The Theatre of the Face, Portrait Photography Since 1900 – Max Kozloff (2007)

Probably the best book I have read on portraiture, quite a statement to make but so far the vast majority of photography books focusing on portraits are either entirely historic with little reference to the bodies of work of the highlighted practitioners or the other extreme of entirely focusing on a selection of images with little detail in regards to the history, theoretical and emotional reaction to those image.

Here Max Kozloff balances the inclusion of a high image count, all well reproduced and appropriate to the topic, with a mix of his own personal opinion of the photographer, historic context and contrast and comparison between the selected works. This last part is important as he selects practitioners from a similar time and approach but discusses how each is different and successful in their own way and why.

The structure off this book is essentially the same as any other attempt to encompass a genre of photography over its entire history, that is in a linear chronological way. However, Kozloff has created chapters around themes which he selects as the epitomes of the timeframe but also the then contemporary practice, intention and influential photographers of that time.

Chapter One covers the work of Steiglitz, Hine, Chambi, Steichen and Curtis. Kozloff uses these five practitioners for their influence on the medium in the opening years of the 20th century. Rather than highlighting a singular vision as the correct or preferred approach Kozloff works to compare the approaches both recognising the aspects of each photographers success but also using the contrast to highlight the issues around the medium and each individual representation.

For example, Kozloff possibly does have a favourite, Max presents the work of Lewis Hine and is clearly highly attracted to his approach. Kozloff speaks to his emotional connection with the subjects, his apparent awareness of the photographs ability and inability to represent an individual with bias, and Hine’s delicate navigation of those issues both deftly balancing the desire to create an engaging image with the potential to inadvertently belittle, demonise, dehumanise and all the other adverse effects that photography can have.

Kozloff speaks about this rather complex problem when he raise the question in regards to the work of Ernest Bellocq. Bellocq a well regarded architectural photographer shows his lack of conscientiousness, planning, technical skill and compassion when photographing sex workers in Storyville, New Orleans. His composition are hasty and lack real human connection. Kozloff likens it to someone who has read the instructions on how to photograph Parlour portraits but had never seen one or if they had didn’t fully understand the process and purpose. His approach of shoehorning this technique into this subject matter belies his lack of concern both around the techniques of photography but also appropriateness for subject matter. This may be recognised by Bellocq and the original negatives remained un printed for 50 years. In looking at the images myself I see a confusing sense of Bellocq both creating images that may be used as promotional photographs, presenting a facade for client looking for a higher class surface but also a sense of the desire to elevate the subject above their perceived class station. Either approach fails however as the execution never reaches the required standard however there is almost a sense of post modern deconstruction of the medium however unintentional. Kozloff does rightly compare the images to the work of Atget how completed a similar project in Paris. There however we see a banality, a documentary approach and a statement of how things are.

In this first chapter Kozloff is essentially speaking to the question of representation nth power of the photographer to control the identity of the subject. He has a clear affinity to balance and consideration in the work he chooses and emphasises the photographers he clearly feels an emotional connection to their subjects, through their approach.

Chapter two opens with a brief history of the Photo Booth, it’s creation in 1925 and it’s subsequent use as an everyday tool for self expression and representation. Kozloff speaks about how the isolation of the booth allows for a theatrical performance now of self portraiture but also of self characterisation and identity transformation. The subjects practice and perform as if in a mirror but in a way to document permanently the results. In effect to see what they look like to others, rather than what they appear to be in the mirror. The gamble of the booth is whether the subject ‘wins’ a great image, the acting out of extremes is playing the game one which creates connection across the history of photography.

Kozloff draws on this topic as a link to the act of self-portraiture. He in effect describes self-portrait photography to an extension to the Photo Booth in that the theatricality and the distancing from truth. The painted self-portrait has long been an insight to a hidden truth but diametrically the photograph is seen as a pretence, a performance and in it’s extremes not an image of personality but as a comment on the medium.

Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne studied through electro stimulus and photography the facial muscle structure. The images are caricatures of expressions, much in the mode of cartoonish satire. Jean-martin Charcot photographed women’s hysteria to conclude the subjects play acted for the camera to satisfy the study. These experiments rose the question of the validity of performed emotion and the apparent insight they produce within images.

These topics are brought up ahead of the discussion of futurist work in which they challenged the perceptions of the photographic portrait by utilising methods of multi and long exposure to revel different perspectives within the same frame. The work of Depero, Boccioni and others recognise how the reading of a face is dependent on proximity and context. The idea that a facial reaction to external stimulus being captured in photography was seen as truth whereas the futurists showed it was a performance fleeting in time, sporadic and imitate-able.

