Light bulb moment

Conceptual Art

where the concept or idea is more important than the aesthetics of the image?

OMG I get it! I’ve always considered that the aesthetics are as important as the concept. Now I understand, why haven’t understood some photography. I do however, feel that for me the image is about the aesthetics as well, but now I understand this, I can be aware of it and explain it in my work.

Douglas Heubler

Variable Piece #101, 1972

Douglas Huebler entitled Variable Piece #101, 1972

This work by Douglas Heubler (1924 – 1997) – a pioneer of conceptual art.

Conceptual art, also referred to as conceptualism, is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic, technical, and material concerns

Heubler was an American artist who moved from painting, sculpting and installation art work to documentary photography to explore social environments and the effect of passing time on objects.

Huebler took 10 portraits of the photographer Bernd Becher (himself a noted typologist) showing a sequence of deliberate poses Becher was asked to perform (priest, criminal, lover, old man, policeman, artist, Bernd Becher, philosopher, spy, nice guy).

A few months after the portraits had been taken, Huebler forwarded them to Becher and asked him to make the correct associations. The two different
sequences are then presented to the viewer, the captions determined first by the photographer (Huebler) and second by the subject (Becher).

Heubler never exhibited the images in the original order and with the original classifications, only with Becher’s choice and we never know which ones were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Perhaps that’s the whole point. The viewer will always use their own classifications or typologies to organise a set of images. Especially in a portrait where there is no other information about the person.

I think this emphasises the fact that it is very difficult to imbue meaning and or knowing about a person in and a portrait, especially studio images with little or no extra ‘clues’.


Someone I know . . .

someone I know

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.

I made these images based on the work of August Sander and Rineke Dijkstra. This is served as a test for the work I would like to do for Assignment 1, The Non Familiar.

In Sander and Dijkstra’s images, their subjects are in the centre of the image and they are looking at the camera. Their poses are generally very straight on to the camera. For my images, I wanted to explore a social history of the street where I live, to document who lived in these houses during ‘Lockdown’.

These shots are of my house and my husband. There are 50 houses in our street, it is a cul-de-sac so the people we see walking up and down the street pretty much all live here, with the exception of the postman and the amazon delivery drivers, who come to our house most days!. My husband and I both work full time and although we have lived here 7 1/2 years, we really don’t know anyone that well. We know our immediate neighbours names and say hello them, but really that’s about it.

for Assignment 1, I would like to see if I can photograph people from my street who I don’t know outside their houses.

Background as context

Project 2: Typologies – Exercise 2, pg 41

August Sander (1876 – 1964)

Study Sander’s portraits in very close detail, making notes as you go.
Look at how his subjects are positioned in relation to each other or their
environment. Are they facing the camera or looking away? What, if any, props
does Sander use?

Do these props seem relevant or are they strange? What
physical stance does the subject adopt?

August Sander – google search

August Sander was a German photographer who’s most prominent work was made between the two world wars (1918 – 1939), but continued all of his life. His notable work ‘  People of the 20th Century sought to document the people of Germany during this period. dividing them into seven distinct groups: ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘Classes and Professions’, ‘The Artists’, ‘The City’ and ‘The Last People’. (Tate, “Five Things to Know: August Sander – List | Tate”).

The exercise above asks us to look at the his images in close detail and note the use of the ‘five elements model‘ described by David Bate. However, it is also worth noting that Sander continued to use a large format camera even after the smaller Leica’s became available, as he felt that they gave a better detail of the faces. Because of the slowness of the image making, this of course may have influenced the poses and facial expressions of the sitter.

My observations:

  • in most images the subjects are straight on to the camera with their feet apart.
  • the sitters are looking directly at the camera
  • multiple people are lined up in a flat row with their hands by there side. This may because of depth of field being used and / or the use of the large format camera.
  • the depth of field is shallow enough to allow some blurring of the background, but not so much that you can’t see where the person is. It does give an element of separation. (perhaps f/34 or f/5.6?)
  • photographs of the trades people utilise props, usually the tools of their trade, where as the middle class portraits tend to have less props and more environmental backgrounds.
  • Props are either held or shown, rather than being used.
  • the majority of subjects are photographed full length or cut off at the legs.
  • the images of the circus workers and artists have more relaxed poses.

I believe Sander is considered important because before this, ordinary everyday people were not photographed in this way and it now leaves us with a wealth of information about how people live, dressed and working in those days. In these days of selfies, people really don’t consider the context of the image!


