Portrait photography has come a long way since its earliest days, when people sat solemn-faced for the camera mainly to preserve their objective likenesses for posterity. Portraits today still serve the same pragmatic and sentimental purposes, but fine art portrait photography has developed into a far more complex and multi-faceted genre. For example: candid portraits add contextual interest; conceptual portraits carry an abstract idea and/or message; and self portrait photography allows a unique external and internal glimpse at the photographers themselves. Of course, fine art photographic portraits can be appreciated for their outward beauty alone, and their enigmatic qualities make them fascinating conversation pieces when displayed in living or work spaces. If you’re a collector or simply an admirer of portraiture, we encourage you to explore our impressive international selection of both color and black and white portrait photography for sale.
Portrait photography history goes as far back as the invention of the daguerreotype in the early 1800s. When this medium was introduced to the public, people were able to commission cheap and relatively fast portraits as alternatives to the expensive tradition of painted portraits. Photographers usually seated subjects against plain or decorated backgrounds in their studios, though some experimented with self-portrait photography. With the advent of new photographic technology and more portable analog, and eventually digital, cameras, portraiture was no longer confined to the studio. Photographers could now experiment with different lighting and scenery, gaining a more creative hold on the timeless subject of portraiture.
Studio portrait photographers have control over lighting and other factors that affect the composition, meaning they have more creative freedom. Many portraitists use different lighting techniques, including window lighting, three point lighting, and butterfly lighting, to highlight specific areas of the subject’s face or control contrast. The four major approaches to portraiture are constructionist, environmental, candid, and creative. The photographer usually aims to channel a certain type of portrait, such as a happy family, in constructionist compositions, while environmental ones focus on the subject in their own environments, be it home or work. Candid portraits capture unplanned moments, while the creative approach calls for digital editing to create more expressive portraits. Many who experiment with portrait photography stray from traditional set-ups, instead opting to shoot self-portraits or focus on other body parts, such as hands or eyes.
Early portraitists include Felix Nadar, known for playing with lighting to make his subjects appear almost sculptural, and Robert Cornelius, who took the first self-portrait in 1839. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (1936), Walker Evans’ “Alabama Tenant Farmer” (1936), and Paul Strand’s “Blind” (1916) are a few famous documentary portraits. Studio photographer Seydou Keita was known for playing with props and patterns in his backdrops in his black and white portrait photography. Artist Cindy Sherman is famed for her “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980) series in which she took self-portraits dressed up as different types of people, ranging from actresses to librarians. Steve McCurry’s portrait “Afghan Girl” (1984) became iconic after gracing the cover of an issue of National Geographic. Artists known for their fine art portrait photography include Robert Mapplethorpe, Herb Ritts, Alfred Stieglitz, Annie Leibovitz, Yousuf Karsh, Phillipe Halsman, Edouard Boubat, Cecil Beaton, Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, George Hurrell, Irving Penn, and Diane Arbus.