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Facing the Page

Literacy in the Arts: Portraits

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What a portrait can tell us?
by Judith Aisen

Billy said that portraits “portray” things about people and Keith said they give you a little history.  We shared written “portraits” of friends and relatives but some of our liveliest conversations were inspired by a film about the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who spoke about working quietly, like a cat, to capture people in their own habitat.  We talked about HC-B trying to, “put the camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.”

We looked closely at HC-B’s portrait of Coco Chanel and Billy said you could tell she was an elegant woman just by the way she held her cigarette.  Sigfrido didn’t think the portrait was very good because it had no action and Joe said that Coco Chanel was too low in the picture.  But Sol suggested that we should not think so much about whether a picture is “good or bad.”  Instead, we should think about the choices the photographer made when he took the portrait.  Willestine said the photographer put Chanel low down so he could include her mirror and the chandelier reflected in the mirror.  You want to see her habitat, right?  And then Pauline suggested that the fact that Chanel is so low in the portrait makes you focus on the way she slouches in her chair and holds her cigarette.  Like Billy said before, Coco Chanel makes that cigarette look very elegant!

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