Identity and Sexuality In Portraiture: Essay Research

“Discuss the ways in which the genres of portraiture and self-portraiture can be used to explore issues around creativity, identity and sexuality. Examine the role of the changing nature of photography on these genres by comparing and contrasting historical and contemporary approaches.”

This was an essay that I completed during my second year of university and I’ve decided to showcase my most important research. The essay was 5000 words and accompanied by a series of portraits which I presented in a Zine format.


Key Text Summary 1

‘Pleasures Of Looking at Photographs: The Gaze’

Mulvey’s essay ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’ is seen to be one of the most widely read, quoted and challenged texts written about portraiture and gaze, in this section Bull refers to it in order to ”build upon and question“ the ideas and themes of the essay that he considers ”vital”. Bull writes about her theories on scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) and narcissistic identification (opposing pleasure, still based on looking), in order to compare and contrast her theories with those of Jacques Lacan.

I found this text useful to my research because Bull brings several theorists forward to compare their works and evaluate how they have informed one another. It has allowed me to get multiple different ideas and sources for my essay and so is a very good starting point for my research.

The gaze being ”split into active/male and passive/female“ is the phrase that I take away as being the most relevant from this text.

  • Bull, Stephen, 2010, ’Photography’, Routledge, Oxon, ‘Pleasures Of Looking At Photographs: The Gaze’, 50-53.

Key Text Summary 2:

‘The Heroism of Vision’

In this extract Sontag writes about the awkwardness people feel when they are put in front of a camera, because they feel all eyes are on them and that moment will be captured forever they see the worst version of themselves. In a way this could be linked to Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage in which a child first recognises their reflection but they see themselves as less perfect. It then goes on to reference the disappointment people feel when the camera does not present a better version of them, however some people are lucky to be considered photogenic. It also touches on the ”candor“ of photography and questions whether photographs actually can be candid. This text will not directly influence my essay however it does link slightly with Rheims’ photography - the people she photographs are not celebrities unlike Ritts and so the models do not necessarily know how to pose or act, their shyness is more visible in the series Gender Studies.

“People want the idealized image: a photograph of themselves looking their best. They feel rebuked when the camera doesn’t return an image of themselves as more attractive than they really are.”

  • Sontag, Susan. 1973. ’On Photography’. Rosetta Books. P74-96

Key Text Summary 3:

The Pose

In this text Barthes analyses the pose subjects hold throughout photography in comparison to moving image. He writes that for a photograph the subject posed in front of the lens and it will last forever, whereas in terms of moving image the subject passes the lens and so the pose is only seen for a small fraction of time; ”denied by continuous series of images.” Barthes moves on to references the photograph taken of William Casby by Avedon entitled ‘Born a Slave’, he states that the ”noeme“ is intense in that as it being back the reality that slavery existed and more recently than it feels. Although this does not link directly with portraiture and pose as he previously mentioned, it is relevant for the content of the photograph and relation to Avedon’s photography.

What founds the nature of photography is the pose… looking at a photograph, I inevitably include in my scrutiny the thought of that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye.”

  • Barthes, Roland. 1993. ’Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’. Vintage. P78-80

Key Text Summary 4:

The Nude Photograph: Some Female Perspectives

This text states that homosexual photographers have influenced further sexual awareness and are partially why gender fluidity has begun to be more understood and accepted, in a way I write about this in my essay as I talk about how artistic portraiture and fashion photographers, including Herb Ritts who was openly gay, have influenced advertisements and other commercial platforms. Of course this text was written in the 1980s and society has changed drastically since then, but it is still important to look at both historical and contemporary context and approaches to further my understanding of all areas of gender fluidity in photography.

Femininity and femaleness and masculinity and maleness are receiving new connotations which break down old conventions.”

