of 1955’s Dovima With Elephantsto the erotically charged image of Natassja Kinski with a slithering serpent—that Avedon himself confessed: “Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me.”[4]

Avedon was born in 1923 in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrants who struggled to make ends meet after their women’s department store failed during the Depression. He flunked out of high school, then joined the Merchant Marine, where he was assigned to taking ID photos—an experience that would color his future approach to portraiture. (“Faces are the ledgers of our experience,”[5] he would say.) In 1944, freshly discharged from the service and enamored of the work of the legendary, chain-smoking art director Alexey Brodovitch atHarper’s Bazaar, Avedon turned up at the magazine’s offices carrying his amateur portfolio and begging for an appointment. He was hired as a staff photographer for the Junior Bazaar section.

From the beginning, he brought both motion and emotion to his assignments. His work had a candid, spontaneous quality—with variable focus and streaks of movement (The New Yorker would later call it the “Avedon blur”[6]) that set them apart from the regally composed but static shots then dominant. “Real people move, they bear with them the element of time,” Avedon said in 1949. “It is this fourth dimension of people that I try to capture in a photograph.”[7]

He also added psychological subtext. Growing up, he had observed the women in his own family scrutinizing themselves in the mirror with a mixture of angst and pleasure, and he tried to capture on his models’ faces the nuanced emotions behind the act of dressing up. His subtly charged photos, however, did not always sit well with Carmel Snow, then editor of Bazaar. For a 1949 feature on chapeaus, Avedon submitted shots of the model Dorian Leigh on a train, caught in a tearful reverie. Snow’s rather tart reply: “Nobody cries in a Dior hat, Dick.”[8]

In subsequent years—with the patronage of Snow, Brodovitch, and fashion editor Diana Vreeland (a trifecta he referred to as “my new, chosen mother, father, and brilliant crazy aunt”[9])—Avedon threaded America’s seismic cultural shifts into his pictorials. He began portraying African-Americans in the 1940s, defying the policy of William Randolph Hearst, Bazaar’s publisher, banning photos of blacks from his magazines. As the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated in 1959, he posed Dovima—in a strong, wide-legged, A-line stance, hands defiantly on hips—against an Atlas missile at Cape Canaveral. And, sensing the imminent explosion of a sexual revolution, Avedon shot a nude portrait of Countess Christina Paolozzi for Bazaar in 1961.

Avedon was simultaneously developing a signature portrait style that was the stark foil to his dazzling fashion imagery: black-and-white, almost confrontational close-ups against blank backgrounds that registered the flaws of their famous subjects’ faces with the stripped-bare quality of clinical dissection. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were captured in a 1957 portrait that, as one observer put it, “made her look like a toad.”[10] Marilyn Monroe, eyes downcast and shoulders slumped in a 1957 session, seemed utterly defeated by the business of being Marilyn Monroe. And the writer Isak Dinesen, photographed in 1958 in a sweeping black bearskin and skullcap, looked grotesquely embalmed. Rather than exalting his sitters in the classic portraiture tradition, Avedon conducted what the critic Geoff Dyer called a “visual interrogation“[11] to capture the vital character—the battle scars, the doubt and anxiety—that made a person great.

Avedon was enticed to move over to Vogue in 1965 after Diana Vreeland—who had been named editor in chief three years before—dangled a plum contract and a million-dollar advance. It was at Vogue that he would develop one of his most recognizable trademarks: the exuberant model leaping, kicking, and twirling in midair. Under his direction, models such as Twiggy and Penelope Tree brought a sense of childlike play to Vogue’s pages—and subsequently became superstars.

Avedon’s personal projects would become his true calling, however, as he documented the radical shifts in America’s cultural landscape, from the civil rights movement in the early sixties to the 1976 presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. He continued to photograph for Vogue during the reign of Grace Mirabellain the 1970s and eighties, but when Anna Wintour took the helm in 1988 and revamped the look of the magazine, he severed his ties. He would continue his photojournalistic work and portraiture as staff photographer for The New Yorker until he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2004.

