ZedPipo: Likeness, Character, Identity

The roles of a portrait are to show what the subject looks like, the character and the identity. Whether the image is a good likeness is personal judgement, of the viewers, including the subject, and they see what they want to see; but one representation is no better than another. There are contentious paintings of Queen Elizabeth II, for example.

The second role of a portrait is to show character. To some extent this is defined by facial features and expression, clothing and environment, but it is mostly about perception by a third party, who may or may not know the subject.


The third, at a superficial level, is the easiest: the subject’s clothes and environment, and the semiotics, perhaps tools, help to show the job or career and the identity of the subject.

Despite trying to capture these personal and transient characteristics, portraits, whether painted or photographed, are limited in their capacity to deliver. Bate (2009) is explicit: the face is an indicator of personal appearance that includes facial expression, hairstyle and grooming, [and skin condition and complexion]; the pose is an indicator of manner, attitude and ‘upbringing’; clothes show ‘social class, sex, cultural values and fashion’; and the location [environment and symbols] shows the social scene of the person in the picture. The features illustrate who the subject is and what they are like, but do not help capturing the likeness that grandma remembers when the subject was two years old. The relative importance of these features in the picture defines the type of portrait and its use.

Meanwhile the artist is expected to capture character and paint it on canvas. An image does deliver a characterisation, in the same way caricature does, but an image cannot capture all the characteristics recognised by all the readers all the time any more than a painting crafted over several months can do any better than a photograph that captures a decisive part of a multifaceted character at a decisive moment. Further, that extracted moment, taken unawares, is merely a different aspect of character than that smiling photograph looking at the camera taken on the beach that shows another facet of character entirely. In fact, characters are so complex that a lifetime’s images may fail to represent someone. So, an individual painting is unlikely to truly capture a character any more than an individual photograph.

Finally, portraits become important in matters of death and war, or loss for any other reason. Few can remember the composite images of their late mothers and fathers to any degree, simply because those memories are built up from a continuum of experiences. This is no different from the famous self-portraits of Rembrandt or van Gogh, and nobody knows them personally except by biography. Even Barthes (1981) could only find one photograph from his mother’s lifetime that came anywhere close to his memories of her, and that was when she was a child. But there is a difference: those self-portraits survive because of their importance as the works of famous artists, but the private photographs of your friends of a lifetime and more ancient relatives, and Barthes’ mother for that matter, may be lucky to survive more than a few generations, despite being good ‘portraits’ of their time and representations of the subjects.

30-second slideshow

Cover of  the photobook ZedPipo Fishpond owners Contemporary jazz dancer Forest guard Fuel deliveryman Longline fisherman Beekeeper Aircraft mechanic Agronomist Potato seller Maize farmer Cellist Doctor Chief Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police, Brenda Muntemba

Peter Langmead

Lusaka, 2015

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