The Pose

The South Bank - Steve MIddlehurst

The South Bank – Steve Middlehurst

Reading Susanne Holschbach’s’s essay The Pose: Its Troubles and Pleasures in Street and Studio (1) began a chain of thought about the evolution of the pose in portrait photography. In the nineteenth century photographic practices, especially in portraiture, were a continuation of the, then, contemporary trends in painting. There was a desire to create photographs that imitated paintings and by adopting these styles and traditions the early photographers, perhaps stung by the perception of their practice as science rather than art, hoped to appropriate the status and credibility of the artist painter. But there were other factors in play including the influence of a number of painters who had turned to photography as the medium developed (i) and a level of cross fertilisation with nineteenth century  painters such as William Powell Frith (2) who used photographs as aide-memoires or, as in the case of Edwin Landseer, as the basis of paintings (ii).  The technology of the day demanded long exposure times and cumbersome equipment resulting in painted portrait-like sittings in enclosed studios. David Bate (12) points out that the favoured pose of thoughtfulness where the subject rests their head in one hand was developed by photographers to make it easier for the subject to remain still but was subsequently adopted by painters as a “conventional pose.” Ertem (3) describes these studios as having the same “scenic accessories as painters” and many early portraits feature painted backcloths, tied back curtains, and the occasional Doric column.

This image of the nineteenth century photographer’s studio has become the accepted truth and suggests that for fifty or sixty years the aesthetics of the photographic portrait stood still while the technology moved forward in leaps and bounds. On face value this might be a reasonable argument considering the large number of artisan studios that sprung up in Paris, London and New York and the rise of the carte de visite (iii) photograph which encouraged the adoption of formulaic poses.

Soldier's Leaving for War: American Civil War 1861 - 65 (left) and World War 1 1914 -18 (right)

Soldier’s Leaving for War: American Civil War 1861 – 65 (left) and World War 1 1914 -18 (right)

From the American Civil War through to the First World War hundreds of high street studios recorded the images of young man departing for war whilst following formulas first established by the early photographers and inherited from painting. The two examples shown above are the same subject matter, the soldier leaving for war, but were taken around fifty years apart on different continents; yet they share a distinctly similar pose and include props that directly link the pictures back to painted portrait.

Fisher Folk in Whitby - Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

Fisher Folk in Whitby – Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

However, to accept this as the norm, would be an over simplification. During those same fifty years many photographers were developing a non-painterly style of portraiture, a photographic style, that began to allow the photographic portrait to establish itself as an unique medium.

I have previously looked at the work of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (here and here) who documented the fishing village of Whitby from 1870 until the closure of his studio in 1922. He was a founding member of the Linked Ring whose objective was to promote photography as a fine art and whilst his landscapes have some of the romantic aesthetic of the pictorialists his posed portraits both inside and outside of the studio have a direct and natural appearance quite unlike the carte de visite.

It is important to recognise that Sutcliffe was not a documentarist in the mould of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans or even his contemporary John Thomson, he was a professional studio photographer working in a single small town. He took his camera into the town and countryside to record its people but these were not decisive moments nor did they form the basis for a social commentary; they were carefully posed and structured photographs; the use of the street as a studio. The remarkable result of many of his photographs, including the one shown here, is that by being so obviously posed they have taken on the aesthetic of a mid to late twentieth century fashion shoot. I don’t suggest that Victorian portrait photographers influenced the star fashion photographers of the 1960’s but they had already created the posed-casual look in the 1890s.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Robert Howlett 1857

Isambard Kingdom Brunel –
Robert Howlett 1857

Other photographers began to approach their subjects in new and entirely photographic ways from an early date.

Robert Howlett’s iconic 1857 portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is on the cusp of portrait and documentary photography showing Brunel with cigar in mouth, in his scruffy clothes and mud splattered trousers dwarfed by the huge chains of his master piece, the Great Eastern.

Brunel is posing for the camera in a way that we would associate with photography rather than painting; there is a realistic sense of a man caught during his working day, deep in thought but assured and confident, poised to return to action.

