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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)