  • “August Sander | Artnet.” Www.Artnet.Com,
  • Baker, Rob. “The Extraordinary Photos of German Photographer August Sander – Flashbak.” Flashbak, 30 Jan. 2019, Accessed 6 June 2020.
  • Tate. “Five Things to Know: August Sander – List | Tate.” Tate, 2017, Accessed 6 June 2020.
  • Wikipedia Contributors. “August Sander.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2020, Accessed 6 June 2020.

‘Five Element Model’

The ‘five element model’ as described by David Bate in ‘Photography: The Key Concepts’, 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 Location / Background: social science, background setting (or lack of it) of the person in the picture.

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

Much of these elements are instinctive when taking portraits of people, but when you are actually cognoscente of them, it can help you really consider what the image is saying about the person.

This is something I have learnt from making mistakes in the past. I am a master at removing elements from images, that I didn’t see when I took the photo because I was concentrating on the face!


Bate also describes the three general cataegoresis of people we encounter in portraits:

  • Familiar – friends, family, ourselves, relatives, neighbours, acquaintances, colleagues, etc
  • Unfamiliar – strangers, foreigners, etc
  • Social representations – people who are known to us, but who we do not actually know, i.e. celebrities, politicians royalty etc.

He describes Freud’s theories on the pleasure derived from recognising something familiar which is akin to the current theories on habits described in Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habits’. i.e. we repeat things over and over again and once it is ‘hardwired’ in, our brains create a shortcut to that same outcome, which is why we do things without even thinking about them.

Therefore we look for familiar elements in photos to aid our recognition of the subject. People familiar to us will often be depicted in domestic settings, whereas and those that social representations would be in settings that place them in the place they are know to us. i.e. parliament. Once an association is made with a familiar face, it can then be used effectively for advertising because the association that you have already made with the face can be projected on to the item to be advertised, or vice versa.

The unfamiliar face is therefore the most difficult for us to recognise, in a studio photo with no background and mood lighting, it would be very difficult for us to ascertain a true reading of the person in the image, other than by what the photographer has included, ie. the five elements above.

NB: this is an interesting point to note for the first assignment! What should I include in an image of 5 strangers?


Bate, David. Photography : The Key Concepts. 2nd ed., London, Uk ; New York, Ny, Usa, Bloomsbury Academic, An Imprint Of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016. ’five elements model’ August Sander. (4: Seeing Portraits)

Duhigg, Charles. Power of Habit : Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.

Project 2 – Typologies


The systematic classification of types or study of types.

The doctrine or study of types or prefigurative symbols, especially
in scriptural literature.

Oxford English Dictionary

Typology is an act of attribution as opposed to classification, which is simply a process of definition.

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Water Towers is an example of the use of typologies in photography. The Becher’s took images of water towers and other architectural buildings across Europe and America and grouped them together according to their function, construction, shape etc. this paragraph from the Tate article, helps explain the concept:

To achieve the ‘perfect chain’ described by the Bechers, each photograph was produced following exactly the same setup, using a large-format camera positioned to capture the form from one of three distinct perspectives (as a detail, in the context of its surroundings, or in its entirety) so as to take up the whole frame of the picture. The flat, neutral quality of the prints was achieved by working in shadowless lighting conditions. Working within these parameters allowed the artists to make consistent groups of ‘types’ irrespective of when the images were taken. An initial classification was made according to the function of the architectural structure being photographed. This was then subdivided according to the materials used in the structure. Finally, the structures were grouped according to shared characteristics. Bernd Becher described in an interview in 1959 how ‘you can lay the photos alongside one another and realise what they have in common, what is specific to the basic form of a blast furnace or a cooling tower and what is individual variation’ (quoted in Lange 2007, p.188).

In modern times, tagging does a similar job. This is something I use when downloading my images to make it easier to search for things later on. I definitely use terms that mean something to me and that I will remember, so I feel that typologies says alot about the photographer that is creating the groupings as well as the photograph.

Historic Portrait

Yousef Karsh, Albert Einstein, 1948

Yousef Karsh said that he had an endless fascination with his subjects’ ‘inward power’. Einstein is not looking directly at the camera, in fact he appears to be staring into space, that kind of stare when you’re thinking and not really looking at anything, perhaps evoking the cerebral power of his mind. He said he found Einstein “Spoke sadly, yet serenely, as one who had looked into the universe, far past mankind’s small affairs”.

There is a sadness to this images but it also feels very intimate. There is a kindliness to his eyes. The image is cropped in close around him, he is wearing a casual jumper, not a suit or formal wear. His hair is unkempt and his hands are clasped as almost in prayer.

