Exercise 2: Background as Context

August Sander, Bricklayer’s Mate, 1928

The photograph above is typical of the portraits taken by Sander. The subjects are clothed in the work attire generally, though the young farmers are in their go to church best. The subjects face the camera, and often stand with their body square to the camera. Their expressions are serious. The props are limited to tools of the trade and not unexpected or surprising. There are exceptions to the above of course. His subjects are pictured in their natural environment rather than a contrived environment or studio. David Bate, which includes:

David Bate’s five-point model can be used to describe portraits. Four of the five elements are:

The Face: This can be used to illustrate the feelings of the sitter, given that facial expression can signify a repertoire of different states and moods including happiness, sadness, anger or frustration. It should be noted however that the expressions worn by the face are not necessarily indicative of a fixed state of being.

The Pose: Can be described as a visual argument in itself, or a form of rhetoric. The various body language conveyed by a sitter can be read in combination and can connote all kinds of perceived characteristics. Just as the expression of the face is the rhetoric of mood, so the pose contributes to the signification of character, attitude and social position.

The Clothing: Can be used to indicate a great deal about a sitter’s social identity and how they relate to that identity in their pose. Uniform’s for instance can not only differentiate a factory worker from a police officer, but can also specifically identify rank and the different regiments within the armed services.

The Prop: Can significantly alter the meaning given to the identity of the portrayed figure.

Sander has used a shallow depth of field to produce a blurred background, which enhances focus on the subject. The subject is placed in front of a background which reflects the place of work or sometimes the nature of the person being photographed. There are cases where it is just a white studio background. There are examples of on location shots where the subject’s head is below and above the horizon.

“Make a portrait of someone you know, paying very close attention to what is happening in the background of the shot. Be very particular about how you pose the subject and what you choose to include in the photograph. Ideally, the background should tell the viewer something about the subject being photographed. Reflect upon how successful this project was in your learning log or blog, discussing specifically what your intentions were in terms of the background you chose in your image.”

This is a portrait of my daughter. I have placed her at her current usual place of study. The background and foreground is as out of focus as I can make it with the equipment and location. The background is our home which provides a clue to the relationship to me. The props are her usual apparatus for study. I have used flash for fill-in lighting. I am reasonably content with the result.

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