Think Portraiture with Topeng Keras

Portrait photography as a genre, methods of approach and the ironic truthfulness of Masks.

Think Portraiture with Topeng Keras… Portraiture in photography is a dominant genre and has been since the early days of photography. In the beginning, photography began as a documentation tool and its function served to catalogue and document its subjects. Portrait photography in its earliest days was often research-based and clinical. As photography transitioned into a field of art creative styles began to develop. Visual Ethnography and pictorialism are just some early photographic styles that illustrate the different purposes of portrait photography.

Think Portraiture Visual Ethnography

Visual Ethnography

Ethnography is the study and interpretation of social organisations and cultures in everyday life. It is a research-based methodology, and when this research is conducted using photography, video or film, it is called visual ethnography.

Image Left: Hermann Kummler (compiler) (Swiss, 1863-1949)
(Portrait of Brazilian woman servant and child)
1861-1862. From Ethnographic portraits of indigenous women of Pernambuco and Bahia

Think Portraiture Sawidji Studio Art and Photography


Pictorialist photographers are concerned with making pictures that are said to be aesthetically pleasing – meaning, those which appeal to people’s sense of beauty. (For more, see: Aesthetics.) The term “pictorial photography” is used to describe photographs of this kind in which artistic qualities are more important than documenting actuality.

Image left: May Prinsep, as “Beatrice Cenci” (1866). One of a series of Pre-Raphaelite-style pictorialist photos created by Julia Margaret Cameron

Portrait photography began to replace more traditional forms of portraiture such as painting from the early 20th century. Portraiture being one of the oldest forms of art, it makes sense that through photography’s transition into Fine Art, it also began to play a major role in this form of art. Portrait photography is a vast field to explore and today we take a quick look at general ways to approach it.

Different Methods of Portrait Photography

Today there are many different types of portrait photography. Depending on what you read and who is writing. But despite all the differences, the information provides us with more knowledge and reflects just how fast photography is evolving. Reflecting the consciousness of our times today.

There are generally four approaches in method to portrait photography. Styles and sub-classes such as fashion, glamour, self-portrait, conceptual and surreal portraits, family portraits, and candid and lifestyle portraits are just some examples. but the method and approach generally fall into 4 categories.


This means that we construct the image. The photographer will set up the parameters of the image to capture the impression that he has set. This is usually in a studio with controlled lighting and props. This controlled environment lends much more to image taking than just pressing the shutter release. How a photographer envisions the final image will determine how he or she will construct their space, for lighting, composition, and focus point. Fashion, advertising and some studio photos are some examples of this type of approach.


Candid portraits aim to capture a portrait of the subject in a more natural situation. A person might not even know it. Stolen moments you can say. Capturing the most natural behaviours in a natural setting. Perhaps you can say this is the art of spontaneity. What I like to call naked expressions.


Environmental portraits are a little bit of candid and constructionist methods combined. Using the environment to tell a story. Also, taking photographs naturally as they occur in the environment. perhaps a portrait of a chef is taken in his kitchen whilst he is cooking? or an athlete on the sports field.


The creative approach to photography is very much an open gateway. This can include the many styles of photography that are conceptual, and surrealist and may include composited digital images. Very rarely will this be just a pure capture from the camera with minimal post-processing revisions.

Think Portraiture, Purpose and Function

Understanding approaches to portraiture is not a rule book. These different approaches can be seen as something to help you explore and enjoy photography. The method you choose will help to achieve your image’s purpose. The right approach will go a long way to achieving the purpose or function of your image.

In the studio with Topeng Keras, this would fall in the candid approach with elements of constructionist parameters.

Think Portraiture with Topeng Keras..

I am posting here some images from a session in the studio with Kadek Sudiasa, a traditional dancer and mask maker. Exploring the traditional masks of Bali in our series ‘The Living Masks of Bali’. This particular portrait session is dedicated to Topeng Keras.

I am posting this separately here with a specific look at portraiture as a genre, through the photographers’ viewpoint, but also a simper human perspective. Reflecting on the portrait as a way to explore related musings.

A Portrait of a Mask

A portrait’s subject is usually a person. or a group of people. I say that this is a portrait of Topeng Keras because the whole purpose of our session is truly to meet and get to know and become familiar with Topeng Keras. It is capturing a living character. of the mask.. why do we call these the living masks of Bali? because they are alive.. each with an individual character and spirit. This portrait is of Topeng Keras.

The purpose of our portraits with Topeng Keras is to strip away the opulence of theatre and show the living nature of the Mask. The vitality and energy of the sacred mask.

It is interesting when we use the term ‘mask’ in general, we are conditioned to derive meaning from something hidden.. something that does not appear true to itself. When something is ‘masked’.. it is concealing an aspect of truth.

Another perspective, when we are talking about the Sacred Masks of Bali, we discover their essence are Truths. Ancient wisdom and truths,.. relayed through the masks. The masks carry each their message.

The mask has no intention or purpose in being anything other than true to itself. Whether brutal, hard, old or joyful, its purpose is to embody its truth.

The beautiful fruit that I have plucked from this tree is the honesty of the mask. People are occupied with the issue of authenticity and genuineness. So much so that the proverbial ‘mask’ is a term we accord when others are being deceptive and camouflaging something. Being less than honest. yet, here through the good fortune, I have had in being able to learn about the sacred masks of our culture, I note the beauty in the honesty of Masks. The mask does not lie. The Mask embodies truth, a pearl, a wisdom. Something intangible and yet very elementally real. The mask does not seek to conceal anything, but it demands the letting go of deceit for the dancer to dance it.

Think Portraiture with Topeng Keras

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