The photographic self-portrait evolved dramatically throughout the 20th century as new advances in technology and process were introduced. Often a photographer would experiment with lighting, focus or chemical processes in the darkroom. Self-portraits of photographers have often carried on a literal tradition of including a camera as a way of portraying the photographer’s identity, as seen in this group of photographs.
Self portrait (1937) by Harold CazneauxNational Portrait Gallery
Harold Cazneaux was known for his masterful use of the bromoil printing process in the early 20th century.
The bromoil process was the chosen process for pictorialists and salon exhibition photographers of the day.
This process creates soft, diffused imagery reminiscent of pastels or a painting but with a distinct indexical appearance of a photograph.
The process was a variation on the earlier oil printing process which allowed for an enlarging of a negative.
Self portrait (1999/ 2005) by Tracey MoffattNational Portrait Gallery
Tracey Moffatt’s self-portrait goes a step beyond the literal to include a more intricate narrative.
The black and white photograph in this diptych was shot in the USA in 1999.
It features Moffatt’s instructions for the colour retouching, which was hand-painted at a studio in New York in 2005.
Discuss how Moffatt’s self-portrait differs from the other self-portraits.
How has the digital revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century affected self-portraiture?
Consider the sharing capacity of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
The medium of photography is a powerful tool used to communicate stories and important events. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers documented and archived all types of subjects from people and places to animals and nature as a means for understanding society’s historical context and cultural issues.
Aborigines at Oyster Cove, Tasmania (1858 (printed 1890s)) by Francis NixonNational Portrait Gallery
This image of Aborigines at Oyster Cove, Tasmania, communicates important information about the social history of the period and how aboriginal people were treated and perceived from a cultural perspective.
Discuss the similarities and differences between these two images.
Research Tasmanian (Palawa) aboriginal culture and pre-invasion and invasion history. How does this affect your response?
The Movie Star (David Gulpilil) (1985) by Tracey MoffattNational Portrait Gallery
Portraiture can move beyond exploring identity
to examine larger, more complex issues and ideas in wider society.
Photographers may focus on modes of contemporary lifestyle and being when
depicting their subject/s and explore new ways to reframe culture, gender or
sexuality through a contemporary lens.
How does Tracey Moffat reflect contemporary culture in her portrait of famous Australian ‘Movie Star’ David Gulpilil?
What evidence of local influences can you see?
Jack Charles (2011) by Rod McNicolNational Portrait Gallery
Photographer Rod McNicol is interested in the sentient condition of his subjects: the active experience of sensations, thoughts and feelings.
Influenced by early mug shots from the 19th century, McNicol photographs his subjects as quite lifeless, a mandatory record of identity, however a certain presence remains.
How does McNicol achieve this sentience in his image of Australian aboriginal actor, elder and artist, Jack Charles?
Consider how the fixed space, the texture of the hair and the framing of the face work to make the subject’s gaze compelling.
Listen to Rod McNicol speak about his photographic practice.
Angus Young, AC/DC, LA (1978) by Rennie EllisNational Portrait Gallery
Photographer Rennie Ellis captures guitarist, Angus Young from AC/DC, rocking out at a concert.
Ellis’ interest is not only in the performer but also the energy of the crowd.
In this way the portrait is as much about the audience as it is about the subject.
How does this shift our common idea of what a portrait is?
What elements within the image demonstrate a connection between the audience and performer?
Thinking through a wider lens, how is this image a portrait of contemporary society?
Photographs that are highly constructed often tell a story or provide the viewer with a narrative for interpretation. A photographic narrative can also be understood as a series of connected events or ideas that may be contested, challenged and/or debated.
What stories are the following portraits conveying?
Do we all see the same narratives in an artwork?
Why might we interpret an artwork differently from others?
Murray Fredericks and Lisa Giles’ portrait of Matt Moran presents a historical narrative.
Research the image ‘Boy with a Basket of Fruit’, c. 1593, by Italian Baroque master, Caravaggio.
What similarities can you see?
Why might the photographers have referenced Caravaggio’s painting?
Robert Dessaix (2004) by Julian KingmaNational Portrait Gallery
may choose to position a subject in a simplified setting to communicate aspects
of the sitter’s identity.
Julian Kingma has positioned writer and literary critic, Robert Dessaix and contemporary fashion designer, Martin Grant surrounded by trees.
Dan Sultan (2011) by Martin PhilbeyNational Portrait Gallery
Martin Philbey’s photograph of singer/songwriter, Dan Sultan, depicts the musician emerging from a black, minimalist background and foreground.
How does this communicate aspects of Dan Sultan’s identity?