Without question, Avedon’s meteoric impact on the medium of photography remains unrivaled. As The New Yorker wrote upon his death, “As long as people remain curious about life in the twentieth century, they will turn to Avedon’s photographs to see how it looked, and what it meant.”[12]less

Richard Avedon - dali Richard Avedon - frank Richard Avedon - hepburn Richard Avedon - loren Richard Avedon - american west Richard Avedon - american west2 Richard Avedon - american west3 Richard Avedon - american west3(1)

Another photographer whose studio portraiture I have found to be very defined and influential are those of Phillippe Halsman, best known for his portraits of Dali.

Philippe Halsman

American, b. Latvia 1906, d. USA 1979

Philippe Halsman was born in Riga, Latvia and began his photographic career in Paris. In 1934 he opened a portrait studio in Montparnasse, where he photographed many well-known artists and writers — including Andre Gide, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, and Andre Malraux, using an innovative twin-lens reflex camera that he designed himself.

Part of the great exodus of artists and intellectuals who fled the Nazis, Halsman arrived in the United States with his young family in 1940, having obtained an emergency visa through the intervention of Albert Einstein.

Halsman’s prolific career in America over the next 30 years included reportage and covers for every major American magazine. These assignments brought him face-to-face with many of the century’s leading statesmen, scientists, artists and entertainers. His incisive portraits appeared on 101 covers for LIFE magazine, a record no other photographer could match.

Part of Halsman’s success was his joie de vivre and his imagination — combined with his technological prowess. In 1945 he was elected the first president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP), where he led the fight to protect photographers’ creative and professional rights. In 1958 Halsman’s colleagues named him one of the World’s Ten Greatest Photographers. From 1971 to 1976 he taught a seminar at The New School entitled “Psychological Portraiture.”

Halsman began a thirty-seven year collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1941 which resulted in a stream of unusual “photographs of ideas,” including “Dali Atomicus” and the “Dali’s Mustache” series. In the early 1950s, Halsman began to ask his subjects to jump for his camera at the conclusion of each sitting. These uniquely witty and energetic images have become an important part of his photographic legacy.

Writing in 1972, Halsman spoke of his fascination with the human face. “Every face I see seems to hide – and sometimes fleetingly to reveal – the mystery of another human being. Capturing this revelation became the goal and passion of my life.”

Philippe Halsman died in New York City on 25 June 1979.


1998       Philippe Halsman: A Retrospective – National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., USA


1998       Halsman Retrospective, Bulfinch Press, USA; Editions du Collectionneur, France
1989       Halsman at Work, Harry N. Abrams, USA
1983       Portraits, McCraw-Hill Book Company, USA
1979       Halsman, International Center of Photography, USA
1972       Sight & Insight, Doubleday & Company, USA
1961       Philippe Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas,
A.S. Barnes and Company, USA
1959/86   Jumpbook, Simon & Schuster, USA; Harry N. Abrams, USA
1954/94  Dali’s Mustache, Simon & Schuster, USA
1949/06  The Frenchman, Simon & Schuster, USA; Benedikt Taschen, UK


1965. Barbara STREISAND

USA. New York City. 1951. Salvador DALI. "In Volupate Mors."

USA. 1951. New York City. Salvador DALI. “Leopard Skull.”




1954. SALVATOR DALI’ (ESP) et ses moustaches


USA. 1949. NYC. French poet, artist, filmmaker Jean COCTEAU with actress Ricki SOMA and dancer Leo COLEMAN



USA. 1963. US boxer Muhammad ALI.



USA. 1962. Tippi HEDREN, main actress in the movie “The Birds”

USA. New York City. 1969. The American actor and film director Woody ALLEN.

USA. 1969. New York. Woody Allen.

My next reference offers more a modern context, still is recognised as an iconic portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz.


Photographer Annie Leibovitz was born October 2, 1949, in Waterbury, Connecticut. In 1970 she took a job at Rolling Stone magazine. In 1983 she began working for the entertainment magazine Vanity Fair. During the late 1980s, Leibovitz started to work on a number of high-profile advertising campaigns. From the 1990s to the present, she has been publishing and exhibiting her work.


“I sometimes find the surface interesting. To say that the mark of a good portrait is whether you get them or get the soul – I don’t think this is possible all of the time.”

– Annie Leibovitz

Rolling Stone Magazine

Photographer. Born Anna-Lou Leibovitz, on October 2, 1949, in Waterbury, Connecticut. She was one of the six children born to Sam, an Air Force lieutenant, and Marilyn Leibovitz, a modern dance instructor. In 1967, Leibovitz enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where (although initially studying painting) she developed a love for photography.

