Our final outing before taking a break, we visited the National Portrait Gallery. This was a great opportunity to think about contemporary portraiture, so whilst we worked from photographs, we also looked at painting and sculpture.Having previously looked at Keith Arnatt’s portraits of unnamed subjects in our session at Tate Britain, we considered how the NPG collection prioritised the subject – the ‘who’ (the shop, for example, indexes its postcards by name of subject, not artist.)
We began in the Print Room where, kitted out with blindfolds, I audio described to the blindfolded class Actors Last Supper by Alistair Morrison, Andy Teare and Dean Mitchell. There was a lively discussion – pupils recognised the context and story before even seeing the photograph. Once they removed their blindfolds and looked at the photograph, they discussed what – if anything – they had missed from listening to my description.
Pupils identified some of the actors, and worked out that the photograph was a digitally manipulated composite. We discussed possible connections between those two facts; the practical rationale for technical choices – might it be hard to get all those busy actors in a room together at the same time?
Following on from this introduction, I introduced the way the group was to work: WHAT? – WHO? – HOW?
WHAT? In pairs – one blindfolded, one audio describing – they began with WHAT they saw. (We have done a fair amount of work on this; recording individual ‘radio journalist’ pieces, and in class, working with RNIB audio descriptions – and I feel this is really starting to pay off.)
Once blindfolds were removed, they gave their partner feedback on anything they thought was missing or confusing in the audio description.
Only then were they to look at WHO the portrait was of, using the title and any information provided on the accompanying panels.
Finally they were invited to think about HOW the way the artist had chosen to portray the sitter (framing, crop, colour, setting, context, size….) was appropriate, or effective, or made us think about the kind of person the sitter was.
We had a trial run, with a volunteer describing Kate Moss by Corinne Day to the rest of the (blindfolded) group. This was very successful; we talked about the use of multiple images, the scale, the choice of black and white, the informality of the poses, and the relationship between photographer and sitter.
The pairs then spent time in the contemporary section, using a range of designated portraits. Pupils looked at the use of props and at the settings that had been chosen. They were asked to think about the scale of the portraits and the various technical decisions the artists had made, and to comment on the relationship between sitter and artist. We asked whether the way the sitter had been portrayed made us rethink our ideas around the kind of person the sitter was. We then regrouped to share some of our findings.
I feel fortunate to have the flexibility of working on themes that feed into pupils’ coursework, finding aspects that at the same time help unpack visual literacy. The pupils are currently developing a project in school using Frida Kahlo, and so as an introduction to portraiture and self-portraiture, this visit not only developed visual literacy skills but also provided useful groundwork.