Contemporary Realist Portrait Photography


"I refuse to make it a sociological exercise, to analyze personalities, or to use a style that gives clues to the person's personality. The truth is that I merely capture the person's appearance." —Thomas Ruff

Attempts at objective portraiture—the honest, real, unmediated portrayal of a person—have a long history in photography. In a series of sober portraits from the 1920s, German photographer August Sander systematically documented his countrymen; the uniform staging and composition of these works accentuated social and professional markings, turning his subjects into social types. This series revealed a tension between a photograph’s ability to reveal something of a sitter’s individuality and inner life, and its exact representation of outward appearance. In recent practice, many photographers have also tried to present their subjects as they really are, flaws and all, while allowing for moments of candidness and vulnerability. Less austere (and more deliberate) than a mug shot, these works often bring facial features into high relief, allowing expressiveness to recede and making the sitter seem somehow up-close and removed at the same time. As Alfred Döblin said in 1928, “These photographs, like a fingerprint, are only one fact by which to identify a certain person.”

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