  • Bonney, Claire. 1985. ’The Nude Photograph: Some Female Perspectives’. Woman’s Art Journal, Vol 6, No 2. Woman’s Art Inc. P9-14. Accessed on: 08.03.2017

Gertrude Käsebier - 1852 - 1934

When Käsebier first took an interest in photography her sole aim was to photograph her children, this changed when she met a priest in a photography store in the late 1880s and he explained the technology rather than just the conceptual side of photography. She then began photographing everything and went on to win many competitions including a prize given by ‘The Quarterly Illustrator Magazine’ for two portrait shots. Through portraiture she wanted to show ”the essential personality that is variously called temperament, soul, humanity”. She was photographic assistants for both Samuel Lifshey and Alfred Stieglitz. Although Käsebier claimed she would never edit or retouch her photographs, this photograph of Stieglitz was manipulated in order to create ”painterly effects reminiscent of brushstrokes“ (Friedewald, B. 2014).

Stieglitz named her as ”beyond dispute the leading portrait photographer in the country”. 

Although I find Käsebier’s photography interesting, I mainly chose to research her because she was going to be the historical photographer featured in my essay, however I have changed my idea from exploring gender throughout photography as to how males and females are photographed differently and how they act differently as photographers, to exploring gender fluidity, sexuality and society’s reaction to these. I do not think her work is relevant any more as gender fluidity was not really known and definitely not accepted in her time and so her work does not question or challenge gender constructs.

  • Quotes from Friedewald, Boris. 2014. ’Women Photographers’. Prestel. London. P102-107

Herb Ritts - 1952 - 2002

Ritts began photographing in the 1970s, he grew up in open-minded California and so his intentions to portray all genders as equal and strong were perhaps impacted by this, ”his work often challenged conventional notions of gender or race”. Ritts photographed in a fine art style and was ”drawn to clean lines and strong forms”, his portraits could be considered sculptural and it is a possibility that being gay allowed him to view the human body more objectively.

The photograph of Julia Roberts is quite different from his usual work as it is more of a candid snapshot than artistic portrait, throughout his photography he made it clear that personality is so important and the image needs to reflect upon their characteristics; ”for me, a portrait is something from which you feel the person, their inner quality, what it is that makes them who they are.”

Ritts almost always photographs on location which is another reason I was drawn to his work, the use of natural lighting is always really effective and it is one of the things I want to form my work with. ”Coming from California and growing up where I did, I’ve always had a fondness for an innate sensitivity to light, texture, and warmth.” (Ritts, Herb. 1999)

“For me, a portrait is something from which you feel the person, their inner quality, what it is that makes them who they are“ (Ritts. 1999).

Ritts was very committed to AIDS and HIV related charities and contributed to many causes, the screenshot below is from the front of his website. This is important as it emphasises how accepting he is to gender fluidity and sexuality which is supported further in his work. He challenges the boundaries as to how men and women should pose and creates photographs that question gender all together. Ritts is a Disruptive Creative.

  • Quotes are taken from

Bettina Rheims - 1952

Rheims is a French photographer, her work will act as the contemporary photography in my essay as her latest project I am choosing to focus on was created in 2011, although technically since I am also reviewing an older body of work from 1989 it is also slightly historical because social attitudes and photograph have changed since then and so I want to compare the two projects. I will only be researching into two of her projects in which she photographs transgender and androgynous people, as these are the most relevant to my body of work and will feature in my essay.

Rheims first discovered her love for the darkroom through an internship in the photographic laboratory of the magazine Paris Match, but she had always had a fascination of the female body which led her to seek out ”women who were happy to pose for her camera without clothes: amateur striptease artists” (Friedewald, 2014). She began photography in her teens but drifted into modelling and acting, perhaps it was because she had previously worked as a model that she understands how important it is to approach her subjects with sensitivity and present them honestly. Rheims has an incredibly wide range of projects in which she photographs different people in different styles or even stuffed animals. In 1981 Rheims held her first solo exhibition in the Centre Pompidou in which she photographed fairground artists and acrobats, in 1992 she created a series in which she photographed the blind to raise awareness and she later produced a series where she photographed women from a male perspective - this was deemed ‘erotic’ and ‘pornography’. Rheims has even received death threats for her work.

