What is a Hollow Portrait?

A hollow portrait, or “portrait en creux,” as it is called in french, is a still life taken that presents a person. During an on-line short course at the University of Mitchigan we were challenged to do such a self portrait. The outcome was fascinating and I am sharing my response with you.

Please take your time and take specifically how your eye moves in the photograph. See if I succeeded in my composition and please leave a comment after reading my explanation below.

Autoportrait en creux de André

My passage through life is a circular path between knowing and not knowing. I am developed through introspection, studying and creative self-development, to grow within those things that I am passionate about.

I chose symmetry for my composition to equally balance the light and the dark sides in a Yin and Yang pattern, alluding to the interaction between that what may be known, the left side, and that which is self-discovery, the unclear darker side. There is a reflection of that if you look at long enough may be recognizable. Its the reflection of my study chair . I moved the chair deliberately to reflect in the screen.

I used side lighting to create depth and fortunately for me, the light came via the darker side, highlighting that the uncertainty informs and enlightens what is known.

The use of the photograph by Alexander Rodchenko in black and white, which includes a woman and child, symbolizes my wife and family. It’s inherent imbalance seems to lead ones eye to the black PC screen and keyboard. The eye is then drawn to the white cup which is juxtaposed with the black screen and keyboard. The literal meme on the Cup reads ” Life is like photography… we use the negatives to develop”. i know it is a bit literal, but prove that the composition is what I intended it to be. Your eye is drawn upward from the cup to the lines and colour of the books. These books represent my passions in their selected titles, central theme in my life, religion, history, business, work, Art and creative thinking methods. The colour was a deliberate choice. I had to see to it that the focus is the sharpest in this area as this is the main elements of the Photograph. Your eye may ponder here for a while, or continue to the photograph above, directed by the lines in the book.

The movement is In a clockwise direction; symbolizing time. The eye circles back to the black and white photograph  with the family rising up on the stairs.,, and the cycle continues.

As a person trained the English world, it does not matter where you start. The path will be the same as it it is ensured by diagonal lines of the Rodchenko photograph which will direct the eye from left to right increasing the dynamic feel of the photograph… in spite of the symmetry . This movement of the eye is natural as this is how we look at things around us. it is called the sacadic movement of the eye.

It dawned on me after taking the photograph that my old wooden study table is my inheritance from my parents where I studied for school, thus presenting the foundation of those that came before me.

4 thoughts on “What is a Hollow Portrait?

  1. I am fascinated by the idea of a portrait de creux and find myself inspired with ideas of creating my own and what an interesting exercise it could be to have people who know you alo attempt to take one, based on what they know about you. It could lead into some incredible insights into that third Johari’s window. I am intrigued by the fact that a person with their many fascets can be summarised in one photo. Just the other day, I saw a funeral booklet which opted to, instead of the commonly used portrait, opted to make use of an empy garden chair. This was the first time a concept of this nature made sense to me. This photo is a wonderful representation of how I know you! I would actually enjoy seeing an entire series on this in your various roles. What I liked the most, is that which others may have chosen to hide which have been intentionally left in, such as bent book back or a speck of dust here and there, to me, it symbolises those mistakes that have helped you grow. The books were an incredible touch to relate your varying passions.


  2. Thank you Alicia. This what this website is about. I love your feedback as I can see your eyes are opened to see. Many visitors to the internet spend less than 3 second looking at a photograph and miss the depth of the story that is presented to them. Following a descussion with a friend and showing him this photograph he asked me to analyze a photograph of a chair his father made. After looking deeply at the photograph I gave my analysis and I was spot on. He was amazed. Visual language has far more potential than what we give it credit. Thanks for responding.


  3. Sorry, but I didn’t understand what a hollow portrait is. Don’t you have to appear? I find very unclear information on the web 😦


  4. Hi Michael,
    As described in my first line. “A hollow portrait, or “A hollow portrait, or “portrait en creux,” as it is called in french, is a still life taken that presents a person.,” as it is called in French, is a still-life taken that represents a person.”
    In this case a better translation of “en creux” is “insinuating yourself” rather than presenting yoursself. It may meaning leave a hollow imprint of you or merely what you leave behind of yourself.

    Several master photographers have taken photographs of an individuals environment without them being in it, such as Picasso’s studio in Rue Des Grands-Augustin, Paris 9th of May 1944 by Brassaii.

    The environment may have a number of visual indicators that Barthes call “signifiers” that tell the viewer more about the person than what a standard portrait of a person’s face will provide. If you include the person in it, it becomes an environmental portrait. If you want to try it for yourself, think of what you would photograph that will tell people something about yourself without having to have you present in the photograph. It is an exercise that will help you when you wish to photograph an individual and adding signifiers or Visual queue that will tell the viewer more about the person. I hope this helps.
    Links to look at.
    portrait en creux - focused on the more important things in his life (as he seems to feel!) amongst the other chaos


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