What other Principles of Design can you find?
To create a close-focus portrait, the photographer moves closer or zooms their lens in achieve a tighter image. This emphasises the subject’s facial features rather than the clothing, hair style, pose or background. A close-focus portrait photographer must compose and capture a compelling image, portraying with intimacy and directness the unique qualities of this particular subject.
Cathy Freeman (1994) by Montalbetti+CampbellNational Portrait Gallery
Montalbetti + Campbell’s portrait of Cathy Freeman is tightly framed.
Why has the photographer cropped the image?
What effect does it have on you?
What is revealed about the following two subjects through these close up photos?
What are some similarities or differences in approach?
Early portraits that captured significant moments, i.e., a baby, graduation or wedding portraits, were expensive, usually costing the equivalent of three months’ wages. They were also impractical, requiring the subject to sit for a long time while the plate was exposed. By the mid 1850s, the exposure time had been reduced from about fifteen minutes to one minute or less, which enabled the studio portrait photography industry to flourish. In the 21st century digital technology and social media have enabled anyone to do portrait photography easily and quickly, but it should be remembered that this has been made possible by the previous 170 years of scientific and technological advancement.
Emily Spencer Wills (c.1859) by an unknown artistNational Portrait Gallery
daguerreotype was the first practical photographic process introduced to the
world in 1839 by French artist and ‘father’ of photography, Louis Daguerre. The
daguerreotype involved exposing a thin silver-plated copper sheet to the vapour
of iodine crystals, producing a coating of light-sensitive silver iodine on the
surface. The plate was then exposed in the camera, creating a latent image that
was then chemically developed into a visible image.
This daguerreotype of Emily Spencer Wills was made on ‘1/6th plate daguerreotype with applied colour in a brass matt’ and framed in a leather case.
How has the photographer chosen to position the subject and what might this tell us about her?
Album of portraits of family of William Taylor Macpherson (c.1880) by George S Bryant & Co, BostonNational Portrait Gallery
throughout the 1860-1870s, the tintype (or ferrotype) was made by creating a
direct positive on a thin sheet of iron plate coated with lacquer or enamel and
used as a support for the photographic emulsion. First described by
Adolphe-Alexandre Martin in 1853, then patented by Hamilton Smith in 1856, the
tintype process was simple and economical for studios to produce and for
families to purchase. This caused the portrait industry to boom. Studios could
mount several cameras with numerous lenses, enabling them to produce up to a
dozen exposures on a single plate. The invention and widespread use of
silver gelatin paper in 1871 superseded the tintype process.
Research how the tintype influenced the production of family albums such as this one.
J.H. Roy Rousel (1915) by AppleStudioNational Portrait Gallery
The most common
of 20th century photographic processes, the silver gelatin print,
rose to popularity in the 1890’s with the widespread use of silver gelatin
paper. Introduced in 1871 by Richard Leach Maddox, the silver gelatin process
involved coating a solution of silver salts in gelatin onto a ground such as
glass, film or resin-coated paper. Before 1890, early gelatin papers did not
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 after 1890s and into the 20th century.
The high gloss gelatin papers, which included the baryta layer, were
particularly popular with modernist photographers who came after the turn-of-the-century
pictorialists and their romanticised imagery.
Researching pictorialist and modernist photographic portraiture, how would you describe the image of J.H. Roy Rousel produced by Appleby Studio in 1915?
Is the photograph pictorialist in style or does it reflect a more modernist approach?
Research the impact of technological innovations on the silver gelatin process from 1920 to 1970.
Mary Windeyer on the verandah at Tomago, NSW (1880) by unknown artistNational Portrait Gallery
Glass Plate Negative
photography, photographs were made on a glass surface and were known as glass
plate negatives. There were two types of glass plate negatives: the collodion
wet plate, invented by Frederick Scoff Archer, in use from the 1850s, and the
silver gelatin dry plate, created by Dr Richard L. Maddox, in use from the
The laborious process involved spreading a liquid called collodion onto a glass plate before placing it in a bath of silver nitrate, turning the collodion into a photosensitive silver iodide.
The process created detailed images with a wide tonal range and commonly were used for documentary and news photography.
Ethno-photography is a term used to describe images produced of people and places in the world.
Looking at Mary Windeyer standing on the verandah at Tomago, NSW, how could this image be described as enthnographic?
Trukanini (dry plate negative (1890s) copy of original wet plate negative (1866)) by Charles WoolleyNational Portrait Gallery
Family photography and formal studio portraiture can also be ethnographic.
In what ways are the studio portraits of brave warrior, Trukanini, and father of Federation, Sir Henry Parkes ethnographic?