His images often include the subject’s hands, but not always so prominently, it feels likely they are given equal importance to his mind.

Karsh has used high contrasts to add depth and mood to the image. He has used a Rembrandt lighting style which is above the subject, pointed down at 45 degrees – thus creating shadows on the sides of the face away from the light, but casting enough light to give a catchlight in the both eyes. This image also has less bright light behind the subject, in order to separate him from the background.

Einstein is quite often pictured sticking his tongue out or pulling silly faces, so this is one of only a few serious images of him. At his funeral in 1955,  J. Robert Oppenheimer summarised his impression of Einstein as a person: “He was almost wholly without sophistication and wholly without worldliness … There was always with him a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn“. Therefore, this is an unusually serious image of Einstein. It is worth noting that in 1948 the year this image was taken, Einstein received surgery to reinforce an abdominal aortic aneurysm, so he may have been feeling unwell at the time this was taken.

Exercise Details and Research

Exercise 1: Historic portrait

Select one portrait to really study in depth. Write a maximum of 500 words about this portrait, but don’t merely ‘describe’ what you see. The idea behind this exercise is to encourage you to be more reflective in your written work (see Introduction), which means trying to elaborate upon the feelings and emotions evoked whilst viewing an image, perhaps developing a more imaginative investment for the image.

The portrait can be any of your choice, but try to choose a historic practitioner of note. This will make your research much easier, as the practitioner’s works will have been collected internationally by galleries and museums and written about extensively. Read what has already been written about your chosen practitioner’s archive, paying particular attention to what historians and other academics have highlighted in their texts.

use this model to write review:

  • The Physical Description: Consider the human subject within the photograph, then start with a forensic description, moving towards taking up the position of the sitter. Visualise yourself as the sitter in order to bring out the feelings associated with the photograph.
  • The Context of Production: Consider the photographs context in terms of when, where, how, by whom and why the photograph was taken.
  • The Context of Convention: Place the photograph into context in terms of the technologies used, aesthetics employed, photographic conventions used.
  • The Currency: Consider the photographs currency within its context of reception, who or what was the photograph made for? Who owns it now and where is it kept? Who saw it then and who sees it now?


Whilst researching for this exercise, I came across the work of Yousef Karsh, and in particular this image of Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein’s birthday was 14th March, which is also my birthday and also that of my husband and Michael Caine (not a lot of people know that!). Therefore, I felt like had a connection with this image, so have chosen to study it.

Reading Yousef Karsh’s biography, I had quite an emotional response to his life story and found him a fascinating person. A few things I noted of interest:

  • Karsh attended art classes to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez. he never learned to paint or draw, but learned about lighting, design, and composition.
  • Karsh said of his mentor Garo: “Understand clearly what you are seeking to achieve,” he would say, “and when it is there, record it. Art is never fortuitous.” When he had made six glass plates of a person, there had been much sharing of truth between the photographer and his subject.
  • Karsh learned ‘to do his homework’
  • The picture of Churchill on the new £5 note was taken by Karsh in 1841 in Canada

Albert Einstein

Karsh’s image was taken on 11th February 1948 at The Institute for Advanced Study:

“At Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, I found Einstein a simple, kindly, almost childlike man, too great for any of the postures of eminence. One did not have to understand his science to feel the power of his mind or the force of his personality. He spoke sadly, yet serenely, as one who had looked into the universe, far past mankind’s small affairs. When I asked him what the world would be like were another atomic bomb to be dropped, he replied wearily, ‘Alas, we will no longer be able to hear the music of Mozart.’”

Canadian photojournalist – Ted Grant – is quoted as saying:

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”

This quote came to my mind when looking at this image. It seems like a lot of Karsh’s images, and you can see the influence of Rembrandt in his lighting of the face

Finding the light and dark in the image

This mark up shows the patches of brightest light and darkest shadows, which indicates that it was lit from above at about 45 degrees angle and slightly behind. there is just enough light peaking around his face to create a catchlight in his eye.

The image is also back lit with a less bright light, to add a bit of separation between the subject and the background.

Karsh said of his subjects:

The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and, too often, to ourselves may lift for only a second—to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.

I also note that the subject’s hand’s play a part in many of his images.


Works Cited

“Famous Patients, Famous Operations, Part 3.” Medscape, Accessed 25 May 2020.

“Margaret Bourke-White.” International Center of Photography, 12 June 2019, viewed whilst researching for a Historic Portrait to review for Exercise 1.  Really like her work but it’s more photojournalistic than portrait.

