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Collaborative Portraits

Collaborative Portraits
Mary Ann McQuillan, Visual Arts Faculty

The scope and sequence of the AP Art History course that I teach, and AP European History, taught by Social Studies Department Head Mary Cameron, are not always in sync, but when we are covering the Renaissance and Baroque periods we show many of the same images in our classes. These images spark lots of conversation and inquiry between our students. AP Euro and AP Art History were both recently looking at how portraiture was used to express power and authority during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Both classes were also looking at the deliberate use of objects to convey symbolic meaning, whether in religious paintings or secular portraits.
K. Marth, a senior in AP Euro, asked if the class could have their own “formal” portraits made, using photography instead of painting. Her classmates were enthusiastic. Ms. Cameron approached me about the idea, and I reached out to an advanced photography student, junior U. Iyengar, if she would be interested in taking the lead on this. A new collaboration is in the works! We are talking about how these portraits will differ from ubiquitous “selfies.” We are interested in having each sitter put a lot of thought into choosing props, clothing and backdrop for their “formal” studio portraits and thus share control and ownership over the outcome of their image.

My goal is to shift the power dynamic between photographer and sitter, or at least try to. Our goal is not simply to “flatter” our sitters but for the portraits to express something about who they are as young women about to go off to college. 

The sitters will think about what aspects of their identity they would like to convey in the portrait, and use props to help them get their interests across. Bold choices and humor are encouraged. We are talking about how our vision is more a contemporary take on these portraits from the past and how one of our images could show both a book and a soccer ball in the same portrait, for example. The student photographer and I will focus on evoking the compositions and lighting and poses of the Renaissance and Baroque time periods; students are studying examples ranging from the 1400s to the late 1700s.
Photography was invented around 1839. It did not take long before the process was stable enough and cheap enough for it to spread around the world. In one sense, photography was a great democratizing medium as it permitted people of modest means to have a portrait made of themselves. Before the invention of photography, only the wealthy could sit for a painted portrait. By contrast, our students have grown up taking selfies and curating their own self-image on social media. Photography has played an outsized role in their lives compared to previous generations and certainly compared to their parents. The ability to switch to a front-facing camera was introduced to mobile phones around the same time that the word “selfie” was coined, around 2002-2003. This is several years before all of our students were born.

A student takes a photo of the back of two students on a harbor cruise

Students posing for a photo on the 2023 Harbor Cruise (photo by Mary Ann McQuillan)

When asked if their selfies are portraits, students are not so sure; they hesitate using a lofty word like “portrait” for their selfies. Selfies can certainly be seen as authentic snapshots in time, but are they always? How much artifice and culturally prescribed posturing is at play? What rules are our students self-consciously following? For this photography/ history collaboration, while each sitter is making her own choices, we know that these portraits will not be selfies. They will be “self-representations” of young women in 2024 and hopefully spark more conversations about how artists draw ideas from the past, and how a “formal” portrait can also be authentic.  

Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Lady with an Ermine, c. 1490

Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I 1588