After living briefly on an Israeli kibbutz, Leibovitz returned to the U.S., in 1970, and applied for a job with the start-up rock music magazine Rolling Stone. Impressed with Leibovitz’s portfolio, editor Jann Wenner offered her a job as a staff photographer. Within two years, the 23-year-old Leibovitz was promoted to chief photographer – a title she would hold for the next 10 years. Her position with the magazine afforded her the opportunity to accompany the Rolling Stones band on their 1975 international tour.

While with Rolling Stone, Leibovitz developed her trademark technique, which involved the use of bold primary colors and surprising poses. Wenner has credited her with making manyRolling Stone covers collector’s items, most notably an issue that featured a nude John Lennon curled around his fully clothed wife,Yoko Ono. Taken on December 8, 1980, Leibovitz’s photo of the former Beatle was shot just hours before his death.

Vanity Fair

In 1983, Leibovitz left Rolling Stone and began working for the entertainment magazine Vanity Fair. With a wider array of subjects, Leibovitz’s photographs for Vanity Fair ranged from presidents to literary icons to teen heartthrobs. To date, a number of Vanity Faircovers have featured Leibovitz’s stunning – and often controversial – portraits of celebrities. Demi Moore (very pregnant and very nude) and Whoopi Goldberg (half-submerged in a bathtub of milk) are among the most remembered actresses to grace the cover in recent years. Known for her ability to make her sitters become physically involved in her work, one of Leibovitz’s most famous portraits is of the late artist Keith Haring, who painted himself like one of his canvases for the photo.

More Accomplishments

During the late 1980s, Leibovitz started to work on a number of high-profile advertising campaigns. The most notable was the American Express “Membership” campaign, for which her portraits of celebrity cardholders, like Elmore LeonardTom Selleck, andLuciano Pavarotti, earned her a 1987 Clio Award.

In 1991, Leibovitz’s collection of over 200 color and black-and-white photographs were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Later that year, a book was published to accompany the show titled Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990.

In 1996, Leibovitz was chosen as the official photographer of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. A compilation of her black-and-white portraits of American athletes, including Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson, were published in the book Olympic Portraits (1991).

Later Work

Widely considered one of America’s best portrait photographers, Annie Leibovitz published the book Women(1999), which was accompanied by an essay by friend and novelist Susan Sontag. With its title subject matter, Leibovitz presented an array of female images from Supreme Court Justices to Vegas showgirls to coal miners and farmers. Currently, many of her original prints are housed in various galleries throughout the United States.

In 2005, the Brooklyn Museum of Art did a retrospective on her work entitled “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005.” As busy as ever, Annie Leibovitz continues to be in demand as portrait photographer, often capturing arresting images of today’s celebrities.

Annie Leibovitz is the mother of three children. At the age of 51, she had her daughter, Sarah. In 2005, her twin daughters, Susan and Samuelle, were born with the help of a surrogate mother.

For the purpose of this post, I have focused upon her most recent work and upon more studio based references.

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Kathryn Bigelow with Jeremy Renner, August 2010


Meryl Streep, July 2010


Danny Boyle and Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire, July 2010


Quentin Tarantino with Christopher Waltz, August 2010


Angelina Jolie, Vogue, 2002


Kirsten Dunst, June 2011

Another very distinct examples of established and ambition portraiture is the photography of Cindy Sherman.

By turning the camera on herself, Cindy Sherman has built a name as one of the most respected photographers of the late twentieth century. Although, the majority of her photographs are pictures of her, however, these photographs are most definitely not self-portraits. Rather, Sherman uses herself as a vehicle for commentary on a variety of issues of the modern world: the role of the woman, the role of the artist and many more. It is through these ambiguous and eclectic photographs that Sherman has developed a distinct signature style. Through a number of different series of works, Sherman has raised challenging and important questions about the role and representation of women in society, the media and the nature of the creation of art.

