Photography from its very beginning served in a beneficial manner to democratize portraiture, expanding its boundaries and traditional uses. It no longer remained as an exclusive privilege of the aristocracy, the only class to afford it. By expanding its periphery, photographic portraiture not only complicated its function, but raised several intriguing issues in the new domains it spread to. By far, it complicated issues of identity and self-representation. Portraiture which was a means of re-asserting social status now opened up questions of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.
So how did portraiture overcome its narrow boundaries? It is important for us here, to trace a brief history of the creation of identity in photographic portraiture because our modern vision of constructing identities has important historical precedents.
The development of photographic portraiture occurs at a unique point in history – the time of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. It thus coincided with the ascendency of the middle class into the domains of finance and culture. The newly acquired wealth of the bourgeoisie was spent lavishly on all kinds of goods, mostly in a way to emulate the lifestyle of the aristocracy. Just as a king would inscribe his victory pillar with his achievements to stand against the tide of time, the newly emerging bourgeoisie etched their arrival on the photographic paper. It is to be borne in mind that portraits were always meant for public display and enter into a dialogue with the world at large, even when they were limited to private consumption. Representing their opulent lifestyle in the portraits, the bourgeoisie at one stroke could visually affirm their social status to the world at large, as well as pose a constant challenge to the aristocratic monopoly of signs.
Photographic portraiture during this time (mid 19th century) could basically be divided into the bourgeois family photo and individuals (men) of great success (not those who enjoy greater rights and privileges due to high birth). This clearly demarcated the private and the public sphere of the bourgeoisie. The middle-class ideals of the family and success were comprehensively treated in the photographic studios of the major cities where, the bourgeois body was situated within a network of cultural, social and ideological relations. Through these discourses between the body and the camera, a moral icon was being cultivated. There began to emerge a set of codes vis-à-vis posture, expression, lighting, dress, etc which were evoking a middle-class cultural ideal. These were aimed to be an inspirational and moral source for the working classes.
It was in the portrait of the family that struggles over representation of gender and interaction between the sexes began to peek its head. Although during Enlightenment there was a universal climate of liberty and equality and a general freedom for the woman, it was contested by a large majority of male thinkers. Historically significant writings of Rousseau and studies in the Encyclopaedia of the latter half of the 18th century conclude on the basis of female biological dispositions, that women are “unequal but complementary partner of men”, “the destiny of women is to have children and nourish them.” The emerging middle-class reformers and professionals by the 19th century had idealized the structure of family and pre-disposed social roles on the basis of gender, through the field of science, popular literature, sermons, etc.
Let us analyze this photo belonging to the 1850’s to further illustrate this view. A typical Victorian elderly couple is represented in the centre of the frame. The husband is facing the camera with a rather powerful authority which comes through in his intent vision. He is in the front, seated on a chair, and it is evident that he assumes full control of decision-making in the family. His wife on the other hand, comes across as a fragile dutiful figure on the back. It appears as if in reality, she is relegated to the background, almost without any assertive power in the family unit. It is this system of differences the camera captures that underlines the textured fabric of dominant social relations. The creation of identity in photographic portraiture is thus anchored firmly in a set of economic, political and social underpinnings.
In the idealized Victorian family photo below, the family unit is presented in a ritualized display, oddly superficial in content and with the hierarchy of the domestic cult being apparently visible. The photo is of Sir Richard Strachey, a colonial administrator, soldier, botanist and engineer and his family engaged in a parlour game. In the other family photo, the male figure is seen to enact the role of the family-head, whose expressions and gestures are carefully rooted in the middle-class ideological terrain. The wife is a rather subdued entity. With passive children on display by their sides and bound to each other by cords of reciprocal love and obligation, the members of the family typified a whole new commitment to a domestic ideal.
The space within which they were placed to photographed most often i.e. the photographer’s studio went a long way in reinforcing their social identities. It was basically a fabricated space, with various props for various occasions. Carefully altered according to needs, it served as the bourgeois drawing room, the balcony, and the like; they were symbols of middle-class recreation and leisure. Dotted with objects of art and cultivated taste, these spaces had the potential of conveying the bourgeois milieu.
With the bourgeois coming into prominence and replacing the aristocracy of the ‘Ancien Regime’, it was time that photography brought into the domains of visibility those so far neglected, not represented – those ‘invisible’. It was due to surveillance, almost, that the colonized subjects with their distinct ‘otherness’ or in other words ethnicity, and the labouring classes driving the capitalist machinery, came into the visual sphere.
One of the striking features at a glance is how these classes are represented – they are made to confront the camera, almost come to terms with its gaze. The blunt frontality shows a complete lack of sophistication which is markedly different from the cultivated asymmetries of the bourgeois pose. This middle-class awareness, that the body when carefully positioned always served as a cultural and class signifier, explains why they were never in conflict with the camera.
How has then modern contemporary photography dealt with the issue of identity in terms of gender, the public or private self or even sexuality?
One of the significant changes which had occurred through the passage of time was the representation of women in photography. Be it in the workplace or on private dining table, images of women changed radically – being more assertive, independent. They had over time, gained social and political rights and were enacting various roles at the same time – the professional, the wife, the mother and the like. Thus representation of women in the workplace became an intense subject, especially during the time of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. But with unemployment rising to unprecedented levels during the 1980’s, photography revealed shocking truths. It was found that women were mostly employed in low-paid professions or part time and faced several discriminatory practices with regard to class, gender and ethnicity at the workplace.
In 1986-87, Rhonda Wilson presenting an oppositional view through her images, produced a striking series of work- drawing in heavily from popular imagery and signs and underlined with satire. In the photo below, which exploits the format of the beauty contest with sashes and higher pedestals, women with the worst weekly income levels are presented as three winners. They are represented in their professional capacities with each one holding props related to their work. Their expressions clearly reveal the irony. Thus it brought to the forefront important questions of women’s role in the modern society and also in the male-dominated ‘workplace’. It also revealed the sexual division of labour i.e. traditional feminine occupations being grossly underpaid.
In another interesting take on the subject is Debbie Humphrey’s project of the 1990’s – Gender Crossings – focussing on relationships between the sexes in the workplace. The women in this series of images, have disregarded the so-called gender boundaries and entered the domain of “ men’s ” work. These women blend in with their male counterparts and have strangely subdued femininity.
In the image below, we see three employees in a typical office environment. At a glance, it is hard to identify that the central figure is a female due to her cropped hair, guardedly crossed arms to conceal the breast and her typically male attire. The woman is flanked by one male colleague on either side who seem to be quite comfortable in presenting themselves in the particular environment. Standing firmly these men appear as intimidating to the female colleague, whose posture and expression testify to the fact. The picture raises important questions of why the female has chosen a male dress-code. Is it to be at par with the men in the profession? To legitimise her presence? In any case, the power structure of the place is clearly shown.
Issues of representation become more complex when this woman professional also has to run the household. In Jacqueline Sarsby’s photo-documentary series on the agricultural labour she portrays this dual role of ordinary working women in small English farms.