Are You Pre-Raphaelite?

Mar 8, 2019

The National art Gallery in Canberra is currently hosting Pre-Raphaelite paintings, many of which are on loan from the Tate Gallery in England. Pre-Rahhalite painters were rebelling against formulaic portrait paintings- you know the ones- the subject is 45 degrees and they are looking across their shoulder straight at the viewer. Paintings had become a little dull and subdued with black or dark backgrounds, and subjects were starting to look a little ‘staged.’ The ‘radicals’ began a painting revolution using bright and vibrant colours and posing their subjects in natural surroundings, even semi-underwater. The paintings were bright and colourful, full of life and vitality, in stark contrast to standard portraits of the day. Why the name Pre-Raphaelite? The painters thought it was all downhill since the Italian painter Raphael, and wanted to wind the clock back and erase this style altogether. That’s why, even though the movement was some 400 years after Raphael, it was called Pre-Raphaelite.

Having just completed a portrait shoot for teachers at a local school, you could be forgiven for thinking I was schooled in the paintings of Raphael. Subjects were sat on a stool in front of a coloured backdrop. They were generally turned 45 degrees and asked to turn their heads to look directly at the camera. The Pre-Raphaelites would have been appalled!

In stark contrast to this type of staged portrait photography, you could argue that street photography and environmental portraits are a nod to the Pre-raphaelite movement- full of colour and movement.

I take two messages out of this.

Firstly, it’s horses for courses. If you’re doing portraits for a school administration area, or a business entrance area, then give ’em what they want. Classical portraits with a little side-lighting for contouring and warm smiles is the recipe for the day. That’s not wrong, it’s what the client wants, and at the end of the day the client is paying for the photos.

Secondly, being aware that traditional portraits like those outlined above are only only one form of portraiture is an important piece of knowledge. Getting out with the kids in the park and shooting when they are on the swings, sliding down slippery dips, running around or inspecting a twig are wonderful and important portraits. Photographing your parents doing what they love- knitting, cooking, working in the garden or in their much loved shed are all priceless. On professional shoots, taking photos ‘between’ the official photos can often get you the best results. Above all, always be prepared to be surprised and be quick to take advantage of new possibilities. Photography is a creative art form- remember to always strive to keep it that way.