MAS.961 | Spring 2008 | Graduate

Special Topics: Designing Sociable Media


Assignment 5: Varieties of Portraiture

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A portrait is a representation of an individual person. The goal of the portrait is to capture some likeness of them, something of who they are. What aspect of the person is considered important to represent is culturally dependent. Portraits of rulers from the early Medieval period often did not depict the actual appearance of the living ruler, but the “imago” of a Roman emperor in whose succession he felt himself to be standing, by “tanslatio imperii.” The historical, political and social context in which the ruler wished to be viewed was the image he presented, not his own physical appearance. Indeed, our notions of identity - of the constancy of a person in different circumstances and throughout life, is to some extent culturally constructed - and as notions of identity change, so do portraits. Indeed, in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, life likeness was the standard that portraiture was held to - and which was subsequently replaced by an emphasis on depicting the spiritual (and later, psychological) aspect of the subject.

Late Medieval portraits are quite interesting from a visualization perspective because of their complex symbolic content. The position of the subject, the background images, and objects in the picture all held meaning.

Traditionally, the ideal portrait both resembled the subject’s physical appearance and captured the essence of that person. Contemporary portraits, however, are made within a cultural and artistic context with deep questions about the nature of identity, of representation, and of authenticity.

Today, technology is transforming both the medium and the subject matter of portraiture. New recording and production technologies make possible very different sorts of artistic objects, ones that are interactive, able to sense the audience, capable of learning and changing. And technology is also changing the how we think about human identity: to portray the essence of a person, do we show the face? DNA? surveillance data? shopping transactions?


Brilliant, Richard. “Fashioning the Self.” Chapter 2 in Portraiture. Reaktion Books, 1991. ISBN: 9780948462191. [Preview in Google Books]

West, Shearer. “What is a Portrait?” and “The Functions of Portraiture.” Chapters 1 and 2 in Portraiture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780192842589.



  • Read the chapters by Brilliant and West.
  • Answer:
    • A portrait involves a subject, an artist, and an audience. What is the relationship among these three? How does this change when the medium is interactive? Think about different types of interactivity - from simple reactive objects to ones that collect information about the viewers.
    • According to Brilliant and Shearer, what are the functions of portraiture? What functions are best addressed by realistic imagery? What by more abstract depictions? Traditional portraits feature the image of the subject’s face. Many of the examples listed above do not. Do you think they still function as portraits? Why or why not? Use specific examples. In particular, discuss how the genomic representations function as portraits (or not) and compare them with something like the grocery one or other data - based depictions.
  • Find at least two other examples of non-traditional portraits. Write a paragraph about each explaining what it is portraying, the symbolic refernces it uses, how it mediates between artist/subject/audience, and what impresion it evokes. These can be examples you find on the web, in a book, in a gallery… You are also welcome to use the examples you find when discussing the questions above.

Student Work

Seth Hunter

Sohin Hwang

Lana Swartz

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Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Problem Sets with Solutions
Projects with Examples