Sherman’s life began in 1954, in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. Her family having moved shortly after her birth, Sherman grew up as the youngest of five children in the town of Huntington, Long Island. Unlike some budding artists, Sherman was not particularly involved in the arts as a young person. Sherman’s parents were not involved in the arts; her father made a living as an engineer and her mother worked as a reading teacher. Born relatively late in her parents’ lives, Sherman’s father was retired by the time she was in fifth grade. Sherman has said that, “”It wasn’t until college that I had any concept of what was going on in the art world. My idea of being an artist as a kid was a courtroom artist or one of those boardwalk artists who do caricatures. My parents had a book of, like, the one hundred one beautiful paintings, which included Dali and Picasso among the most recent artists.” Despite her parents lack of artistic interest, they were supportive of her choice to enter art school after finishing high school, though, according to Sherman, her mother did caution her to “take a few teaching courses just in case.” Thus, Sherman’s exploration of art began at theState University College at Buffalo.

Sherman’s career at Buffalo began much differently then it ended. As a freshman, Sherman set out to study painting until one day, when she realized that she had enough. Frustrated with the limitations of painting and feeling like she had done all that she could, she gave it up. Sherman has said that she felt that ” . . .there was nothing more to say [through painting]. I was meticulously copying other art and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.” And this is explicitly what she did. In retrospect, Sherman has expressed that she never could have succeeded as a painter, stating that she is unable to react to painting in anything more than a visceral way. Lacking the critical connection needing to proceed with painting, Sherman turned to photography, which she studied for the remainder of her time at Buffalo. During this time, she met a person who was to become very important in her life: fellow artist Robert Longo. Together with Longo and fellow student Charles Clough, Sherman formed Hallwalls, an independent artists’ space where she and fellow artists exhibited.

After Sherman’s 1976 graduation, she decided to move to New York City to embark upon her career in art. Taking a loft on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, Sherman began taking photographs of herself. These photographs would come to be known as the Untitled Film Stills , perhaps the most well known and recognizable work of Sherman’s career thus far. In these photographs, begun in 1977, Sherman places herself in the roles of B-movie actresses. Her photographs show her dressed up in wigs, hats, dresses, clothes unlike her own, playing the roles of characters. While many may mistake these photographs for self-portraits, these photographs only play with elements of self-portraiture and are really something quite different. In each of these photographs, Sherman plays a type — not an actual person, but a self-fabricated fictional one. There is the archetypal housewife, the prostitute, the woman in distress, the woman in tears, the dancer, the actress, and the malleable, chameleon-like Sherman plays all of these characters.

For a work of art to be considered a portrait, the artist must have intent to portray a specific, actual person. This can be communicated through such techniques as naming a specific person in the title of the work or creating an image in which the physical likeness leads to an emotional individuality unique to a specific person. While these criteria are not the only ways of connoting a portrait, they are just two examples of how Sherman carefully communicates to the viewer that these works are not meant to depict Cindy Sherman the person. By titling each of the photographs “Untitled”, as well as numbering them, Sherman depersonalizes the images.

There are also very few clues as to Sherman’s personality in the photographs – each one is so unique and ambiguous that the viewer is left with more confusion than clarity over Sherman’s true nature. Sherman completed the project three years later, in 1980, when she “ran out of clichés” with which to work. This series gave Sherman much publicity and critical acclaim; she had her first solo show at the nonprofit space, the Kitchen, in New York City. In 1980 Sherman also created a series of what she called “Rear-Screen Projections” in which, similarly to the Film Stills, Sherman dressed up and paraded against a projected slide background.

In 1981 Sherman was commissioned by the respected magazine Artforum to do a “centerfold” for one of their upcoming issues. Sherman proceeded to submit a series of images with a cohesive aesthetic look: the camera was placed above Sherman, who was often crouched on the ground or made to look like she was in a state of reverie. This series, as well as an additional series of Sherman in a pink robe, was rejected by Artforum ‘s editor, Ingrid Sischy, who claimed that these photographs “might be misunderstood.”

Sherman went on to change her style almost entirely in what are often referred to as the Disasters and Fairy Tales series. For the first time in her public career, Sherman was not the model in all of the images. Shot from 1985 until 1989, these images are far more grotesque than Sherman’s earlier work. Often intentionally dressing to look scary and deformed, Sherman sets herself in strange, indefinable settings which often feature oddly colored lighting in shades of blue, green and red. At times, Sherman employs dolls parts or prosthetic body parts to substitute for her own and many a scene is strewn with vomit, mold and other vile substances. Sherman’s intent is to explore the disgusting, yet these are things that she admittedly can find beauty in.

