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A2-Level Essay – The Portrait

Fear is often struck into the heart of a student when discussing A Level Photography and they hear the word ‘essay’. This is really nothing to be frightened of, it is merely an opportunity for you to explore your ideas in more depth and also a chance to show off. Demonstrate your technical prowess, delve into the depths of conceptual imagery and scour photographic literature for primary sources. In today’s post we’re featuring an essay from a student who went on to achieve one hundred percent in unit 3, a testament to the students endeavor, willingness to explore and patience. Tintypes are incredibly difficult to master from a technical point of view; the overall aesthetic is exceptional, and from examining their application and purpose opened up a whole new avenue for discovery. I hope that this article will be helpful to any student looking for a level essay ideas and inspiration as complete examples are often hard to come by. Information on the personal study can be found on the exam boards website, so if you’re really stuck head there. Here is the a level photography essay example, feedback is most welcome in the comments section, let us know if it has been helpful.

Mirror, Mirror – Investigating The Tintype Portrait

I am examining the work of photographers Ed Drew and Louie Palu, specifically their projects Afghanistan, Combat Zone Tintypes and Kandahar. I will achieve this by studying their photographs and defining similarities and differences in their processes, composition and fundamental statements behind their work. I have chosen these photographers because of their influence over my own work. In mimicking the process of Drew and Palu’s composition – yet in a far less hostile environment – I intend to explore the techniques used which define the pain, exhaustion and sacrifice exhibited by the Marines so well. My practical work is underpinned by the Tintype’s ability to reveal a great deal of depth in a portrait. Ultimately I want to better understand how the Tintype process is able to achieve this and how it aids an accurate representation of the subject.

Ed Drew

Ed Drew is an avid Tintype photographer as well as being an USAF & National Guardsman veteran. Drew’s portraits of military instillations and soldiers serving in across the Middle East is entirely unique due to his use of collodion wet plate photography, creating a symmetry between, and homage to, the use of large format cameras in the American Civil War. His work has a parity with the photography of Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, and Timothy O’Sullivan who photographed battle fields and regiments of soldiers during the American Civil War. Their work ‘…brought the gruesome realities of warfare home to the American public’ (Foner, E. It could be argued that being inspired by these historically significant images, Drew sought to once again illustrate the human side of modern warfare and bring the realities to the general public.

ed drew tintype photography

The use of Tintypes themselves can aid the representation of fragility within the subject matter. Each Tintype requires meticulous preparation and even when fixed remains delicate, any abrasion to the surface of the plate will cause irreparable damage to the image despite being based on a metal plate. It could be argued that this in itself possesses a symmetry with the subject matter, the toll that war takes on the individual is being documented and that each individual soldier is fragile on the surface, despite any exterior displays of force through excessive weaponry or symbolism derived from the use of American flags. The fact that each plate has its own unique flaws caused by inconsistent flow of collodion over the plate also aids this discussion. Each soldier exhibits unique scars, whether physical or mental, caused by being exposed to a war zone. A downside to using Tintypes to document in this way is the time it takes to create a single exposure. A sensitised plate has the equivalent ISO of 1, in a studio environment a one second exposure would require four 800 watt flash heads. Drew’s exposures were taken in daylight, leading us to assume that even under midday sun the subject would have to remain still for at least two to three seconds. Because of this the pose, expression and setting for the image would have had to be considered beforehand and potentially dictated by the photographer to the subject in order to result in a well exposed portrait.

Ed Drew – Image Analysis

ed drew tintype photography

Drew’s use of tintypes – a photographic technique common place in conflicts such as the American Civil War – in Afghanistan, creates an eerie feeling of ghost like figures. The standard issue M9 Beretta holstered across his chest is the remnants of its ‘6 shooters’ ancestor; their m4s are the replacements of Winchester rifles and APCS the modern day pack-horses. His photos represent the surreal aspect of using such aged symbolism in such a modern conflict.
The character and tactile nature of the Tintype emphasizes the true grit of the subjects and the environment. Drew uses his colleagues, rather than the destitute landscape of Afghanistan (a relatively alternative concept being that historically photographers had travelled to the front line to take images of the conflict, casualties and the battlefield) as his subject matter. His subjects, despite being alive and unscathed, seem to express the horror, the pain and the anguish of war. Given our knowledge of the necessary exposure times of Tintypes we can assume that the sitter would need to be stationary for at least three seconds in order to achieve correct exposure using daylight. Within the context of my project this leads to the conclusion that the representation of the subjects face would be considered true, as a long exposure would require a still pose in order to avoid motion blur. The construction of the scene detracts from the facial expression and forces the viewer to consider the portrait as a whole. The American flag behind the soldier is a dominant symbol of patriotism, it sits above him in the frame, possibly representing that the country is greater than him and his personal anguish is worthwhile for the benefit of the nation. His uniform also helps to strip his identity. The word uniform itself can be defined as “remaining the same in all cases and at all times” ( The purpose of my project is to reveal the subject in greater detail, by placing the subject in a uniform it has in fact removed the subjects identity and therefore must be considered when developing my own work.

