In 1691 Charles Augustin d’Aviler, a French architect, became the first writer to refer to a new type of room to be included in the design of a grand house, rooms that were “le plus habité”, the most lived in. To d’Aviler this term differentiated this new type of space, the living room, from the grand display rooms of the house and the functional rooms such as the kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. For the architect’s clients this idea made a lot of sense, they could welcome and entertain their guests in the great rooms of their mansions where works of art and high design were on display to prove their wealth and status but then retreat to a more comfortable and private space with their family.
In the subsequent centuries as first the middle classes and much later the working classes acquired homes with multiple rooms, one room was often set aside to receive visitors but over time this idea waned and living rooms developed to be multi-functional, transitional spaces between the public, outside world and the private, inside parts of a home, a room that visitors are invited to enter but that accommodates functions that are private to the occupants.
Regradless of whether a family or individual lives in one or many rooms photographers have long recognised that the “le plus habité” is the space that defines the ideological structure that we refer to as a home. John Tagg (1), in his essay The Currency of the Photograph, describes the photographs of two particular portraits set in living rooms as being “dense with connotations as every detail – of flesh, clothes, posture, of fabric, furniture and decoration – is brought, fully lit, to the surface and presented.” We are now so visually literate that we can interpret what Tagg calls “the dense mat of signifying strands” in occupied living rooms ranging from nineteenth century slums to royal palaces. We quickly reach a conclusion regarding the subject’s identity in terms of wealth, class, status, taste and habits and can easily broadened this analysis to the society in which they exist or historically existed.
When trying to unravel Tagg’s dense mat of strands we have the significant advantage of having a living room of our own and having visited many other such rooms. This makes our analysis very personal, we relate to the idea of these rooms in a way that we cannot relate to a portrait in a studio or of a celebrity on their yacht. From the perspective of a photographer this provides a powerful tool of communication, we will more quickly read the message of a living room, regardless of its location in time or geography than, for example, a foreign street scene. This point is not lost on either documentarists or society photographers.
By photographing the the Princess Royal in a state room of a palace rather than his studio Cecil Beaton represents not just Elizabeth Windsor the woman but places her in the context of her royal status; if in a hundred years time a viewer cannot name the women they will be able to identify her position in society. It is doubtful that Elizabeth would describe this space as a living room but the furnishings, decor and the sense of space, which is suggested by only showing half the fire place and part of a chandelier which must be hanging from a high ceiling, all speak of wealth, privilege and an emphasis on design over function.
At the other extreme Chris Steele-Perkins photographed an unemployed man in the living room of his home in Newcastle; the grimy fireplace stained by soot from escaping smoke and the worn furniture and carpet form a backdrop that is expressively working class with connotations of poverty and despair. Steele-Perkins has created a sense that this space is cramped, the chairs are impractically close together, his beer is placed on the floor , we see the top of a dining chair so we understand the man’s living room is a small area in a room with other functions.
Obviously the setting, the living room, is not presented in isolation in either case. David Bates (2) describes the portrait as having five components: face, pose, clothing, location and props so a living room provides the location and some or all of the props. In Beaton’s Princess Royal her pose, clothing and her crown as a prop are equally fundamental to her description; in Steele-Perkins’ study the man’s face and pose underline the overall connotation of poverty and despair.
If we were to take either of these subjects out of their living rooms and photograph them in a studio we would continue to be able to create a juxtaposition of wealth and status within a single society but would be dealing with far less information and dependant upon any context offered by their clothes and faces.
In the collection of living portraits shown below we can not only read and interpret the rooms with their, typically, family groups but also instinctively recognise the intent of the photographer. This series includes social commentary, campaigning documentary, explorations of societal norms, investigations into the structure of families, documents of times and places, photojournalism, staged photography, masquerade and commissioned portraiture. Most are extracted from the series in which they originally appeared so their context has been altered to provide a juxtaposition of class, wealth, status, geography and time with the intent of allowing a study of similarities and differences.
The common, living room, setting, for the all the reasons described above provides an understood framework within which to analyse and interpret each and every one of these pictures at great length. Many have been the subject of extensive research and comment, some have been the subject of my own essays over the last many months.
Bernice Abbott spoke passionately about the need for photography to rise to the challenge of revealing and celebrating reality quoting Jack London call for “impassioned realism shot through with human aspirations and faith, life as it is, characters in a real world, real conditions.” (3) This selection of living portraits achieve that aim and, in no small part because, of the choice of living rooms as the photographer’s studio.
(click on any thumbnail to commence slideshow)
(1) Tagg, John (1978) The Currency of the Photograph – published as an essay in Representation and Photography, edited by Manual Alvarado, Edward Buscombe and Richard Collins. Basingstoke: Palgrave
(2) Bates, David (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts (second edition) London: Bloomsbury
(3) Abbott, Berenice (1951) Photography at the Crossroads (first published in the Universal Photo Almanac) – From Classic Essays on Photography edited by Alan Trachtenberg (1980). Sedwick: Leete’s Island Books