The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900

I’ve been dipping in and out of Max Kozloff’s book The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900 for a couple of months now (it is OCA recommended reading material). I purchased it used from World of Books (who recycle library books and say they donate some of their profits to charity); a good source.

The book is a monumental effort of over 300 pages (large pages) and over 300 photos in colour and black and white. The text is small and dense for the A4 pages; it is as much a written documentary as a photo book. Deborah Garwood’s review on enthuses over the quality of the writing and level of research that went into the book; there is really nothing to disagree with in what she says.

There are two ways to read this book: the first, as a text exploring the context of the  photographs and photographers included; what it means to take a portrait, how a portrait might be viewed, the psychological and sociological significance of the photographs. And how portrait photography has evolved since 1900; the second way is as a visual reference for photographs and photographers, perhaps referring to the words for additional context.

Having read through the book (not every word), I know what I can find there and that it will no doubt be a valuable reference source. Perhaps that is enough to say in the context of a visual arts study blog, on the premise that any relevant quotes will be included along with the appropriate pieces of work?

However, I will make note of a particular aspect that I find rings true as I have been working on my own portrait photography. Kozloff opens by saying:

Among its many functions, the human face acts as an ambassador, on the job whenever out in the world. We are face reading, socially inquisitive animals, accustomed, mostly likely programmed, to respond to physiognomic expressions as signs that help us decide our own behaviour in limitless scenarios.

It is attention to these visual signals that I feel contributes to interesting portraiture; the rich tapestry of the face and not the camera-mask or fixed smile. These expressions talk to us visually as we read a photograph and draw us into know more about the sitter. They are not necessarily ‘nice’ or  ‘beautiful’ expressions, but they catch our attention and prick our curiosity.

I would like to avoid taking bland photographs of smiling people; though sometimes the social pressure could be too great to resist!

Garwood D (2008). [website]. The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900 by Max Kozloff. Available from: [accessed 27.9.16]
Kozloff, M. 2007. The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.

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