The most engaging element of the portrait is the subjects face. The necessity of a long exposure forces the sitter to remain still, and whilst the scene as a whole is constructed (the deliberately placed elements leading to a sense of performance) his face must remain relaxed and motionless, offering a blank expression which is unable to perform. This in turn in the context of my project would reveal otherwise hidden details in the sitters face and ultimately offer a portrait free of performance and subsequently a truer depiction of the subjects state of mind.

Louis Palu

louis palu soldier portrait photography

Palu is a Canadian born documentary photographer and covered the war in Afghanistan extensively from 2006-2010. Unlike Drew, Palu uses digital cameras to capture his portraits, his body of work possesses a similar quality in mood and content, choosing to document the toll that war takes on an individual. His photographs are typically sombre, black and white portraits of young men. The use of digital has enabled him to capture fleeting moments of expression which arguably capture a more realistic depiction of the soldier’s emotions. Like any photographic series, it has to be assumed that this series has been edited and only the most expressive images have been used. The fleeting moments of vacant expression may have been between moments of sincere joy and the photographer has chosen to display a certain photograph in order to aid their own ideals and artistic agenda. The catch-lights in the soldiers eyes would suggest that daylight has been used to light the portraits from one side, the images however are lacking in contrast which could suggest that a reflector was used to fill in shadows on one side of the face, or alternatively a room with a light interior was used which would have reflected ambient light back on to the subject. His images are composed in a fashion which forces the viewer to confront the soldiers expression, a tight crop to the face removes any background distraction, as does a shallow depth of field which places emphasis on the eyes and draws the viewer in to the subject’s expression.

Louis Palu – Image Analysis

soldier portrait photography
Within this image, the bearing of the marines ‘thousand yard stare’ directly down the lens creates unease and intimidation towards the viewer. The line of his jaw forms somewhat of a malevolent smile in the corner of his mouth; this may be false, in order to present a hardened identity upon a young scared one. The rim of his Kevlar helmet shields his eyes, darkening his face. This Marine’s facial expression is confusing: tension in his nostrils and mouth do not coincide with the rest of his expression, implying some sort of resentment to the camera or the audience.
The image portrays the individual’s stoic nature, of which is often associated with marines. The rich texture in the mud caked face, the shallow depth of field and the lack of emotion brings in to question what could cause a young, male marine to become so fragile and exhausted. What is more, there is an inscription at the front of the Marines helmet: Front towards enemy – a reference to the somewhat satirical instructions found upon a deadly claymore anti-personnel explosive device. This only accentuates the obvious differences between Marines and civilians: such crude humour originates in the self-belief of the corps’ that they are lethal, tactless, killing machines. Their ability to joke and embrace such reality is part of their identity, they were made to kill effectively and without mercy. However, this suggests a great deal of why many military personnel return fractured from society and struggle to re-adjust accordingly.

While we are supplied little information about Palu’s subjects, these portraits convey not only their identity formed upon their past encounters, but also offers a glimpse of their potential futures given what they were currently being exposed to. Palu achieves this by tightly cropping each portrait, forcing the viewer to engage with the subject, it draws you in and almost makes you feel their pain. Drew’s work however, is much more subtle, it captures a person however allowing their body language to communicate their state of mind rather than just their facial expression. There is a sense of performance about Drew’s work, the men are posing with large weaponry or in formation. I believe Palu’s work is a truer depiction of the emotional side of war and its effect on people, almost to say that Drew’s work captures an idealised image of a soldier, how they want to be perceived as strong and calm in that situation, whereas Palu’s deals with the harsher reality, that there is a frightened man underneath the uniform.

Based upon my image analysis I will attempt to establish a strong visual connection between my work and that of Louie Palu’s. Through thorough research and critical analysis I believe that Palu’s work captures more of a subjects personality and lived experience. I want to light my portraits in a similar fashion, choosing a minimal approach in order to create contrast and make the imperfections of the subjects face apparent.
Both artists use a shallow depth of field to focus on individual details, such as dirt across the individual’s cheeks, wrinkles across their forehead or the stare of their eyes. Taking inspiration from this, I could attempt to capture an individual’s most prominent feature: for example, the ageing in an adult in the form of wrinkles or the freckles on a teenager’s cheeks. Another option would be to photograph odd and uncommon characteristics, whether it be bizarre frizzy hair or the detail in a male’s facial hair, controlling the depth of field with such precision will enable me to capture the uniqueness of each individual sitter and this will be exaggerated by the texture of which the tintype process gives.
Unlike Palu however I will endeavour to use Tintypes as my main photographic medium. I will implement his methods of composition and lighting, coupling them with Drews use of Tintypes. Whilst I have concluded that Drews series has a staged quality and a sense of performance in overall composition, I believe that forcing the sitter to fix a pose for a long duration inevitably reveals a more detailed depiction of the face, and ultimately, a more insightful portrait.


Matthew Brady – American Civil War
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Ed Drew Photography
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Ed Drew – Koch Gallery
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Louie Palu
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Louie Palu Photographer
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Louie Palu – Pulitzer Centre
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Historic Photographs by Alexander Gardner
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George-N-Barnard – American Photographer
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Timothy H O’Sullivan – Getty Museum’sullivan-american-about-1840-1882/
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Merriam Webster – Uniform
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