For thousands of years we have upheld a cultural norm with codes on what a portrait should look like. Sometimes we deviate from the codes, but 3/4 angle bust shots where the subject is a controlled figure with a polite smile are still by far the predominant style.
Are you perhaps looking for portraits for your website or a brochure and considering which codes you should signal to match your message and your brand's identity? Then read on. Together with the Swedish semiotician Karin Sandelin of Kantar Sifo, we have examined which codes you can signal with different types of portraits. Come along!
Confrontational portraits that demand attention
Unusual angles, close cropping, sharp contrasts, unexpected elements or over-explicit facial expressions allow you to create a confrontational character that seeks to capture and challenge the observer. Anything that interrupts symmetry and the expected order in the image, that interferes with our preconceived ideas and norms helps achieve this expression. Our gaze is automatically drawn to the eyes in the image and the dominant message in this type of
portrait is: "LOOK AT ME".
Aloof portraits that allow you to take the first step
Aloof portraits show a physical distance to a static motif – the stationary state is conveyed by the motif leaning against something or demonstrating reservation through body language such as crossed arms or an uncommunicative and controlled facial expression with a closed mouth, squinting eyes and averted gaze. Under these conditions, the motif becomes somewhat inaccessible, demonstrates that we have different roles and indicates that the observer has to
take action to reach us. The message conveyed by this type of portrait is a whispered: "If you want something, you are going to have to make an effort.".
Balanced portraits that signal accessibility but easily become generic
A poised portrait shows a person at just the right distance – not too close and not too far away. It upholds the norm for portraits and signals accessibility. The distance is appropriate for having a discussion, and depending on the facial expression, styling and body language, the depiction can seem to a greater or lesser extent welcoming, exciting or secure. The motif has a poised attitude, which entails an openness in facial expression, clothing and body
language. This type of portrait signals: "Hi there and welcome.".
With a portrait you can signal several different values and meanings which communicate who you are and what you want to say. Use codes consciously to uphold or violate norms in the portraits you utilize in your communication.
A special thanks to Karin Sandelin of Kantar Sifo who worked with us on this article.