Exploring the Art of Portrait Photography and the Role of the Portrait Today

Capturing our likeness has been a pursuit of the human race for thousands of years. From paintings of gods in Egypt and Greece, to portrait paintings of royalty, to the unabashedly narcissistic selfie of today.

In this week’s episode of PBS Arts’ webseries Off Book the topic of the day is portraiture, a subject each of the four interviewees takes on from their own unique angle.

The episode begins with celebrity photographer Matt Hoyle exploring the history of portraiture and how it has come full circle. It then goes on to explore the storytelling, language and relational aspects of portraiture as photographers Bex Finch, Jamie Diamond and Ethan Levitas each weigh in, respectively.

We won’t go into much detail here — after all, that’s what to video is for — but the episode raises some interesting questions about the art of portrait photography, its role in the past, and how that role has changed in today’s day and age.


Hoyle examines how we once only painted portraits of the gods, and now tend to idealize the celebrities he photographs in the same way. Finch then explains how she takes advantage of the storytelling aspect of portraiture in her Sleepwalker series about her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father.

She’s followed by Diamond, who explains how she challenges the language of the portrait in her Constructed Family Portraits series. And, last but not least, Levitas weighs in on the relationship between the portrait photographer and his or her subject, and how important a role spontaneity plays.

Check out the video at the top to hear each of the portraitists’ thoughts on the subject, and then feel free to share yours in the comments down below. How do you feel the art of portrait photography has changed? And in what ways have you (if you’re a portraitist) begun to “elevate [your] work from mere photo to art?”

(via PBS Arts)

  • jkantor267

    Who needs portrait photographers when you can snap a selfie with your phone?

  • Alan Klughammer

    I agree that the roll of portrait photographer is much diminished, however, a selfie with your phone won’t become a keepsake or family heirloom. I wonder what future historians will think of our times…

  • D. Wright

    I’d argue that a selfie with a phone can certainly become a keepsake. Particularly if the person in the image or who has taken the image has passed away. The quality of the portrait by a professional may not be there but at the same time it may be a more memorable photo because of the certain notion of intimacy that shooting with a phone produces/

  • Alan Klughammer

    OK, I will give you that a selfie can be valuable, but a more formal image (if it is done well) still has more potential to become an heirloom…

  • rahul

    It’s like saying who needs a restaurant when you could microwave a TV dinner and eat it too.

  • JustSayin

    I have boxes of “heirloom” family photos, none were done professionally.

  • Alan Klughammer

    Exactly, they are all in boxes. They are not on display, hanging on the wall.
    I have a couple of photographs taken of my mother and her brother when they were young children. These photos are hand signed by Yousef Karsh. These are an extreme example of what I am talking about. I also have a few photos taken about the same time (my grandfather was an amateur photographer), but I while I enjoy the albums they are preserved in, I value the professional photos hanging on my wall…

  • wayne.carroll

    Its nice to hear people talk about their craft in such a clear & concise way. Refreshing actually, considering the moronic nature of the comments . . .