Studio to Selfie

What is a Portrait?

A portrait photograph is an image of a person or group. Portraits are posed and can included props and costume that tell something about the sitter. 

Before photography, wealthy individuals would pay a portrait artist to create a painting of them in oil paints. The middle and upper classes bought miniatures; small paintings of watercolour on ivory.  Working people could buy silhouettes, cut out of black paper; these were known as penny profiles as they cost a penny. 

A portrait of his brother by Christopher Pratt
A portrait of his brother by Christopher Pratt

Oil portraits would sometimes be painted to celebrate special events, births and deaths and would include imagery and symbolism to give the viewer an idea about the type of person the sitter was. If you look at old portraits of kings and queens and celebrated people, you may notice small or hidden objects in the portrait that tell you something about them. A naval captain may be painted in full uniform, with a ship in the background to show his career and his success as a captain. A king may be painted wearing a crown, dressed in full armour, riding a large horse. The aim was to identify him as a ruler and celebrate his military successes. Photography has been used in a similar way since it was invented. Scenes are constructed using costume, props, backdrops and symbols are hidden in the photograph to give the viewer information about the sitter. 

The oldest portrait is believed to be in the Vilhonneur grotto near Angouleme in the South West of France. Caves at the grotto contain paintings of early people and animals believed to be over 27,000 years old. 

What is a Self-Portrait?

“Although each selfie is a self-portrait, not all self-portraits are selfies.”

A self-portrait is created by the artist or photographer of themselves. The earliest self-portrait is believed to be a sculpture of a man called Bak dated to 1365 BC. Bak was an artist who worked for an Egyptian Pharaoh called Akhenaten. 

The first photographic self-portrait was produced by Robert Cornelius in 1839, the year the Daguerreotype and the Talbotype were invented. 

Christopher Pratt
A self-portrait by Christopher Pratt