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
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.