Closing out this chapter Kozloff moves onto the subgenera of self-portraiture. Here he highlights the work of Margret Bourke-White, Ilse Bing, Lotte Jacobi and primarily Claude Chaun.

Kozloff highlights the use of self-portraiture in two distinct ways.

One, the tool of affirmation, a portrait created to enforce, support or promote a perception as an auteur and creator, a master of the trade suitable for sel fpromotion and confirmation of position. Kozloff references Bourke-White in this statement highlighting how she created an image of her with her large format camera. A prestigious and recognised commercial photographer of the 1930’s with an office in the Chrysler building this image is one in which she poses with her recognisably expensive large format cameras, the angle of view from below raising her up and positioning her above the spectator, the closeness of the object with her creates a combination or mutation of the medium as an extension of her being and body. One of the early signs of the ratification of the photographer and the medium.

the second use of the self-portrait is that of experimentation and discovery. The photographers look to question the meaning of representation through the use of unusual angles and perspectives. The use of mirrors both as a sign of introspection but of perspective and the inclusion of the camera as contextual self control over the image. The exception of Cahun is that we see the characters Claude plays, different outfits, props and techniques each a play on the role they play and the idea of photographic truth. Where the inclusion of the camera in abstract way echoes the Bauhaus ideas of the machine eye, such as with Umbo, ‘Self portrait at the beach’ Cahun’s work is a study of self as subject. Kozloff doesn’t directly address the adoption of the name Claude Cahun by Lucy Schwob but I do distinctly feel a connection between the characters Claude plays and the potential of being transgender. The work is a discovery of the many aspects of personality that an individual comprises, in one image especially ‘What do you Want from me?’ there is a juxtaposition of Claude in two heads on the same image one feminine and one masculine sharing the sea body and struggling to co-exist.

Kozloff’s arc in this chapter is that of the photographer taking control of the idea of self. The awareness of the power to create and destroy characteristics at will in front of the camera and the power of the camera to support the ideas of physiognomy and representation. One image which seems to encompass my thoughts on photographic representation is André Kertész’ ‘Distortion #91, 1933’, in one form it is a distorted and contorted nude, the use of mirrors transforming a headless female form into a mirage. Commissioned for a French magazine it present a disturbing disregard for the female form. Anonymous, powerless and brutally disfigured yet in it’s full form the inclusion of the photographer to the right hadn’t side of frame, himself reflected in the mirror albeit more clearly connects the image directly with the photographer. this transfers the power of control away from the mirror, the spectator or the contextual placement and to the photographer. Now, I find the photographer the source of disturbance, a voyeur on the act of dismemberment, the instigator of the act for his personal goals and pleasure but also a sort of invitation into this world and a somewhat powerful statement on the potential of the camera to mislead.

Chapter three is one of the most dense chapters primarily down to the time period it aims to cover, that of 1930-1945 one of the most tumultuous periods of the 20th century.

Kozloff opens this chapter with the introduction of Eisenstaedt and his image ‘Joseph Goebbels at the League of Nations, Geneva, Switzerland’ (1933). This portrait of Goebbels is one which many ascribe to revealing the man’s true self, we see several men all viewing for his attention whilst Goebbel’s is sat, uncomfortably, awkwardly and confined to a chair where he catches the sight of the photographer from the corner of his eye leading to a look of disapproval and even disdain.Eisenstaedt, a Jew himself had photographed Goebbels unaware and therefore prepared for this image resulting in the very projection of his image that countered his entire careers purpose, that of presenting an idealised fiction of superiority.

Kozloff remarks that the proof of this revealing of personality is in the contrast with an image taken at a similar time by Eisenstaedt, but in this one we see a Goebbels well prepared and even inviting, to an extent, of the camera. An opportunity, no doubt, that Goebbels saw to enforce his constructed identity as a gregarious, light hearted and charming man. However I disagree with Kozloff, whilst the first image no doubt catches Goebbels unaware and somewhat menacingly, that image is one most, at least today, are familiar with as a fairly normal reaction to obtrusive photographers. It is in the supposed ‘charming’ state that we see the true Goebbels. The look of a practiced and strained smile crosses his face, so overtly and obviously forced it appears as a masquerade, disturbing in it’s extremeness only compounded by the stillness of his brow and eyes. We see his hands clasped and knotted tightly in discomfort, a bulging vein on his head, cold eyes and clenched jaw. The entire image is as if a comic book illustrator and used this image as inspiration for the Joker character. A cool and clam exterior designed to infiltrate social circles and exert a pretence of confidence in their position but the details betray that outward appearance. When I see this image I think of Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batemen in American Psycho.

