Photographic Portraits 

National Portrait Gallery

 This resource is geared towards students in Years 7 to 10. Through visual analysis, activity and conversation you will evaluate how photographic portraits communicate artistic intentions, see the impact of evolving technologies and be inspired! 

Carte De Visite
In the early 1850s French photographer Louis Dodero invented the carte de visite, a small format photograph (approximately 5.5cm x 9cm) using an albumen print mounted on cardboard. Andre Adolphe-Eugene Disderi, a Parisian photographer, patented the process in 1854 and was credited with popularising the format following the publication of Emperor Napoleon III’s image. The ‘cardomania’ craze was an overnight success in Europe and quickly became popularised in America and throughout the world. Along with its standard international sizing, the more durable albumen surface made it suitable for family and friends to exchange portraits and to send them abroad without the glass protection that the earlier ambrotype and daguerreotypes needed. Considered early examples of photojournalism, many of the carte de visites were produced in a studio setting and depicted individuals, families, performers or groups posing in costumes or finery. 
Portrait of a Performer
Performers’ portraits were published and distributed as early as the 1830s and 1840s via gazettes and theatre pamphlets and were a sought-after collectable item in the carte de viste format from the 1850s. By the late 1860s a separate genre of stage luminaries had developed. 

Early performers' portraits were often alluring for the viewer.

What dramatic elements have the photographers included to entice the viewer?

The portrait of soprano Amy Castles has a dreamy quality, which characterised the photographic effects of this era.

The influence of Modernism in the early to mid 20th century inspired a new look for performers’ portraits, with more dynamism and drama.

How does this portrait of Hélène Kirsova differ from that of the earlier performer’s portraits?

How does Dupain add drama to the portrait?

Peter Brew-Bevan’s portrait of prominent actor of the stage and screen, Barry Otto, is inspired by Otto’s favourite Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.

The subject is covered in Japanese kabuki paint, which is used to produce an approximation of a Botticelli pastel drawing.

The portrait shows Otto’s contrasting sides and the dichotomy between the confident artist and the quizzical, unsure actor.

How do the posture and costuming reflect these two contrasting sides of Otto’s nature?

Photojournalism moves beyond communicating a news story to evoke emotion and action in the viewer. The photojournalism format combines narrative with a sense of pace or urgency. Photojournalism differs from purely documentary, street or celebrity photography by its compelling emotional effect on the viewer. 

Photographer, Mervyn Bishop, captures Vincent Lingiari, Elder of the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory, receiving the soil of his sacred land from then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam.

Whitlam negotiated a historic land claim between the traditional owners and the British pastoral company, Vestey Ltd, resulting in the traditional owners acquiring title to 3,250 square kilometres of land.

Read more about the landmark ruling on the
National Archives of Australia website.

Which parts of the composition clearly communicate the emotion of the landmark ruling?

Photographer, David Moore, captures Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, listening to a speech given by the President of the United States of America, Lyndon B. Johnson, at the RAAF Fairbairn Airport in Canberra.

President Johnson was the first American President to visit Australia on October 20, 1966. President Johnson’s speech was about an American and Australian shared vision for establishing peace and stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Considered great men of change, the two leaders held sincere warmth and high regard for each other. The tone of their friendship is evident in Prime Minister Holt’s remarks on his visit to the White House in Washington in July 1966 where he quipped, “All the way with LBJ.” The slogan was said to have intensified Australia’s opposition to the Vietnam war.

David Moore captures the moment when Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, gazes towards the ground with hands behind his back.

Think about the friendship between the two leaders. How do you think Harold Holt’s posture reflects his feelings for the American President?


Tell a story by photographing an event or important moment.

Your image might connect with a personal story or you might choose to focus on a community event.

Focus on capturing the emotion of your subject.

Will it be it an overt, impassioned response or will your subject display more introspective qualities?

With the popularisation of sports photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sporting activities went from being largely unrecorded to highly visible in newspapers and magazines. The genre would be refined by leading sports photographers at the turn of the 20th century, when they achieved both balanced compositions and exciting, dynamic images. It was the work of Hungarian sports photographer, Martin Munkacsi, in particular his development of a visual vocabulary that focused on speed, blurring action and a sense of stopping time, that inspired the great French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the ‘decisive moment’.  

The decisive moment can capture the emotion or heartache of a victory or loss.

What elements has Ellis captured to reflect the victorious occasion?

Robin Sellick's image of golfer Adam Scott is highly constructed.

Discuss the difference between these two sports portraits - one taken in a studio setting and the other in action.

How does the studio setting influence the way the athlete is viewed?


Capture your friend or subject in motion while taking part in sport.

Consider how your subject is positioned.

Is there an emphasis on the physicality of the body or more so on their attitude?

Australian modernist photographers, Max Dupain and David Moore, were influenced by Surrealism; an art movement originating in France in the early 20th century. Known for their exploration of the unconscious mind, the Surrealists used stylistic elements such as juxtaposition and abstraction to create dreamlike imagery.

