Photography and celebrity have become so intertwined that our understanding of famous figures is largely filtered through photographs. Before the invention of photography, illustrious figures were depicted on coins, in paintings, and as statues. The advent of film negatives in the 1840s meant that photographic portraits could be reproduced and widely disseminated. The adoption of digital cameras beginning in the 1990s has made it easier than ever to circulate, and even manipulate, a person’s likeness.
Early photography studios posed their famous subjects in a formal manner, but as shutter speeds got faster and technology advanced, photographers began to experiment with new ways of visualizing and constructing our perception of public figures. While some photographers reinforce celebrities’ public personas through portraits, others have used the portrait to deconstruct a notable figure’s public image and uncover a sense of the “private” self underneath.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A mechanical device for controlling the aperture, or opening, in a camera through which light passes to the film or plate. By opening and closing for different amounts of time, the shutter determines the length of the photographic exposure.
The way a figure is positioned.
A representation of a particular individual.
A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.
Questions & Activities
Explore. Find three to five photographic portraits of your favorite actor, musician, athlete, or other celebrity online.
Reflect. Compare these images and take notes on the following: How does your celebrity’s appearance change in these photographs? Why do you think that is? Where do the photographs appear and why were they taken? What do the images reveal or hide about the persona of this person?
Shaping an Image
Pick out a recent newspaper or a magazine photograph of a politician (online or printed).
Reflect and Write. Write a response to the following questions: What kinds of choices did the photographer make? How is the image cropped or framed? What about the focus? From what point of view was the photograph taken? Is the caption important? Is the politician portrayed in a particularly positive or negative way?
Before and After: Two Portraits of a President
Look. Go to The Library of Congress website to see a famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which was made by the Matthew Brady Studio before the politician’s historic Cooper Union Speech. Compare it with the portrait shown above, which was made after President Abraham Lincoln had been in office for two years.
Reflect. The first image was taken before Lincoln was elected and the other was taken afterward. How do you think that timeline affected these two portraits? Write a comparison of this image to the later one shown here.