Beyond this introduction to the burgeoning use of photography with in a now recognised nationalistic propaganda Kozloff reflects on the tools that defined the power of misinformation and relates them to the world of documentary, star portraiture and fashion photography.

Outlining the work of Lange, Capa Brandt, Vishniac and other how concerned themselves with the social issues of the 30′ & 40’s, Kozloff highlights how with reference to their predecessors such as Atget and Hine, this new generation of photographers tasked with progressing the ideologies of their governments harnessed bot the rules of photography and propaganda to further enhance or in some case twist the stories they caught to discover and communicate.

Some such as Saloman sought out the unseen, behind closed door affairs of the heads of state during The Hague Convention, others such as Lange are known to have had a personal interest in constructing images in ways which, whilst the goal was altruistic, embodied the wholeness of an issue rather than focus on singular photographic truth.

We see how Capa used the angles and framing of Nazi propaganda, which Riefensthal would become famous for, but in subversive ways. Where Riefensthal chose images which empowered and glorified their subjects, Capa using the same techniques highlights their hysterical nature. Kollar shared his approach in some ways, utilising the nature of perception to elevate the ‘Railway worker’ (1932) to statuesque levels of importance, almost deifying the power of the man as the work horse of the nation.

No chapter on the 30’s & 40’s would be complete without the work of Bresson and his influence on the photography of the everyday and banal, typified by the streets of urbanity and the surrealist juxtapositions he is famous for recording. His work shared with Shahn, Doisneau, Lee and Evans, an empathy and even an affinity with their subjects. Whilst each approach their subject matter id distinct ways there is a sense throughout of ‘this is how it is’. They share their experience with the spectator, where they influence the scene it is with a deft hand and often without circumstance, such as Evans group arrangements which appear natural if not for the fact the purpose is to ensure all are in frame, or his surreptitious use of a hidden camera on the New York City Subways.

An approach which is simultaneously shared and critiqued by the work of Weegee. Essentially Weegee was the forerunner to the paparazzi. Known for chasing across New York with his police radio to photograph the latest crime scene , Weegee’s use of a flash must have been shocking to those who gathered to witness the scene, little expecting to be recorded eternally by his furious snapping. Weegee here shows us the same topics as those previously mentioned but with an altogether ‘honest’ look at the nature of humanity. For all the cries f empathy and deserved salvation deserved by the struggling sharecroppers and manual labours photographed by the FSA, Weegee’s subjects a little more than feral lollygaggers and rubbernecks straining to enjoy the spectacle l of death in an urban setting. Weegee is a pseudo predator but remarkable his prey is himself. He is the lollygagger but he strains to see the conflicts of behaviours and expectations in groups of individuals.

Kozloff takes us through these two approaches of photography, the documentary and the sensational in preparation to the final two he covers in this section. That of the ‘retribution photograph’ and the fashion photograph.

‘retribution Photograph’ was coined as the term to describe the portraits of those who were considered the collaborators of Nazi German atrocities. Those who lived near the concentration camps and the defectors of French civilians and other so called conspirators. Bourke- white and Capa are among those who photographed civilians in the dying days of World War 2, recording their alleged involvement and presenting that identity to the world. In some ways their work is as much an influence of the paparazzi as Weegee. Whilst their images retain their trademark stylings, the subject matter is nothing is not sensationalist. Their previous empathy and concern for representation is now gone as they. like Weegee, race to photograph the scene of the crime, albeit the worst in human history. The desire to provide a symbol of villainess disregards the circumstances of the individual. They chastise the locals and the collaborators with little concern for the similarities. to their previous subjects, the working classes of America. They demonise these individuals without considering their personal risk and potential retribution if they had ‘done the right thing’.

Kozloff is building the argument in this book for the power of the emotional connection to subject. He speaks to the obvious trust and collaboration of Hine’s portraits, The influence of Lange and the ability to present the ‘now’ of Bresson. It’s in the discussion star and fashion photography that he contrasts that emotion in order to highlight it’s importance. Kozloff has an obvious lack of respect for the fashion photographer as a user of the tools discovered and refined by the documentarians of the early 20th century. He highlights how the use of their techniques to add legitimacy to their work, hide imperfections and present an idealised glamorous identity are all vapid in their pursuit of justifying the star stud of Hollywood actor and actresses. Kozloff recognises in this chapter the importance of representation in both the respect given to the subject but also the perceptions of the public. He, I feel overlooks some issues but he does also understand the importance of bending the rules of truth for the greater good for engagement into a social cause. He however he has little regard for what he describes as little more than graphic design.

