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On Environmental Portraiture

How does an environmental portrait differ from a fine art portrait of a face or a body? Is it merely a portrait of someone in their environment? The answer – yes, no, maybe, and Arnold Newman.

At its most basic, an environmental portrait is a photograph of a subject in the place the person lives, works, rests, or plays. At its best, environmental portraiture creates a visual narrative about an individual and encourages a dialogue of who the subject is beyond their physical appearance and momentary emotions; it creates a significant graphic relationship of a person to a place and/or thing. Environmental portraits can create a short biography by incorporating a constructed or real background of the subject’s life seamlessly into the photograph as there is no significant separation between person and place. The subject and environment depend on each other for meaning. In a short story, environmental portraits are the setting, the part of the tale that establishes mood and creates a backdrop for the narrative to begin.

The late photographer Arnold Newman mastered the genre of environmental Stravinskyportraiture in images like Igor Stravinsky, New York NY, 1946. He incorporates a minimalist scene allowing the piano and artist to become one within the frame. The plain white background contrasts the black Grand Piano with its lid raised. Visually, the piano mimics a musical note. Stravinsky imitates the raised piano lid with his elbow bent and hand to face. It’s as if Newman is comparing the mechanics under the piano lid to the great compositions created within Stravinsky’s mind. The subject is positioned low and diminutive within the photograph forming an inseparable pairing between the artist and his creations. Stravinsky is the music in Newman’s interpretation.

MondrianNewman carefully divides the portrait of Piet Mondrian, New York NY, 1942 into grids visually by an easel dissecting the frame from top to bottom – obviously relating to the artist’s work of abstract geometric paintings. The simplicity and yet complexity of the portrait is stunning. The artist’s left hand placed over the easel base seems independent from his body while posed in a solemn gesture jutting forward in the frame and out of the grid-like structure. The separation between figure and his hand is startling and poignant, no doubt a reference to the hand of the genius of Mondrian.

Arnold Newman is quoted as saying, “It seems to me that no one picture can ever be a final summation of a personality. There are so many facets of every human being that it is impossible to present them all in one photograph.” An environmental portrait need not be the perfect construction of detail that Newman’s often are – brilliant testaments to the subject’s career and/or character. However, the portrait does need to be an interpretation of the photographer’s view of the subject through posturing and gesture as well as the sitter’s relationship to the setting. While Newman had access to world famous artists, writers and celebrities, most of us do not have that privilege; however, the story of ordinary lives photographed from a unique point of view and combining strong character and distinctive setting can be as compelling.

Polly Gaillard is a fine art photography, arts writer, and photographic educator. Her website is Follow Polly on instagram and twitter @pollygaillard.