Assemblage: A toolkit with pictures

“Let us for a moment, imagine the scene before a group portrait is taken. The figure of the (often unknown) photographer now comes into play, arranging and directing the sitters, who could number anything between five and fifty people, and may well include the occasional dog. This requires some skill, but it is helped by a shared sense of purpose between photographer and sitters – whether eight or eighteen years old, wearing a swim suit, a combat uniform or a bunny costume. In some instances, the question of who stands in the top, middle or front row, or is seated in the centre, is determined by rank and importance; in others, it seems a practical question of height – though if you look closely enough you will see that this is often achieved with the aid of a chair. Before the shutter is released, attention to the last crucial details is given to enhance posture: arms folded, hands behind backs or in laps. Once this is done, it is time for the ritual ’Look this way’ at the camera: photographic convention and social expectation meet.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the collective gaze of the vernacular group portrait, in which the subjects look through the camera lens towards future viewers of the photograph. The overriding message is one of belonging, which encompasses even the momentarily distracted sitter. This notion of belonging brings in turn qualities of confidence, cohesiveness, strength and, on occasion, fun. These can be detected from a first glance at the group portrait.”

Assemblage: Unidentified Swimming team

For the full essay:

Bird, Nicky. Assemblage: A toolkit with pictures, Studies in Photography: The Scottish Society for the History of Photography, Annual Volume: 2011, 64-75, 2011, ISSN 1462-0510