How has David Moore achieved a surrealist effect?

Moore utilises a reflective surface to create distortion in this image.

What impact does the use of reflection have on how the portrait is read?

Can you find evidence of juxtaposition in Dupain’s photograph of Hera Roberts?

Dupain uses shadow to direct the viewer’s eye away from the gaze and around the image.

What are some words that we can use to describe the image?

Pioneering Modernist photographer, Olive Cotton, photographs herself alongside her partner and fellow-photographer, Max Dupain.

How is this portrait conventional (realistic) and what makes the image unconventional?

Can the silhouette of a person function as a type of portrait?

Thinking about Cotton’s devotion to her photographic practice and her relationship with her fellow photographer, Max Dupain, how does Cotton's silhouette shadow communicate the complexity of their working relationship?


The Surrealists of the early 20th century didn’t have access to the tools of today’s digital photography.

Inspired by Surrealist Man Ray and Australian Modernist photographers, Max Dupain and David Moore, experiment with different ways to create dream-like effects using different reflective surfaces.

Look for strong angles and ways to crop your subject to further distort your imagery.
If you have access to a darkroom, you could create a photogram to create a photomontage of your subject or print to transparency to create an interesting layered effect.

Glamour photography portrays its subjects as idealised and seductive. Lighting effects, makeup and costume are combined to create a dramatic image for use in magazines and other forms of advertising. Once known as erotic photography, glamour photographs of stars and celebrities reflected the taste and styles of a given period. Popularised through the distribution of French postcards sold on the streets of Paris, these small erotic images of scantily clad women in alluring poses (also known as ‘pin-ups’) were particularly popular with World War II soldiers. In today’s  21st century, manipulative techniques achieved by computer programs such as Photoshop can add to the sensuous appeal of glamour portraits. 

What makes Sylvia Breamer’s portrait alluring to the viewer?

Consider the conventions of portraiture, such as the pose, gaze and setting in the ‘glamour photography’ context.

American photographer George Hurrell greatly contributed to the classic glamour ideal.
Widely known as the photographer who invented the Hollywood Glamour Portrait, Hurrell was credited for launching and immortalising the careers of many famous sirens of screen, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer.
His portraits also included actors such as Errol Flynn. Hurrell used a classic three-point lighting technique, which involved a key light directed at the front of the figure (strongest light), a fill light to fill in the shadows cast from the main light, and a backlight (positioned behind the figure) to create a strong contour and space between the background and subject.
This three-point lighting technique illuminated the subject in a sophisticated way to create an alluring image.

How has Hurrell positioned the three lights in his portrait of Errol Flynn?

Observe the strong contour outlining the back of Flynn's head.

How is the light positioned to achieve this effect?

Describe how Max Dupain uses lighting to achieve an angelic effect in this portrait of Patricia Tuckwell.


Lights, camera, action!

Using studio lights positioned to the front, rear and/or above your subject, explore the three-point Hollywood lighting technique to create a glamorous portrait.

Research different studio lighting techniques such as Paramount, Loop, Rembrandt, Split and Rim lighting – you could also explore different ways to diffuse the lighting source to create softness or strengthen the kicker light (rear light) to create a halo effect around the hair.

Images of crowds can provide the viewer with a vivid account of events. A photograph of a crowd may be captured to record an event associated with a particular person or the image may represent a given group. 

These portraits by David Moore all express the emotion of a decisive moment.

Discuss how David Moore has captured the mood of the crowd.

Is there a focal point within the composition that helps to evoke this feeling?


Observe a crowd or large group of people such as your school assembly.

Explore how to use repetition, harmony and balance effectively in your photography.

Is there a particular element or technique that creates a harmonious whole out of the many different individual elements that make up the image?

Snapshots can capture the subject in their natural state, and may be read as an authentic representation of their identity.

How have the photographers in the following images captured a moment?

What mood is created? How?

What is communicated about the character of each subject?


Time to people watch!

Choose a setting where people are engaging in activity.

You may ask your subject/s for approval before taking their photos or choose to remain inconspicuous.

While being aware of the importance of not discomforting your subject, observe closely their mannerisms; note their hand gestures, their habitual movements and the way they laugh.

Try to capture your subject in an honest moment that conveys their true personality.

Background and Foreground
The background and foreground are essential elements when composing a portrait and can reveal much about the identity of a subject. Whether the photographer chooses a simple or scenic setting, either can assist in conveying the relationship between a subject’s identity and the surrounding scene or objects. 

Performance artist and costume designer Leigh Bowery used his body as his medium when creating his visionary and at times unsettling performances.

How does David Gwinnut communicate this unsettling side of Bowery's character?

What does the foreground or background information reveal about each subject in the following photographs?


Tell a story about your subject using depth of field as an explicit reference to the person’s identity.

Does the focus on a particular object in the distance or the sharpness of a particular facial feature communicate an aspect of the identity’s character or life story?