A Flemish Interior - Guido Rey 1908

A Flemish Interior – Guido Rey 1908

One might argue that the independent development of portrait photography was stalled, if not set back, by the Pictorial Movement initiated by Peter Henry Emerson in the late 1880s and later championed by Alfred Stieglitz  in his magazine Camera Work between 1903 and 1917 and who with other practitioners such as Edward Steichen passionately believed in asserting photography as an art. Even the most superficial review of Camera Work  (4) reveals their route to this goal was to imitate painting, often through post production manipulation of the print.

They promoted classical art poses which were often presented as misty, indistinct prints that mimicked romantic painting. Practitioners such as Guido Rey extended the painted art aesthetic into the subject matter creating staged photographs that not only followed the style of the Dutch masters but replicated their subject matter.

The most interesting aspect of the collected photographs from Camera Work is the quite dramatic switch in style exhibited in its penultimate issue which features the work of Paul Strand. Strand’s prints share the photogravure, mildly sepia tones of Steichen and Octavia Hill but the subject matter and poses suddenly have a documentary and realistic edge that refreshingly contrasts the romantic subjects and fuzzy unreality of much of the work in earlier issues.

New York as published in issue 49 of Camera Works - Paul Strand 1917

New York as published in issue 49 of Camera Works – Paul Strand 1917

The newcomer, Strand, had captured his photographs on the street with a Graflex camera, his subjects were usually unaware of his presence and as Stieglitz wrote at the time the images were “brutally direct, pure and devoid of trickery” (5); Beaumont Newhall describes Strand’s appearance on the scene as “prophetic of the reorientation in photographic aesthetics and of the return to the traditions of straight photography” (5).

Strand recognised that the photographer had to accept the limitations and understand the “potential qualities of the medium” and to value its strengths and its differences from the other visual arts.

Photograhy was again able to move forward developing its own traditions and, in doing so, we begin to see the selection of human subjects and an evolution of pose that was and would remain as being unique to the medium. In Strand’s footsteps the great American documentary portraitists followed, practitioners who were to record the twenties and thirties in such an influential manner that their work continues to inspire photographers nearly hundred years later. Photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange travelled to places and photographed people that painters and many of their contemporary photographers avoided. Ansel Adams was to say “There are so many beautiful places in this world , I don’t know why Dorothea photographs all those dirty people.” (6)

It would be stretching the point to suggest that the post pictorial era is when the photographic pose begins to find its own shape and form; to say this would be to ignore the work of the Victorian documentarists or the Americans like Lewis Hine. However it might be true to say that between the wars the photographic pose becomes established as unique to the medium and takes on the attributes that Susanne Holschbach discusses (1). She sees the pose as the “interface between the individual and society”, an interface in which the subject’s subconscious comes out to impose itself upon the image. Roland Barthes is often quoted, not least by me, as describing the self evident truth that the subject converts themselves into an imagined image when confronted by the camera. Fulya Ertem (3) builds on this idea when she says that this process is one of “assuming a posture, an imaginary self, in front of any captivating gaze” but it also represents a form of contract between the photographer and the subject. The resultant pose may, as Holschbach puts it, “bear signs of agreement” or “resistance” and it might be intentional or involuntary but it nearly always reveals something of the subject’s psyche, social situation, self perception and the way in which they wish to be seen.

Decade by decade as photography became increasingly accessible and democratic a wider cross section of society was able to record or have recorded their ideal self perception. Initially, and as previously discussed (here) the middle classes and then the working classes adopted poses that mimicked their wealthier fellow citizens who, in turn had mimicked the poses established by painters. However, as cheap cameras became more widespread and the reliance on formal portrait studios diminished the pose begins to shake free from its history.

