The Group Portraiture of Holland

Alois Riegel’s work, The group portraiture of Holland, is an examination of the work of group portrait painters in Holland and the interplay between internal coherence of the group (within the paintings) and external coherence (engaging the viewer outside the frame). The theories and techniques described are of interest to me in the context of my upcoming assignment 3, which will involve photographing a male voice choir.

Source: www.rijksmuseum.nl, ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt 

I foresee a challenge in making large group portraits as being the coordination of individual gazes within the group into something other than a predictable outward gaze the camera, or even worse that, accompanied by fixed smiles! Painters have the benefit of creating their images on the canvas, whereas in photography its indexicality means it must, to a certain extent, work with the world as we see it. Nonetheless, that world can be organised or even manipulated through digital post-processing, so lessons from painters can be valuable.

Riegel talks about ‘psychological manifestations’ that can be expressed within the concept of paintings, and later goes onto to describe how these can add a sense of coherence to a group portrait. The manifestations are:

  1. Will – expressed by an action. By performing actions we express our self-determination within an environment. This makes us stand apart from the environment or from those who choose to remain passive within the environment.
  2. Emotion – this is a reflection of an internal state and is passive in relation to the environment, in contrast to the active ‘will’. Emotions are visible on people’s faces and through their body language. A skilled painter can create these, photographers need to watch for a decisive moment to catch them or rely upon subjects who are good actors.
  3. Attentiveness – is where the subject become open to the effects of the environment; either to participate with it for pleasure or to withdraw from it in pain. It is a reflection of engagement with ‘other’, unlike ‘will’, which is an expression of of engagement by ‘self’.

Riegel discusses a number of paintings in his work, including how their composition and psychological manifestations serve to unify the groups portrayed. It is a fascinating look at reading paintings and discovering the artists’ intentions. For my own purposes, the following aspects are important:

  • The group members are rarely organised uniformly – while there may be a symmetry to overall composition, the groups are never lined up facing-front, one row behind another. This lack of uniformity creates visual interest; something that cannot be said of many photographs featuring large groups, where an overriding concern of fitting people within a space, which can be captured within the frame of the camera, seems to take over compositional considerations.
  • Motifs are sometimes used to unify a group that do not at first appear to be acting as a group from their positioning – for example each group member could be holding a weapon in the case of the night guards.
  • In only one of the images considered are the subjects all gazing towards a single point at the front, outside of the frame (the artist). It immediately makes me think of a photograph, where the convention is for everyone to look at the camera. When a large group all looks to the same point, it introduces a uniformity and predictability to the image; we are deprived of visual variety. The group is all attentive to the same thing outside of the frame; the photographer – there is no ambiguity or mystery.
  • Hand gestures form an important part of many of the group portraits – like a secondary set of gazes, they point, they hold, they welcome, they show. They add another visual dimension. What someones hands are doing is instinctively an important visual cue to us; are we safe, or are we at risk from this stranger? The aspect often receives little attention group photographic portraits.

I have had little success in finding photographers working with group portraits, outside of standard corporate or wedding group photographs; perhaps because these are common gatherings of large groups and they primarily serve the purpose of recording who was present, in time constrained circumstances. This exploration of group portraits in paintings has provided useful food for thought.

Reference
Riegl, A., Kain, E.M., Britt, D. and Kemp, W. 2000. The group portraiture of Holland. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.

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