Sherman’s second most known body of work came some time after the Film Stills had already been well received, around 1988-1990. In the History Portraits Sherman again uses herself as model, though this time she casts herself in roles from archetypally famous paintings. While very few specific paintings are actually referenced, one still feels a familiarity of form between Sherman’s work and works by great masters. Using prosthetic body parts to augment her own body, Sherman recreates great pieces of art and thus manipulates her role as a contemporary artist working in the twentieth-century. Sherman lived abroad during this time in her life, and even though museums would appear to be the source of inspiration for this series, she is not a fan of museums: “Even when I was doing those history pictures, I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photograph I appreciate, conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone.”

In 1992 Sherman embarked on a series of photographs now referred to as “Sex Pictures.” For the first time, Sherman is entirely absent from these photographs. Instead, she again uses dolls and prosthetic body parts, this time posed in highly sexual poses. Prosthetic genitalia – both male and female – are used often and photographed in extreme close-up. Photographed exclusively in color, these photographs are meant to shock. Sherman continued to work on these photographs for some time and continued to experiment with the use of dolls and other replacements for what had previously been herself.

Sherman’s life and work has been populated by more than just conceptual photography. She has been married to video artist Michel Auder for over 16 years and has found time in her busy career to add work in motion pictures. In 1997, Sherman’s directorial debut, Office Killer, starring Jeanne Tripplehorn, was released in theatres. A self-proclaimed lover of horror films, Sherman draws on the characteristics of this genre as well as the visual motifs established as a still photographer. Sherman also made an appearance in front of the camera, making a cameo playing herself in John Waters’ 1998 comedy Pecker .

Because Sherman achieved international success at a relatively young age, her work has had a considerable maturation in value over the past decade. In 1999 the average selling price for one of her photographs was $20,000 to $50,000, a hefty sum for a female photographer. Even more ground-breaking was a 1999 Christie’s auction in which one of the photographs from Film Stills sold for a reported $190,000. This bid was perhaps inspired by the Museum of Modern Art‘s lead: in 1996, they purchased a complete set from Film Stills for one million dollars. These prices are indicative of Sherman’s huge level of success, both critically and financially. Sherman’s popularity continues to grow around the world, as she has exhibited countries including Germany, Japan, France.

Recently, Sherman has returned to using herself as model. At a recent show at her New York gallery, Metro Pictures, Sherman displayed a series of portrait-like images of herself in the guise of women from California. These women are again simply types – The Personal Trainer, The Ex-Realtor, The Divorcee, etc. Sherman further manipulates the notion of portraiture through the use of conventional portrait signs including the setting of the figure against a neutral background. Unlike some of her early photographs, these are more straightforward images of created characters, not narrative fragments. Sherman continues these projects in New York City, where she currently lives and works.







For my final reference, I decided to focus upon a lesser known, more recent example of studio portraiture through the work of Patrizia Burra.

Patrizia Burra


With photography we try to reproduce the world. But the world is much more interesting when it becomes a work of art.

I am a painter and photographer.
Painting gives a lot of energy, but
it doesn’t allows you to catch the
moment. This is one of the main
factor that lead me to the conclusion
that I could not be a painter only.
My goal, as photographer, is to
translate my more wild, passionate
and restless vision into an image

PB-Angelina PB-Breakfast PB-fantasy world PB-portrait PB-regards PB-Tim Andrews


To conclude, from this research, I have started to observe the various means in which photographers have brought their own creative vision and direction within their portraiture and how this has evolved from its more static, Hollywood glamour origins to form images that speak of various aspects of human nature, lifestyles or cultural significance.

Whether we point our camera towards well known or everyday subject or perhaps even ourselves (in the case of Sherman) we can find narratives which speak greater volumes than of beauty or aesthetics. We can better understand issues that we sometimes people can be hesitant to confront photographically.

A hidden or characterised view of people of significance (artists, actors, politician, athletes), a malleable projection of new identities or version of ourself in self portraits, an greater understanding of social niches or national heritage and the experimentation with preconceived ideas of innocence or sexuality. There is a great deal more substance to a portrait than a literal representation of a personal physicality.

I feel as though I started to develop some potential ideas, I will continue my research.


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