Vintage poses in official portraits
(Forgotten gems of vintage photography)
(Volume 2)

Free Chapters

Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform;
1 edition (February 28, 2018)
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.3 x 8.5 inches



Briefly about the book

Like other books from the Forgotten gems of vintage photography series, the book Vintage poses in official portraits was created as an auxiliary textbook for the photography courses that I run for various institutions.

In this book, we will discover the positions of people in portraits which we call business portraits today, and we will therefore learn about portraits that are not intended for the artistic presentation of people, but rather the official, objective presentation of a person’s image.

The reasons for creating this book are quite numerous, but the most important reason was the lack of knowledge about old photographic portraits on the part of students. In lectures, I noticed that the theory and the analysis of portraits enable the listener to recognize good and bad portraits, but do not train him for portraying in practice. Thus, the beginner most often stops at the first step when setting up a portrayed person, a process that may have taken a few hours, despite the fact that knowledge of positions in portraits has been known for several centuries.

Of course, overcoming this problem has been known for quite some time, too. If we want to build a house, we must first build its foundations, or, in this case, the basic knowledge on which we will later build our creativity is based on copying old masters. And because photographic business portraits are based on academic painting portraits which were copied by the first masters of photography for an indefinite period, it is essential that the audience knows and, hopefully, examines at least some typical examples of these portraits.

The present book, with a hundred official portraits, is therefore an example for future photographers, an example of good practice which can at the same time also serve as an inspiration book for beginners in search of a good position for a portrait.

Because a future photographer without knowledge of the history or importance of portraiture and with a lack of knowledge of the composition and body language, or in short, because a photographer who does not master the basics of representation will never be as successful as a photographer who has already mastered this knowledge, I have, as always, also briefly described the basic concepts that are essential to the understanding of the displayed material at the beginning of this book. Thus, I first describe the types of portraits according to different standard divisions, i.e., by the division by the length of the portrayed body, then by facial view, and ultimately by the types of gaze of the portrayed person. This is followed by a description of the expressions of the person and a brief presentation of the basic factors of a good portrait, which we need to concentrate on during the study of the photographs in this book, and during the portrayal itself.

Examples of body positions or photographs in this book are shown according to the length of the portrayed body in the four basic groups, and within these groups the photographs are arranged following the rotation of the body. At the beginning of the set, the person is first turned in one direction, and through the chapter the body will gradually turn in the opposite direction.

And once we determine the position of the body of the photographed person, we can easily decide on the positioning of the head and the orientation of the gaze. But more on this in the pages that follow.

Types of portraits

Portraits are divided into quite a few different groups, depending on the position of the body and the head, depending on the number of persons, and most often depending on the length of the portrayed body.

Full-length portrait

In the so-called full-length portrait, the whole body of the person is visible, from the toes to the top of the head. Such a portrayal was particularly popular at the time of the invention of photography, as photographers wanted to produce almost complete copies of portrait paintings of kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants. Since these portraits often included a painted background of the lands owned by the portrayed people, as well as standard “royal” attributes such as a pillar, a curtain and a chair or throne, showing their higher status, the first photographers also produced rather standard scenes in which all the above attributes were included. But such attributes are quite unusual nowadays and even funny at times, so we have simply left this kind of portrait out of this book.

Three-quarter length portrait

Three-quarter length portraits show 3/4 of the body of the person, in the range from the knees to the top of the head. In essence, it is a combination of full-length described above and the half-length portrait described below.

In painting, as well as in photographic portrayals, we will not often come across such portraiture, as there is often quite a bit of empty space on the right and left edge of the image. 

The portrayed person thus presented also seems somewhat unnaturally cut off and seemingly distant from us, the observers.

Half-length portrait

Half-length portraits show half of the body, from the waist up, and this is the most commonly used way of showing people in business portraits and in all portraits in general.

The advantage of this portrayal is that the person can stand or even sit, which was a great advantage at the beginning of the photographic period when the exposure times were quite long.

The previously described formats of portraits are psychologically more distant from the observer, but in half-length portraits the person seems to be much closer to us. In this case, we can observe the face of the portrayed person in more detail, which is, of course, the essence of official portraits.

Head and shoulders (bust)

In this type of portrait, the largest portion of the frame is occupied by the head or face of the portrayed person, so that we are forced, as observers, to face the feelings of that person, and we are obliged to observe his beauty or perhaps even his deformations.