Mike. “11 Best Portrait Photographers to Inspire You.” FilterGrade, 13 Jan. 2015, looking for renowned portrait photographers –  Yousef Karash and Herb Ritts caught my eye.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Albert Einstein.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Dec. 2018,

“Yousuf Karsh.” Yousuf Karsh, 2019, brilliant biography of Yousef Karsh on this site.

Howell, Elizabeth. “Albert Einstein: Biography, Theories & Quotes.” Space.Com,, 14 Mar. 2017,


Just a note to myself to acknowledge how difficult I’ve found it continuing with this course at the moment. I work for the NHS, but not in a front line role. This has meant that I have been working from home, using remote video conferencing tools to keep in touch with my colleagues.

Covid has become all consuming and doing a portraiture course has been almost impossible. So I kind of just decided it was undoable and haven’t done anything.

However, I joined a Photography Tutor led Zoom session with Andrea Norrington on 13th May, which has given me the impetus to get going again. I haven’t quite got to the first assignment yet, so I’m going to carry on with the exercises and research for the moment and hope to be in a better position to take portraits of strangers when I get there.

Research: Why?

Photography Tutor Led Session with Andrea Norrington

This was the first time I have joined one of these sessions, and overall it was a positive experience. There were students from a variety of courses and from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.

Top take aways:

  • David Bailey quote “when they’re in front of the camera they’re everything to me”
  • Research should grab you. “always follow the rabbit”, Stephen Hawkins
  • Beware of the historiography – “who is telling the story”
  • Annotate your bibliography, even if it’s just to say ‘don’t read this again’!
  • 30 second rule – (see below)

(having written this blog, I’ve moved ‘top take aways’ to the top, so that it is read first)

A copy of the PowerPoint presentation from Andrea’s session can be read here

So why do research?

  • Stimulate ideas

Watched video “Rankin does Bailey” from a series called ‘7 Images that changed fashion photography”

One comment received re research is people saying that they don’t want their work to copy others. AN says it’s actually quite difficult to copy other’s photos and in fact it’s a really good exercise to try as it teaches you about posing, lighting, etc.

The 30 second Rule:

Immediately after every lecture, meeting or significant experience
• Take 30 seconds, no more, no less
• To write down the most important points:

  • 1 it’s not note taking
  • 2 it’s hard work
  • 3 detail is a trap
  • 4 you must act quickly
  • 5 you learn to listen better, and ask better questions
  • 6 you are able to help others more
  • 7 it gets easier and more valuable

Historic Portrait – research

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79)

  • one of the first female portraitists
  • called herself an ‘artistic photographer’
  • saw photography as an artistic pursuit rather than a science in contrast with many of her peers at the time.
  • used themes and soft focus to make ‘arty’ images.
  • posed her sitters, more than just an image of their likeness.
  • wanted to make beautiful images

As a female photographer, I thought I would look at other female portrait photographers. Some of the one mentioned were:

  • Annie Leibovitz (1949 – )*
  • Berenice Abbot (1898 – 1991)
  • Cindy Sherman ((1954 – )*
  • Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971)*
  • Dorethea Lange (1895 – 1965)*
  • Francesca Woodman (1958 – 1981)*
  • Gerd Taro (1910 -1937)
  • Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009)
  • Imogen Cunningham (1883 – 1876)
  • Margaret Bourke-Whitel (1904 – 1971)
  • Mary Ellen Mark (1940 – 2015)
  • Sally Mann (1951 – )*
  • Susan Meiselas (1948 – )
  • Tina Modotti (1896 – 1942)
  • Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009)*
  • = denotes, I have heard of them before

Article by The Vampire’s Wife:

Finding Vivian Maier

A documentary film made by John Maloof who unwittingly bought a box of her negatives at an auction on 2007, whilst trying to find items for a history book he was writing.

Since then he has championed her work and tried to find out about her. The film was fascinating, but what really struck me, there was a lot of conversation about why she didn’t want to share her work whilst she was alive. I’m of the opinion she didn’t want to and what’s more, she probably couldn’t have taken the images she did, had she been known for her work. Being a Nanny probably gave her the best opportunity to acquire the images she did, the lack personal ties and the opportunity to get out with a couple of kids, where no one would look at her twice, gave her the perfect opportunity to continue with what appears to be an obsession to take photos of people and their lives.

The images have a very authentic feel to them and the fact that she was using a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera at waste height, means that many of her portraits give the subject a powerful feel.

Interesting, one of the photographers reviewing Vivian’s work in the film was Mary Ellen Mark.