New York, from the series Autoportrait - Martin Parr 1998

New York, from the series Autoportrait – Martin Parr 1998

This development was not evenly paced worldwide so whilst the traditional photographic studio has nearly disappeared from Britain or America it still thrives in a wide range of countries or in new forms as evidenced by Martin Parr’s series Autoportrait. This series comprises semi-self portraits taken in small photographer’s shops around the world where the tied back curtains and hand painted backdrops of the Victorian era have been replaced with photo or digital backdrops or the insertion of the subject’s head into fantasy and electronically generated settings. On reflection the aspirations of the studio customer has changed very little since during photography’s history despite all the advances in technology in that they still seek representations that falsify their position in society.

Val Williams describes Autoportrait as a “constant remodelling of the Parr persona – from retouched teenager to muscleman, from astronaut to Arab, from Victorian gentleman to Jeffery Archer look-alike”  and sees the series as “an acknowledgement, or even a reminder, that photography is often more accomplished, more freethinking in the vernacular than it is in the polished products of the photojournalist or the art photographer.” (7)

Parr’s series exaggerates the fact that the subject engages in masquerade when posing for a photo portrait but the truth remains that the pose can often be a mask or, if we accept Barthes argument, perhaps is always a mask. Holschbach quotes a the thoughts of the portrait photographer A.A.E. Disdéri (iii) who in the 1850s provided guidance to his fellow practitioners on how to coax their subjects out of their tendency to imitate role models or to use “rehearsed formal poses” and “appropriate faces”. Many contemporary wedding photographers address this tendency by abandoning the formal group photograph and adopting a more documentary approach; Rineke Dijkstra uses video to break down the rigidity and fallacy of the pose whereas the fashion and portrait photographer David Bailey maintains a never ending dialogue to distract and relax his subjects. These ideas form a bridge between the overt portraitist who devises strategies to remove the mask and in doing so degrade the subject’s influence on the image and the covert operators who seek unaware subjects with the same intent (see here and here).

Paulene Stone - David Bailey 1960

Paulene Stone – David Bailey 1960

In the twentieth century photographers prowled the streets seeking to catch people off guard to reveal the true nature of society and art photographers explored different strategies to reveal the inner self but another group of, generally better paid and better known, photographers concentrated their attention on persuading their subjects to adopt predetermined personas. As Holschbach points out, fashion photography “took the lead as a laboratory for staging the body”; prior to Bailey and his contemporaries like Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, fashion models had the status of mannequins, the fashion world was only interested in their ability to become a mobile clothes hanger and certainly had no desire to explore or represent their personality. Bailey was at the vanguard of a movement that began to see and photograph the models as people and he achieved this, not just by building a rapport with his subjects but by approaching fashion photography as a portraitist of people rather than as a still life photographer of clothes. As Tim Marlow describes in his introduction to Bailey’s Stardust (8) “The fashion photography for which he rapidly became relatively rich and indisputably famous in the early 1960s became increasingly identified with the models themselves as much as the clothes they wore.”

Bailey, like Richard Avedon, took his models into the street and inserted them into the un-choreographed bustle of the city but even in the studio he had an uncanny ability to capture what Marlow calls the “natural dynamism and fluidity of the human body”. The art world has never completely come to terms with the fashion photographer but Bailey’s portraiture of contemporary celebrities in the 60’s through to the present day, his promotion of models as women not mannequins, his democratic portraits of non-celebrities and his less well known documentary photographs have enabled him to straddle many worlds including art. His Stardust exhibition in 2014 acts as a catalogue for the pose in the second half of the twentieth century such is its variety of both subject and approach. Perhaps the proof of his status is that we associate his iconic fashion photographs with him and his models having long forgotten the names of the fashion houses and magazines that paid the bills.

In the 1970’s and 80’s British based photographers like Martin Parr, Daniel Meadows, David Hurn and Tom Wood were part of a movement that took portrait photography into the lives and homes of ordinary people. They captured contemporary Britain through the faces of its people at work and play without adopting the grab and run approach of Garry Winogrand or, like Diane Arbus, by seeking out subjects that enabled them to explore their own inner demons. Their approach was more reminiscent of Tony Ray-Jones as they sought out subjects that described the social identity of Britain but until Parr switched his attention to  consumerism this was a movement that concentrated on the working class, not as examples, but as individuals and it marks a watershed in British portrait photography.