At the same time, with such a portrait we get a sense of close contact with a person. We approach almost into his personal space, and this is, naturally, beneficial to the advertising industry. Such a photographic image can be used to promote a cult of personality, for example, to promote film stars, politicians, and other people with whom we will then want to spend as much time as possible.

Due to the rapid recognition of the shape of the face and its other characteristics, this method of portraying is also the most popular  format in the production of  so-called bureaucratic portraits, or photographs used by the State or government for recognizing its citizens.


Although the first photographers used to photograph with photographic lenses that shot almost academic painting portraits, i.e. a bust or half portrait, Julia Margeret Cameron unintentionally discovered a new photographic approach through the desire to produce a portrait of full, natural size. Such an image was taken so close to the person that the face most often took up the entire surface of the photograph. Thus, Cameron created the first close-up, a so-called psychological portrait, or a photograph on which the observer would only be confronted with the image of the person being shot, undisturbed by the surroundings. And although Julia Cameron recived more laughter than glory because of these close-ups, due to the extremely close proximity of the image but nonetheless rather lacking sharpness, the portraits of the portrayed head, or only part of the head, became one of the means of resisting the “bourgeois” display of people in modernism.

However, since this kind of presentation is unpopular in official portraits and is extremely rare in vintage photography, we will not mention it further in this book.

Portraits with a chair

In old and contemporary photography, we often see seated portraits, where a chair is included. As we mentioned earlier, the chair was a necessary tool, which in the past enabled the portrayed person to sit quietly for several minutes during the very long exposure times of the photograph, and at the same time the chair was also a symbol of the king’s throne. The chair has a similar importance in contemporary photography, especially in portraying the leading people in companies. This chair, the throne from which the company is run, separates the manager of the company from ordinary workers, who are often blue-collar or manual laborers.

In this book, we will place portraits with a chair in a separate chapter and in an independent group of portraits. Of course, we must also be aware that seated portraits can be full-length, three-quarter length, half-length, or even head-and-shoulders portraits.

Portraits with attributes

Although at times these portraits were extremely popular, in this book we will omitted representations of people who are shown together with different objects or attributes, which most often indicate the person’s profession.

Wise and educated people can be shown, for example, with books, pens, and glasses, and women with a Bible or with children, and workers with various tools that indicate their profession.

But the times when work was an honor has passed. Many people may even be ashamed of their profession, and many new professions, for example bureaucratic positions, have no symbol to represent them.

Attributes have now become the mark of a common man. But they are no longer among us, since we are all exceptional and unrepeatable showmen, using FB’s “duck faces” and other grimaces. 

Photographs with an emphasis on the subject’s profession are unnecessary.

Facial views 

In addition to the length of the portrayed body, portraits are also divided according to the facial view. In classical portraiture, we know three basic views: profile, three-quarter view, and so-called full-face view.


Perspectives of the face taken from the side are very rarely used in modern portraiture because it can only show one side of the physical character of the face, and in this way we cannot show the feelings or personality of the portrayed person. Today, this kind of portrayal is intended only for identifying a person through the profile view, most often in bureaucratic (police) photography.

Three-Quarter View

This view of the face allows us to fully identify the person, since we can simultaneously observe both the profile and the front view. Due in large part to this characteristic, and due also to the greater sense of the third dimension and because of the increased possibility of discovering the human expression or its internal state, this portrait has become one of the most popular ways of presenting a human being.

Full-Face View

Full-face view is a portrayal technique where the face of the portrayed person faces the observer directly. In this way, we can show all the details of the face, including irregularities, and the expression of the person. Its only weakness, but sometimes also an advantage, is a somewhat lesser sense of depth, as we cannot directly show the shape of the nose, chin, forehead, or other features.


Regardless of where the face is looking, in portraying there are three types of gaze: the gaze directly at the observer, the gaze in the distance, and the empty gaze. Each of these gazes tells us something about the portrayed person.

Gaze at the observer

The gaze directly at the observer is a look of confrontation and allows a direct dialogue between the portrayed person and the observer. The portrayed person speaks: I am here, spread out before you, but you can only look at me if you dare. According to some theories, such a view should represent a person of great inner strength and able to cope with problems and with reality.

Copyright Peter Mrhar © All rights reserved.