Review of academic portraits from various departments within Lancaster University

If portrait photographs speak to us, the viewer, about their subjects, then surely the academic photograph is the loudest. The typical academic portrait gives an aura unlike no other, second to the portrait of royalty and world leaders. Before consulting texts on the matter and researching photographs, one already has an idea of what the “typical” or probably more fitting “classic” academic portrait photograph would look like; black and white, sat at a desk, surrounded by books. John Tagg wrote, ‘The Portrait is… a sign whole purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity.’[1] This is very relatable to the classic academic portrait. A stoic face gives off an air of distinction and authority. The black and white presents the idea that the subject handles with cold hard facts, yet in another sense it can add depth to the person.


The coming of the 21st Century certainly diminished the academic photograph from being a hard copy that we can hold in our hands to something that appears in a corner of a webpage, or shoved to the back of a book/ dust page. Granted this does make it easier to find examples, however it is a struggle to find an academic portrait that fits the features of our ideal type. As photography becomes more technological and modern, and so does the portrait photograph. Maybe we imagine the more modern academic portrait to look something like this?


However it is surprising to find that only a handful of portraits researched for this review hold features of the typical or classic type that we imagine. Is it still the academic’s intention to portray themselves as someone who is authoritative figure? Or do they strive to see that they appear more human? The examples are a mixture of both.

I have taken example photographs from the History, English and Politics, Philosophy and Religion departments. It is wise to conclude from the many mugshots that are used in place that these departmental photographs are not intended to be an archive. Many are there simply to provide a face to the name.


The first example is probably the most traditional of all the examples. Professor Laurence Hemmings’ departmental portrait is good example of showing knowledge. Hemmings is placed in front of a wall of books, most likely from his office. The background is a blur in contrast with the in focus Hemmings. While this primarily shows that he is the focus of the photograph, it informs the viewer that he is well educated and a knowledgeable person.

In contrast to the last two photographs the books are not in focus, and are not as obvious as they appear in the other photographs, saying something about the comfort of one’s knowledge and status. As small as it appears, it is nonetheless a step away from tradition focusing on the face, and person rather than their knowledge. Laurence Hemmings appears human in the portrait and not too much as a body at a desk under a pile of in focus books.


But it is the English department that has the thinker. Surprisingly the roles are reversed in these two examples as Hemmings from the PPR department is placed in front of books and Brian McCabe from the English department thinks. The blue filter offers a sense of depression and coolness about McCabe. This portrait gives a sense of authority and a demeanour different to Hemmings’ photograph. McCabe’s knowledge is in his head being put to good use and not on paper behind him. For a change the background is not of books, but of the view from what one can assume is his office window. This does many things, firstly it shows he thinks outside of the box, (the box being his office), it is a step closer to the outdoors, and attempt yet again to appear human. His clothes also adds to this idea. McCabe ultimately comes across as the casual thinker.

An interesting fact about the English department is that in the research for this review, I found that English had the most portraits which used some form of filter. It says something for the collective mind of the English department, and about English. It is deep, it is old, it can be traditional yet at the same time it is constantly re-inventing itself.


John Strachan’s portrait breaks all conformity when comparing it to the others and looking for the features we would expect in an academic portrait. This backs the idea that these departmental photographs are not taken seriously to be an archive. It shows life outside as the background appears almost homely. What does it say about John Strachan? To put it simply he is welcoming and nice. There is no air of intimidation that appears in the other examples, this portrait achieves its goal of portraying John Strachan as a human. This can undoubtedly work as to an advantage as it appears welcoming to students and public alike who are researching academics in the History department.

What do these portraits achieve overall? Well aside from their practical use of providing a face to a name, they fundamentally advertise. They sell their subjects, their departments and the university, to students looking to study at Lancaster. Granted, the bio also plays a major part in this sale, however a picture always appeals. We as a buyer do not want to invest in an item without seeing the product. They appeal to many onlookers, whether we want the stern well educated academic, or the friendly human one. It is down to what people want and what they actively seek out in a person. As Clarke states in The Portrait in Photography, ‘…for the portrait advertises an individual who endlessly eludes the single, status and sized frame of a public portrait.’[7]

It is safe to say that today the academic portrait takes many forms. It can be part of the pure system, it can break away from the conformity expected from a portrait. The many portraits that look more like a mug shot unconsciously mirror the mugshots of the famous.

1045[8]       ee7604b44b2c259e95ea7622ac76749e[9]

But would they be remembered like the celebrity is? Will Brian Baker ever be remembered like Elvis? The short answer is no, and admittedly it is unfair to compare the two. But the picture of Elvis will always be there for people to view even if the viewer is unaware of Elvis. Brian Baker’s image will disappear and be forgotten. Cardinal begins with stating, ‘The photographic Portrait was encouraged by the place within the contemporary ideology of the charismatic individual or celebrity.’[10] What this fundamentally means is that the academic has become more obscure yet ubiquitous, an inner wish to be charismatic or even more so, a celebrity.

John Berger writes, ‘Are the appearances which a camera transports a construction, a man-made cultural artefact, or are they, like a footprint in the sand, a trace naturally left by something that has passed? The answer is, both.’[11] I would have to disagree with this as I have argued before these portraits pose not as a man-made cultural artefact as they add nothing and their quality proves their seriousness as an archive and they do not leave anything behind. The stock photograph from before will most likely leave a bigger footprint and that is assumedly someone who is not an academic posing as one in front of the camera. Why? Because the stock photograph is what we imagine the academic portrait to look like, it is aesthetically pleasing. While the examples provided serve a much more practical purpose they ultimately bring nothing to us and so, in relation to the point made before about advertisement, they are not much different from the photographs we would find while browsing through an Argos catalogue. There aura has been shattered in 21st century and has left their voices weakened as they become more commercial and lose any significance and identity.

[1] John Tagg, The Burden of Representation, Essays on Photograhies and Histories (London, 1988) p. 37

[2] Jacques Barzun, photographer unknown, date unknown, [Accessed, 29th December 2015]

[3] Stock photo, Getty images, photographer unknown, date unknown, [Accessed, 29th December 2015]

[4] Laurence Hemmings, photographer unknown, date unknown, [Accessed, 2nd January 2016]

[5] Brian McCabe, photographer unknown, date unknown, [Accessed 2nd January 2016]

[6] John Strachan, photographer unknown, date unknown, [Accessed 2nd January 2016]

[7] Graham Clarke, The Portrait in photography (London, 1992) p.1

[8] Brian Baker, photographer unknown, date unknown, [Accessed 3rd January 2016]

[9] Elvis Presley mugshot, Denver Police Department, 1970, [Accessed 3rd January 2016]

[10] Roger Cardinal, Nadar and the Photographic Portrait in Nineteenth Century France, in Graham Clarke, The Portrait in Photography (London, 1992) p.6

[11] John Berger, Appearances, in John Berger, Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling (New York, 1982) p.92

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