Chapter four differs in it’s approach in that it directly references the influence of August Sander as the pre-eminent subject of this section.

Using the basis of Sander to frame the portrait work of the 50’s through to the 70’s makes sense in that the medium rose to challenge of representation. A task which Sander, in his own way, sought to fulfil in his extensive and diverse body of work photographing the population of Germany. A task which saw him treat Nazi leaders and working farmers with the same deft hand, subtle critique can be perceived just as a slight inclination to elevation of the other. His perception is one of an outsider to many but opens to all. Seeking to find a somewhat objective view of each subject whilst subjectively bringing to together a whole of what it means to be German and with a further reach, human.

This approach lead to stylistic and theoretical influence on generations of photographers. Some took the visual cues of framing and depth of field, others the concept of presenting a portrait which ‘shows’ what it means to be part of a culture and to share that’s cultures identity.

Kozloff references Russell Lee, Richard Samuel Roberts, Mike Disfarmer, Avadon, Irving Penn, Paul Strand and Diane Arbus, each with a respect for their craft but equally with an insight to their motives and abilities.

DIsfarmer in particular Kozloff critiques as having obviously seen the work of more prestigious and capable photographers such as Sander and Lange but has missed the underlying point of the work. HIs subjects are invited into an unfamiliar space and posed in unnatural organisations which sometimes reflect a hierarchical system, the women all arranged by age and the family split by gender. They show a photographer who whilst technically able to use a camera has chosen amateurish and insecure ways to elicit his subjects co-operation. His few successes speak more to the individuals larger than life personalities than his ability to direct.

It is in Chapter five where Kozloff shows us the true development of the Sander effect wen we begin to see the insider becoming the documentarian of cultures.

This shift in perspective from those who wish to discover their subject to those who wish to speak their own truth changes the discussion of representation. We go from an outsider journey of discovery to those who were previously the subjects of the documentarian becoming the creators. This shift in perspective reveal the distance between what the subject wishes to project and present in contrast to the outsider deeming what is important and accurate.

Referencing photographers such as Martin Parr, Neal Slavin, Bill Owens, Sebastião Salgado & Shelby Lee Adams there is a little disconnect form the true sense of insider in that these photographers aren’t strictly of the culture they represent but they do present work which has a sense of depth and emotion the Kozloff attributes to a depth of connection, research and involvement that only these artists could have achieved.

The final two chapters are some of the weaker of this book. Not because The artists represented are lesser, or that the author has less of a sense of intriguing work created in the late 80’s through to early 2000’s. It is more that the shift in photography from a generally documentary styling, with social commentary clearly defined within the rules of that genre, gives way to conceptual thinking and forms of representation.

The commentary on the work is surface level primarily and fails to address the deeper meanings of the work. Perhaps this is a limitation of the time as Kozloff would have had little academic writing to reference during this books creation or perhaps it reflects the overall sense that Kozloff themselves are not truly familiar with the questions being raised in late 20th century work.

The ideas of representation and identity moved from the realm of the portrait and into more abstract ideas. Those of the importance, multiplicity and intangible individual identity and its intersections with different roles, cultures and time frames seem to be lost slightly on Kozloff who throughout this book has erred on the side of singular vision and the ‘truth’ of the portrait as a vision into the soul.

Kozloff’s thinking is apparent when you feel jarred by the haphazardly way the writing refers to various genders, sexuality and ethniticites. The nuance of 21st century referential terms is absent and results in a broken flow to several sections of the work. Similarly the inclusion of several people of colour as examples of diverse portfolios is refreshing in its highlighting of key individuals but lacking in it’s weighting when compared to white male photographers and the locations of New York, Mid-West, Paris and Manchester.

I would love to see an updated edition of this book as no doubt there would be significant contributions to the topic to be made. I would also like to seee how Kozloff has developed not only as a critic but as and individual, their tastes and introspections.

Image Reference



Thank you for taking the time to read this post!

If you found it interesting or useful perhaps you would like to see my own photographic practice.

You can find that on instagram @harleybainbridge or on my website

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