The Dance - David McAllister (2016) by Peter Brew-BevanNational Portrait Gallery
photographers from the 19th century made multiple exposures a
speciality service, superimposing one subject beside another or the same
subject from different viewpoints to add interest and create mystery.
Geneticist, Francis Galton, used the multiple exposure process to overlay
facial features, such as an eyebrow or an ear, to prove that criminals shared
distinctive features, similar to the 19th century theory of
phrenology. The visual trickery created through the process of multiple
exposures excited the surrealists of the early 20th century.
American artist Man Ray, a leading proponent of the surrealist movement,
exploited the peculiarities and bizarre effects that multiple exposures could
Peter Brew-Bevan’s portrait of Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, depicts him with within a whirl of dynamic movement.
Discuss how the principles of movement and repetition convey aspects of McAllister’s career.
Hear David McAllister describe the making of this photograph and learn about the trajectory of his relationship with dance.
Christos Tsiolkas (1998 (printed 2009)) by John TsiavisNational Portrait Gallery
John Tsiavis’ portrait of author, Christos Tsiolkas, is created by blending conventional portraiture with artistic elements.
How does the photographer convey Tsolkias’ interest in sexuality, identity and politics?
Jørn Utzon (1965 (printed 2006)) by Jozef VisselNational Portrait Gallery
Jozef Vissel’s portrait of architect Jorn Utzon also blends conventional portraiture with artistic elements.
Utson designed the Sydney Opera House.
How does Vissel’s use of multiple exposure reveal aspects of the subject’s identity?
Portrait of Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke (Sass & Bide) (2008)National Portrait Gallery
Deborah Paauwe’s commissioned portrait of edgy Brisbane designers Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke (Sass & Bide) also stops motion.
Paauwe is well known for her unsettling depictions of girls in frothy pastel coloured clothes.
Why do you think Paauwe was chosen to depict the two designers?
Discuss how this double-framed portrait reflects the personality of the designers.
Simone Young Simone Young (2002)National Portrait Gallery
physiologist and scientist Etienne-Jules Marey invented a process for capturing
images in motion. His pioneering work led directly to the development of
cinematography. In 1882, Marey invented an instrument called the
chronophotographic gun, which was capable of taking twelve consecutive frames
per second. He used the ‘gun’ to capture animals such as horses, birds, dogs
and sheep to assist scientific inquiry.
Photographer Bill Henson is known for his romanticised portraits and exploration of twilight zones and shadowy borderlands.
He decided to depict conductor, Simone Young, across a triptych.
When Simone Young saw the triptych, she said it was like three acts of an opera.
How does this triptych capture sound in motion?
David Moore’s silhouette portrait of the innovative and flamboyant dancer, actor and choreographer, Sir Robert Helpmann, depicts the subject in multiple frames.
Why has Moore portrayed Helpmann in this way?
Matthew Reilly (2006 (printed 2009)) by Montalbetti+CampbellNational Portrait Gallery
portrait is created by using post-production techniques in programs such as
Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom to combine a variety of photographs. In
portraiture, composite techniques are applied more commonly to group portraits when
all subjects may not be present. Juxtaposing subjects against a startling
background is another common technique.
Considered masters of the studio and of post-production, photographers Montalbetti+Campbell often use composite techniques to heighten their image making.
'It is always a privilege to honour someone’s presence on the other side of the lens, whether they have achieved a level of public account in their lives or not. It’s never about their fame, it’s about the person.'
Montalbetti + Campbell’s portrait of writer, Matthew Reilly, reflects the author’s interest in suspenseful narratives and futuristic scenarios.
Discuss how this sense of suspense and futurism is conveyed in his portrait.
Andy Thomas (2002) by Montalbetti+CampbellNational Portrait Gallery
Astronaut and aerospace engineer Andy Thomas patented a number of inventions before joining NASA in 1992 and leading four missions into space.
He is currently working on a means to lead astronauts into deep space.
Andy Thomas (2002) by Montalbetti+CampbellNational Portrait Gallery
How does Thomas’ gaze reflect his aspirations?
Discuss how Montalbetti + Campbell have included symbolic elements to communicate aspects of Thomas’ identity.
Dr John Yu (2014) by Gary GrealyNational Portrait Gallery
Gary Grealy’s portrait of influential paediatrician Dr John Yu holds a mirror into his interior world.
Discuss why the inclusion of a mirror might be utilised for this particular portrait.
How does the mirror reflect Dr Yu’s passions in life?
This exhibit was written by Aimee Board, Learning Facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery.
It was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator at the National Portrait Gallery.
Thank you to all artists and organisations for permission to include these works.