Today, almost no one blinks at having their portrait photograph taken. While we may not like the look of our face on a passport photograph or identity card, we do readily recognize the importance of ‘looking right’ on those occasions where pictures matter personally. How we look to friends and family in photographs matter (e.g. especially in social rituals like weddings, birthday celebrations, religious ceremonies, vacation trips, meeting people on the Internet, etc.), because we know they are part of how people see each other.
If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than ‘just a picture’, it is a place of work: a semiotic event for social identity.1 Portraits fix our identity in what is essentially an art of description. Whether it is in the public sphere, used to certify our legal identity (passport mugshot), in our private life (snapshots, formal studio portraits, etc.), or for another social purpose (e.g. anthropology, art, social, political, legal, medical, institutional, etc.), the portrait aims to say, ‘this is how you look’. This visual description of persons abounds across all kinds of institutions: the media (television, film, photo-journalism, www, paparazzi etc.), art, advertising, tourism, the military, the police, medical institutions, in a family album and so on. Indeed, we find portraits almost everywhere we look. Universally abundant, they are a direct result of the massive impact photography has had, ever since the reproduction of photographic images became possible. The different uses constitute a large part of the history of photography. The modern panoply of portraiture is the direct consequence of that historical development of photography, a history that shows how portrait photography itself became a valued commodity within the nineteenth-century industrial revolution.