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Notes on Photographic Portraiture: In-Situ vs. In-Studio

Like fiction and nonfiction, photographic portraiture is divided into two approaches. Is one better than the other? How should a photographer (or a subject) choose? Must you choose?

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SARAH KWAK: VIOLINIST, OREGON SYMPHONY CONCERTMASTER. 2018. Photo: K.B. Dixon
SARAH KWAK: VIOLINIST, OREGON SYMPHONY CONCERTMASTER. 2018.


Text and Photographs by K.B. DIXON


Portrait photography, like literary prose, can be divided into two basic genres (expansive gray areas notwithstanding). In literature that division is between fiction and nonfiction; in portrait photography it is between in-situ (a.k.a. environmental portraits) and in-studio. In the environmental portrait the subject shares the frame with his or her surroundings. In the in-studio portrait the subject is isolated and has the frame to themselves.

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CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

Each of these approaches has its own special appeal. The environmental portrait offers the photographer more compositional options and the viewer more objective information with which to form their various opinions of the subject. The in-studio portrait offers the photographer more control over the image and the viewer a deeper engagement with the subject and greater freedom of interpretation. Each also has its own set of issues and its own vulnerabilities. The information supplied in the environmental portrait can be distracting, can take attention away from the subject, and can moderate the viewer’s engagement; while the absence of compositional options can render the in-studio portrait repetitious and the absence of objective signaling can render interpretations more subjective.

The details of the in-situ portrait—the specific accoutrements of a subject’s immediate world (the decorative table lamp, the dilapidated houseplant, the demonic cat)—tell us something about that person, but what? The connotative quality of these contextual details will vary, as will the talents of the interpreter. They can be misleading—a fact that is not always obvious. The environment is a comparatively crude instrument for detecting complexity. The interpretations we make from environmental clues are generally more accurate, but those we make from the involuntary, almost imperceptible, twitches of a facial muscle are more substantive. With in-situ portraits you may discover who the subject is and what he or she does for a living, but with the in-studio portrait you will have a stronger sense of what he or she feels about who they are and what they do: The viewer will have a stronger sense of what it feels like to be in the same room with them.

A photograph is a time machine—its central strength is its relation to reality. There is a certain quality to a good photograph that is sometimes described as “thereness,” or, as I describe it, “presence.”  It has a unique power: It puts you in direct visual and visceral contact with a person, place, or thing that is physically and/or temporally distant from you. Photographs ripen—as the temporal distance becomes more dramatic with each passing year, it adds to a photograph’s value as a document and as an aesthetic object. This time-stamp is notable in the environmental portrait because it offers a greater number of aging details. In the studio portrait it is subtler—the aging elements are fewer and generally more discreet.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said the test of a decent intelligence was the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. As a photographer it seems I have flunked this test. I am drawn to both environmental and studio portraits, but perpetually conflicted when it comes to focusing on one or the other. I would like to be doctrinaire on the matter (it would make life easier), but I can’t be. I am, it seems, a nondenominational portraitist. I expect I’ll remain one for quite some time yet.

Brian Ferriso  

Brian Ferriso, Director and Chief Curator of the Portland Art Museum. 2017. Photo: K.B. Dixon
Director and Chief Curator of the Portland Art Museum. 2017.

Subashini Ganesan-Forbes

Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, Portland Creative Laureate and founder of New Expressive Works; now chair of the Oregon Arts Commission. 2019. Photo: K.B. Dixon
Portland Creative Laureate and founder of New Expressive Works; now chair of the Oregon Arts Commission. 2019.

Emily Powell

Emily Powell, third-generation owner and President of Powell's Books. 2021. Photo: K.B. Dixon
Third-generation owner and President of Powell’s Books. 2021.

Stephen Hayes

Stephen Hayes, Portland fine-arts painter, 2020. Photo: K.B. Dixon
Painter. 2020.

Victoria Frey

Victoria Frey, Executive Director of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA); now retired. 2021. Photo: K.B. Dixon
Executive Director of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA); now retired. 2021.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

K.B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. His most recent collection of stories, Artifacts: Irregular Stories (Small, Medium, and Large), was published in Summer 2022. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His SyndromesAndrew (A to Z)A Painter’s LifeThe Ingram InterviewThe Photo AlbumNovel Ideas, and Notes as well as the essay collection Too True, Essays on Photography, and the short story collection, My Desk and I. Examples of his photographic work may be found in private collections, juried exhibitions, online galleries, and at K.B. Dixon Images.

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