Commissioning a portrait

Full-length semi-profile portrait of a sitting young man. He sits on an ornamented wooden chair, next to an ornamented wooden table, on which his right arm rests. His legs are crossed. His hair is parted on the left. He wears a dark-coloured tweed suit, a white dress shirt and a dark-coloured tie.
Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Cobie Hijma. (front)

For ages, when you felt important enough to be portrayed, you had to commission a painter to paint your mug. A costly and time-consuming process, that automatically generated careful consideration before even taking the step of contacting painters and perhaps looking at some portfolios of sketches. And in the process, during the many sittings it might take to finish the product, you too would have loads of time to consider the painter’s first outlines and perhaps adjust as you went along. Just like the painter would. 

The photographic portrait was different from the get-go. Even in the early days, when photography was still a relatively “slow” medium with exposure times running in the minutes, it produced results considerably faster than painting and drawing did before. In the decades following the “birth” of photography at the end of the 1830s, photography as a medium just got faster and faster. Enthusiasts such as Fox Talbot spent enormous amounts of time experimenting, adjusting and perfecting chemical compositions used to capture the “light images”, and perhaps more importantly and for a long time the greatest struggle, also retaining or fixing these.  

Over time, photography evolved from being a medium of the happy few elitists to a medium of the masses. This did not happen overnight, but rather over decades. In the many histories of photography that have been composed to this day, it is often recited that the turning point was when George Eastman’s Kodak found a way to produce a small, easy-to-operate camera that could basically be operated by anyone. In addition, Kodak took the labouring process of developing the film and printing the images in the darkroom out of the customer’s hands, steps for which many different chemicals and appliances were needed, as well as specific knowledge. “You press the button, we do the rest.” The consumer handed in their camera at their local store with a full film roll still in it, and in some time received in return their camera loaded with fresh film and a folder with prints of their previous roll. 

Another step in photography’s democratization has most definitely been the inauguration of the digital age. In the first five to ten years, digital photography might have sooner been a step back rather than forwards in relation to availability to all. As with all brand-new techniques, the first specimens of digital cameras were extremely expensive, making it available only to wealthy early adopters. However, as we all know, development in the digital era has been crazy fast, resulting in what is now an everyday practice that almost everyone walks around with a digital camera in his pocket that is over a thousand times better than those first, super expensive models.  

Literally, anyone can take a photograph anywhere. This practice has reduced the “commissioning” of a portrait to a simple question: “Hey, take my photo, will you?”, which can be answered with a few simple “swipes” and clicks. In a heartbeat, one can produce a portrait, crop it, adjust the lighting and other edits, and send it to the person who “commissioned” it. The whole process has become so effortless, that anyone can do it and as a result, professional photographers struggle to validate their practice and pricing. They are priced out of the market by the fact that everyone thinks they are, or at least know what it entails to be, a photographer. A modern-day example of “my three-year-old could do that”, as was already the critique in the days of Modern art in the 19th century. 

There is another side to every story. And it’s just one click away!

Do you like what we are doing? Support us on Ko-fi.



Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Cobie Hijma. (back)

The young man in this picture is supposed to show nothing else than his best attire, confidence and readiness for whatever crap Life might throw at him, yet I sense some sort of awkward resistance in his thoughtful presence. Maybe a refusal to grow up—or it could be the gorgeously decorated but incredibly uncomfortable-looking chair pushing exactly the most painful spots in his back.

For some, it is an unwelcome moment in life: becoming an adult. Facing the expectations of the world, official authorities demanding respect they often don’t seem to have earned, making a living—cleaning up your own filth. Society and its hopes are often just as uncomfortable as some furniture to sit on: they might be lovely to look at, but there are a few who wish to have nothing else to do with it.

The source of my unease might be his lips: not smiling, not strict, simply in the process of just about trying to say something, frozen in time with the unspoken thought trapped in his mind. „I actually wanted to be an actor.” „I’m not that much into law, you know, but I’m to take over the family business one day.” „What did you say again? Why can’t I have my instrument in this picture?” “Could you please hand me a pen? I would like to feel more in charge of my own fate.”

But then again, can I even imagine what a young man about a century ago might have felt? Those were different times. It is hard enough to imagine what people around 18 think these days. I was there only 20 years ago, and that was a different era. Times change dizzyingly fast.

There is probably one thing that might feel more or less the same, however: the pains of “growing” some sort of stature, whatever that might be. Studying well, raising a family, having a big enough car or the latest gadgets, a higher and higher salary—or just a little money left at the end of the month so that one doesn’t have to worry about the basics until the next payment arrives.

What even is stature? Just another construct? Can one carefully refurbish the existing model and respectfully reshape it more to their liking? I can only hope.

Tired of looking at my backside? Check out my front!

Do you like what we are doing? Support us on Ko-fi.