Glimpsing Ourselves in Deconstructed Portraits

by Adobe Stock Team

posted on 07-19-2017

A good portrait raises a lot of questions: What can we know about a person from a moment? What stories do a look or a gesture or a setting tell? But when artists add a twist, toying with balance, perspective, and digital manipulations, the questions get even more urgent, and the feeling can be unsettling. Rule-breaking portraits ask us to think through stubborn stereotypes, and even reconsider the nature of truth itself.

When a self-portrait is everything but the self.

Cindy Sherman is the master of the deceptive, rule-breaking portrait. She first hit the art scene in the 1980s with her self-portraits and since then, the more we’ve seen of her, the less we know about who she is. And that’s really the point—Sherman uses wigs, makeup, costumes, prosthetics, and even digital manipulation to create a chameleon-self who asks more questions than she answers. According to The Guardian, “She’s a Hitchcock heroine, a busty Monroe, an abuse victim, a terrified centerfold, a corpse, a Caravaggio, a Botticelli, a mutilated hermaphrodite sex doll, a man in a balaclava, a surgically enhanced Hamptons type, a cowgirl, a desperate clown, and we’ve barely started.”

But these multiple Shermans don’t deceive us—we always know that the images are constructed. The New York Times explains, “Her photos are inevitably skewed so that their seams show and their fictive, constructed nature is apparent; we are always in on the trick, alerted to their real-feigned nature… She is also a consummate manipulator of space, scale, color and pattern textiles.”

By manipulating her images right before our eyes, Sherman prods us to question the stereotypes we might otherwise fall back on unconsciously to understand a portrait—stereotypes about women, class, sexuality, and more. She even asks us to question core assumptions about the relationship between photographs and truth. The Guardian explains her impact, “She took photos of herself that were anything but self-portraits; photos that stuck two fingers at the then received wisdom that the camera never lies—her camera always lied.”

If the camera lies, where does that leave us, the viewers? Are our images of ourselves and others always only constructed? Sherman demands that we live with this ambiguity.

Deconstructing the stock portrait.

When it comes to stock portrait collections, it can be easy to find images that depend on the kinds of stereotypes and assumptions Sherman obliterates. But we talked to Jared Drace, head of production services for Hex, to find out how his team built a collection of stock portraits that defy conventional composition in order to unmake stereotypes.

“We encourage our photographers to deconstruct the images. We look for unusual angles and different perspectives, not just in terms of the actual compositions, but in the stories we’re telling as well,” explains Jared. “We love images that grab the attention of the viewer. Little changes, like taking the object off center, tilting the camera, or a slight offset in framing can have a great effect and garner more attention to the image.”

According to Jared, lighting is another big factor in creating unique images that grab attention: “One of the advantages of digital photography is that you don’t need that much light to take a great picture. You can illuminate a face with a smartphone screen or shoot in a dimly lit bar without compromising the mood with extra lighting or a flash.”

And creating stereotype-defying stock portraits isn’t just about the subjects. The photographer’s experiences leave their imprint on an image, too. “HEX has deep roots in music photography and youth culture, which has helped our photographers to become a visual voice of the under-represented,” says Jared.

Finding ourselves in stock.

Portraits are part of how we understand (and question) ourselves in an image-saturated culture, so it’s no surprise that they’re a huge category in stock collections, too. Just this May, we saw 10,000 searches for portraits in Adobe Stock—the most popular categories were portraits of women, followed by families and men. Even dogs and doctors made the list. No doubt, some searchers are looking for balanced, traditional images, but we think others will discover a little imbalance. Maybe just enough to capture attention and get people thinking.

Read more about how artists break the rules of balance, angles, and perspective to create a mood, raise questions, and even unsettle us, and check out this month’s curated gallery of unbalanced compositions in Adobe Stock.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends

Products: Stock