People and Place
Portraiture that includes a view of the environment can help to shift the viewer’s attention up, down, inside, outside, near or far from the subject. The angle at which the photographer chooses to position the lens in a series of images can also draw attention to a shifting point of view. 

What does the setting in each of the following portraits communicate about the subjects?

What stories do the settings create?

Share some ideas with your peers.


Photograph your chosen subject in their familiar surroundings.

You may wish to focus on the subject’s career, a particular hobby or skill or their home environment.

Photographers may combine or arrange the seven Elements of Art: Line, Shape, Form, Colour, Tone, Texture and Space to communicate aspects of a person’s character. The photographer may also observe the Principles of Design: Emphasis, Balance, Unity, Contrast, Movement, Rhythm or Pattern and Repetition when creating a composition. 

Examine the following portraits.

How have the photographers utilised the Elements of Art and Principles of Design to add interest?


Search for the Elements of Photography: Composition, Light, Depth, Line, Texture, Pattern, Shape and vantage point in both the built and natural environment around you.

How can you position your subject in relation to your chosen element/s to create a narrative?

Perhaps you could focus on the contrasting textures of the subject’s skin with interesting shadows cast across an accompanying object or facade.

Interdisciplinary contemporary artist, Brook Andrew, has worked with master printer, Trent Walter, to create a collaged print of Professor Marcia Langton, anthropologist, geographer and Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Langton’s pose refers to the interest in Buddhism that she developed while living in Asia in the early 1970s.

Brook Andrew says that the black and white skulls signal the politics of humankind.

And the radiant diamond-sun alludes to the sitter’s work with Aboriginal communities and mining companies.

Are there any other elements within the portrait that might reference the subject’s life journey?

A photographer may choose to portray aspects of a subject’s character by using the intensity or subtlety of colour. They may refer to the subject’s field of endeavour or tell something about the subject’s cultural heritage or life journey. 

David Moore’s portrait of experiential painter, Michael Johnson, captures the artist in his working state. Johnson has said,

‘...You start with the experience of the bare gesso, the primed canvas, and that is sublime. That is meditation itself... If you're playing a musical instrument, because it's so close to the body, it's not like painting, where you've got to go to the box to pick up some paint. In a way I try to reduce all that by mixing colour on the surface... I don't see any difference between the spirit of music and the spirit of painting. Not so much painting, but colours... I'm interested in colour divorced of its physical body.’

Discuss how the experience of colour itself has embodied the artist

Robin Sellick’s portrait of Shane Warne depicts him as an illuminated figure emerging from a background of turf.

Discuss how this reflects Warne’s sporting achievements.

What part of Warne’s character might the red light be alluding to?

The hand-colouring of photographs was popularised in the mid to late 19th century before the widespread introduction of colour photography in the mid 20th Century. Hand-colourists would heighten the realism of an image by overpainting a monochrome photograph with paints or dyes using cotton swabs or fine brushes.

Early daguerreotypes were coloured using a process invented by Swiss painter and print maker Johann Baptist Isenring, who mixed gum Arabic with pigment then applied heat to the surface to fix the colouring.

Advanced methods were introduced through the latter part of the 19th century before Kodak introduced Kodachrome colour film to the world in 1935.

Look at the hand-coloured daguerreotype of Margaret Robertson, c.1855. Do you think the colouring helps the image to appear more realistic?

Contemporary photographer Heidi Smith has used hand-colouring in her portrait of Queensland Rugby League footballing legend, Mal Meninga.

In 1991, the year the portrait was created, Meninga captained Australia to a 2-1 series win over New Zealand and a 2-0 win over Papua New Guinea.

Meninga also broke a long-held point scoring record in the same year and took a pay cut to keep his team together.

How does the yellow-gold colouring reflect Meninga’s choices and achievements?


Create a portrait with emphasis on bold, saturated colours.

The fewer colours used, the more impact your portrait will have.

Allowing one colour to dominate could, for instance, evoke a particular mood in the portrait or choosing a hue for the figure set against a neutral background could draw more attention to different textures in the portrait.

Silver Gelatin
Until the 1960s, the gelatin silver print (black and white print) dominated photographic processes. Today, in the 21st century digital world, the gelatin silver process continues to be an alternative process for artistic photographers. It involves suspending light-sensitive silver in gelatin and applying it onto a paper ground. Early papers didn’t include a baryta layer (a coating to help increase the evenness of the emulsion layer and the reflective quality of an image) and thus images were of poorer quality in comparison with those post 1890s and into the 19th century. The high gloss gelatin papers, which included the baryta layer, were particularly popular with the Modernist photographers. 

Compare and contrast the following silver gelatin photographs produced at different times.

Reflecting on the composition of each portrait, how do these contribute to the viewer’s understanding of the subject?

Are there particular elements, for example, light and shade or angular lines that contribute to the feeling of each portrait?

Where is the subject’s gaze cast and why?

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by Aimee Board, Learning Facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator at the National Portrait Gallery.

Thank you to all artists and organisations for being so generous in allowing us to include these works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.