From the series The Free Photographic Omnibus - Daniel Meadows 1973/4

From the series The Free Photographic Omnibus – Daniel Meadows 1973/4

In 1973 Daniel Meadows purchased a Leyland Titan bus and toured England seeking out “ordinary folk” (9) to photograph. His Free Photographic Omnibus was “dedicated to valuing ordinary people, treating the as individuals not as types.” For fourteen months he drove his mobile studio, dark room and home around the country photographing just short of one thousand people. Each evening he developed and printed his work so his subjects could collect their free prints the next day as he also displayed the portraits in the bus’ windows it became a travelling gallery or as the Daily Mirror called it “the Great Ordinary Show”. The portraits collected during this project were published as Living Like This (10) in 1975. With the help of the curator Val Williams these portraits were revived twenty years later and formed the basis of a travelling exhibition.

This was not Meadow’s first foray into the realm of free portrait photography, in 1972 he had created a pop-up studio in Moss Side, Manchester having been inspired by Bruce Davidson’s work in Harlem. (11). The differences between his work on the bus and in his make-shift studio lie only in the settings, both series share the inmate engagement he formed with his subjects and the casual, relaxed and very real poses they adopt.

Since then the photographic portrait has continued to be a popular medium for contemporary photographers. It has been explored it many different ways but, in Britain at least, has remained grounded in a celebration of the ordinary. The pose has evolved in parallel with the development of the portrait, slowly losing the rigid constraints of the nineteenth century, becoming more relaxed and, perhaps influenced by the ordinariness of being photographed, become more natural and in the process more revealing.

Notes on Text

(i) Including Hippolyte Bayard, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Roger Fenton, David Octavius Hill

(ii) As in his portrait of Queen Victoria and John Brown which was based on a photograph by W. Bambridge. Apparently the queen had suggested the photograph as the basis of his painting suggesting that she was engaged with photography (2). 

(iii) Carte de visite photographs were small albumen prints mounted on small 2 1/2 by 4 inch cards that became popular across the world after being patented by André Adolphe-Eugené Disdéri a French photographer. The process  was based on a camera with 4 lenses that allowed it to take four simultaneous negatives, the plate was then slid into a new position for a further four identical frames. The resultant negative could be used to print a single sheet containing eight photographs that could be cut into separate prints. The carte de visite became hugely popular during the American Civil War as memento of soldiers leaving for the front but also found an application as a collectible along the lines of the much later cigarette card. 70,000 carte de visites of Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort, were sold in Britain in the week following his death. (5) 



(1) Holschbach,  Susanne (2008) The Pose: Its Troubles and Pleasures, published in Street and Studio. London: Tate Publishing

(4) Stieglitz, Alfred (1903 – 1917) Camera Work: The Complete Photographs 1903 to 1917. Köln: Taschen

(5) Newhall, Beaumont (1982) The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art

(6) Whiston Spirn, Anne (2008) Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(7) Williams, Val. (2002) Martin Parr: Reprinted 2010. London: Phaidon Press Limited

(8) Bailey, David. (2014) Bailey’s Stardust: Published to accompany the exhibition Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 6th February to 1st June 2014, London, National Portrait Gallery

(9) Meadows, Daniel (2011) The Bus: The Free Photographic Omnibus 1972 – 2001. (Kindle edition) London: Vintage Digital

(10) Meadows, Daniel (1975) Living Like This. London: Arrow Book

(12) Bates, David (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts (second edition) London: Bloomsbury


(2) National Portrait Gallery. Portrait Photography: From the Victorians to the Present Day (accessed at The National Portrait Gallery 3.3.16) –

(3) Ertem, Fulya (2006)The pose in early portrait photography: Questioning attempts to appropriate the past. (accessed at Image and Narrative 3.3.16) –

(11) Meadows, Daniel. Photobus (accessed at Meadows’ Photobus website 5.3.16) –

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1 Response to The Pose

  1. Catherine says:

    A very thorough summary and enjoyable reading Parr’s head almost looks right on that body – I was surprised when I realised it was him!

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