Disobeying the Photographic Laws: A Comparison in Portrait Photography

Portrait photography has many functions. The most basic: to show the face and its features. The advance: to look deep into a subjects psyche and understand who they are without hearing the full story.  Portraits show a time that will never be relived; a face will hang stationary, a wrinkle forever be exposed. However, with all portraits there is one thing that will stay consistent and that is simply this: a person with a look, a style, and a history is still flesh/bones/muscles/tendons and before their portrait, shared emotions, ideas and even the past are complicated by the opening and closing of the shutter.

There is no better portrait photographer able of producing thought provoking portraits than Richard Avedon. His approach is simple and embodies the ideal of letting the image speak for itself. His subjects range from slimy politicians to household celebrities and every photograph contains one crucial element: distance.

Avedon was known for making his subjects wait for long periods of time to capture a telling moment. Most of his subjects would smile a standard smile, as Avedon would stand behind his 8×10 camera waiting for them to get bored. When their faces lacked content he would capitalize and fire the shutter.  The final result was awkward and honest, an anti-image if you will.

Thirty to forty years earlier, mugshots of criminals in New South Wales Prison displayed a similar discomfort. These vigilantes who were recently placed in their cells waited as a photographer set up his camera and made them stand in attention.  Their personal style and physical attributes were cataloged by the police force in the event they perpetrated crimes in the future.

In their most simple form, these photographs were meant to convey the basic portrait but ended up capturing a style and psyche that Avedon would stand in awe of. The similarity between Avedon’s work and the New South Wales photographer is incredible.  Placing the images side by side could confuse even the most talented of art historians. Avedon’s subjects are well dressed as were the prisoners. Both sets of photographs allow the viewer to create their own assumptions.  If the background in Avedon’s portraits were removed, I’m positive that the only thing separating his images would be the cell-bars.

Portraits from the New South Wales prison are a glimpse into a time where photography and life had little rules. Between the times that the existing 2500 portraits were photographed and the time Avedon started his practice the rule of thirds was a practiced concept, symmetry was standard and smiles were welcomed.  Avedon disobeyed these rules as the criminals disobeyed the law. Avedon is considered a father of fine art portrait photography but the New South Wales prison photographer can be seen as the accidental grandfather.

–Austin Pulliam

For more on the New South Wales archive, see below:

For more of Richard Avedon’s photography work, go here:

Austin is a professional photographer and contributing author at Projector. He’s previously written for the blog about Australian custom motorcycles and the relationship of Phil and Ronnie Spector. To see more of his work, you can visit his personal site.