Your position in society may be determined by many intangible things but one concrete mark of status is being the subject of a portrait. An even greater distinction is to have your picture in a national portrait collection. Josh Allen has been talking to the curators of the different national portrait collections to find out on what basis pictures are selected, how new portraits are commissioned and the changing profile of those deemed worthy of this accolade.
Do pictures of high status people look different from those of ordinary people, and if so, why? Mike Trow was the picture editor of British Vogue. He explains to Richard West what goes on behind the scenes in the photographing of people who have most likely been photographed many times before and can choose how they want to be pictured.
No Rest For The Wicked by Kelly O’Brien draws on recent staged images, family photographs and those from her own archive of images made over fifteen years that document the working-class women in her family. Cynthia Cruz, author of The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class, introduces the work and starts by asking “If in the Bible, the phrase ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ was meant to connect sinfulness with the punishment of ceaseless labour, the riddle of the saying is: why is it a sin to be a worker?”
H.F. Cooper was an English photographer who moved to Strabane in the early 20th Century and took over an existing photographic business. As well as making conventional studio images he also moved around recording notable occasions in the vicinity, including the arrival of travelling circuses. Looking at Cooper’s pictures of clowns, Jon Davison notices the way the photographs capture the performers adopting their clown personas for the camera, often depicting people of low status or playing out a familiar skit. Now in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, these images preserve a link to these distant ephemeral moments of liveliness.
Jane Cummins wanted to take one photograph of herself each week throughout her pregnancy and to continue to use self-portraiture to “pause, reflect and force myself to take a closer look within”. The location for the images is her childhood bedroom where she is living, along with her partner, back with her parents in their house. It is not somewhere that Cummins wanted to be in her thirties but it is a reality she shares with many young people in Ireland due to the housing crisis. “The act of photographing myself in such a small space felt cathartic, a way to reconnect with my body and begin the transition into motherhood whilst being in an unconventional living situation.”