I take sexual photos… I’m a woman, and I’m also a feminist. I take photos of women for women.” (Rheims. N.D)

- Modern Lovers

Modern Lovers is a project in which Rheims photographed agendered people; those who did not feel assigned to either male or female and those who did not want to chose.This body of work was ”created when AIDS was at its peak“ ( It first began when a ”young woman appeared in Rheims’ studio with the face of a boy“ (Acca exhibition information sheet. 1999), this encouraged her to continue on to spend the next couple of years looking for suitable models to create a body of work surrounding androgyny - Rheims was ”fascinated by the sense of sexual ambiguity in your people” (Acca exhibition information sheet. 1999) and so she approached her subjects ”on the street, in bars, everywhere” (Rheims, B. 1898). Of the project Rheims said, ”my desire was to photograph angels“ but she also pushes the portrait ”way beyond the image they had of themselves“ (N.D), it could be said that by wanting to portray them as angles Rheims is chasing how to present them in order to challenge the viewer’s preconceived ideas.

“Rheims subverts fashionable ideals of beauty by portraying the androgyny of young men and women.” (ArtGallery) - This is a link to a piece Rheims wrote for the guardian in which she talks about her experiences in creating the two projects and the moment she first met a transgender person, I found this extremely useful as it was something she had written as an article rather than being laid out in interview style questions. It gave me further ideas on her motivations for the project and an insight into what it is like to be transgender / androgynous.

- Gender Studies

Gender Studies is a body of work created in 2011 that revisits the previous project Modern Lovers in order to see how society’s views on gender fluidity have changed; ”I wanted to see what is happening now… do people have the same concerns? Do they get the same reactions from their families and people on the street?“ (Rheims. N.D). Using the two bodies of work Rheims wanted to encourage a positive outlook on gender fluidity and ”subvert fashionable ideals of beauty“ (, she also wanted to give gender fluid people a voice and  acknowledge them. In amongst the constant controversial debates surrounding gender fluidity and sexuality, these models are brave by ”questioning, modifying and celebrating their identities.” (Bettina Rheims: Gender Studies)

“I had placed an ad on Facebook encouraging young men and women who felt different to contact my studio. We received dozens of replies, from all over the world, like faraway calls wanting to be heard… They came to the studio, exposed themselves shyly, and I photographed them just like that.” (Rheims, B. Bettina Rheims: Gender Studies (Book))

“She depth-charges the conventions of fashion photography by using non-professional models found on the streets of Paris and London, particularly ones who flout traditional gender roles - boys as diffident and pouting girls; girls as macho and gym-cut boys.” ( 2005)

Calvin Klein Advertisements

I thought it was important to research into advertisements and commercial photography to see how these too have changed over time, it seems clear that they are influenced heavily by renowned photographers, especially artistic and fashion photographers. I decided on Calvin Klein’s advertisements because although they can be considered erotic and provocative, you can see they appreciate the human body and are trying to push the boundaries to make nudity a norm rather than a taboo subject. 

The first photograph, taken by Harley Weir for Calvin Klein’s ‘Erotica’ campaign, was highly criticised and even considered ”glorified rape culture“ by many viewers across the globe. However the model was proud of the work and stated ”all this discussion about it makes me think about how alienated and scared some people are of the female human body…” (Kristin, K., 2016). The phrase ”female human body” emphasises the point that men are rarely asked to pose naked or in provocative stances, whereas women are almost expected to. The second photograph presents an active woman with averted gaze, both features which are usually associated with males which agains emphasises how Calvin Klein have taken influence from Ritts and Rheims to challenge the gender boundaries.

Male models were rarely predominant in fashion photographs up until the late 1980s“ (Bull, S. 2011) which is partially why I chose to include the final image, however times have changed a vast amount since the 1980s and males are featured constantly in fashion magazines today. Because of this I do not think the quote is relevant any more and I doubt I will analyse the image in my essay, although his pose is interesting as it can be seen as humorous how he mocks the statue and it could be said that the photographer has directed him to do that to create the wider idea that they are mocking poses and stereotypes associated with gender.