Review of The Art and Science of Portraiture

by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Jessica Hoffmann Davis
Book Reviewed
Book Title
The Art and Science of Portraiture
Book Author
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Jessica Hoffmann Davis
Book Publisher
Jossey-Bass
Place of Publication
Year
2002
ISBN
9780787962425 More info
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Elizabeth Vallance
Year
1998
Publication
American Journal of Education
Volume
107
Issue
1
Pages
66-71
Publisher
Language
English
License
Select License
URL
Updated
December 20th, 2012
Abstract
Book Reviews
 
The Art and Science of Portraiture by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997. 281 pp.; references, index.
 
Elizabeth Vallance
 
Saint Louis Art Museum
 
It was a pleasure to read The Art and Science ofportraiture, Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis's methodological sequel to Law- rence-Lightfoot's The Good High School (1983). The writing is beautiful, the ideas persuasive, and the picture it paints of the process of careful observation is one that every writer should read. Even the title is wonder- ful: it challenges with great confidence any suspicion that portraiture is somehow "soft" or, heaven forbid, unscientific at all.
 
I had the timely opportunity to hear Lawrence-Lightfoot speak this past spring at the meeting of the American Educational Research Asso- ciation on the subject of this book-portraiture as a method for educa- tional research. She told the audience an interesting tale about one person's initial reaction to The Good High School, which was in effect a collection of portraits of a range of effective American high schools. Since she told this tale to thousands in the audience, I think I can repeat it here: A member of the committee reviewing that earlier book for an award that it received said to her privately after she had accepted the award, "It's good work, Sara, but only you can do it." This imputation of irreplicability, of idiosyncratic research inaccessible to more traditionally trained researchers clearly stuck with her. She referred to it more than once in her remarks, and it seemed clear to me that this newest book was taken on in part as a response to that challenge, as an effort to dem- onstrate that this research represents a coherent, systematic, teachable methodology, one that can be developed and honed, and one that readers can trust to generate a true story. I appreciated Lawrence- Lightfoot's candor about the seriousness of the challenge that the doubter handed her. Portraiture is clearly a statement about the serious- ness, the difficulty, the judgmental standards, and ultimately, the reli- ability of this form of qualitative research. It is useful for all of those reasons.
 
ELIZABETH is director of education at the Saint Louis Art
 
VALLANCE Museum, where she and her staff teach art novices-teachers, children, senior citizens, and everyone in between-to "become art critics in their own right." She is a photographer. She received her Ph.D. in curriculum development from Stanford University in 1975.
 
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Book Reviews
 
This book is unlike most research methodologies for at least two rea- sons. One is its origin as the response to the challenge mentioned above. The more enduring difference, though, is the special coauthorship and partnership that Lawrence-Lightfoot, sociologist and educational researcher, and Davis, art educator and developmental psychologist, have achieved in their mostly alternating, interwoven chapters. Lawrence- Lightfoot makes the case for the portraiture approach in a strong early chapter that raises the issues, argues for the legitimacy of individual case and clinical studies from the perspective of other disciplines, and gen- erally makes us wonder why anyone would even think of questioning the rightness of this approach. Davis takes us through parallel arguments in the development of a work of visual art. Chapters 3-7 follow the steps in developing a portrait: identifying/selecting context, finding a consistent voice, understanding the relationship between artist and subject, identi- fying emergent themes, and finally, determining the principles for judg- ing the aesthetic qualities of the whole. In each chapter we address the principles of "illumination, implementation, and artistic refrain." In each case Lawrence-Lightfoot writes the first section, which defines terms, makes the persuasive case, and sets the stage. Davis writes the sec- ond and third sections of each of these chapters, using case studies of visual arts as examples and comparisons. The alternating efforts of the two authors, so richly reflecting their different perspectives on schooling and on conveying the essences of experience, work unusually well. I do not think I have ever read a coauthored book that so aptly used the dif- ferent, differentiated, and complementary skills and voices of its authors. It was a delight to watch these two women at work together.
 
There are many reasons to appreciate this book. One is that it is such a pleasure to read. Perhaps one reason Lawrence-Lightfoot's critic told her that only she could do this kind of work is that good writing does matter when conveying the patterns, textures, and underlying structure of an educational (or any other) setting. Both authors write beautifully. Conceivably a book about educational portraiture could be dry as dust, but in such a case it would surely lose all credibility. Communication must be clear and compelling, and this book, outlining a research meth- odology that could easily be nothing but a dutiful chore to read, is in fact a compelling read. I do not know many treatises on research method- ology about which that can be said.
 
Also, the metaphor is perfectly apt. Any piece of research writing, if its authors are really honest, offers in fact a kind of portrait of its subject. Any account of an event is a kind of snapshot-a term some nonportrait- ists use-of a moment in time with a central character, a cast of second- ary characters (usually teacher and students), and a setting, framed within a context of the research tradition, working with the patterns and
 
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Book Reviews
 
details respected by that research tradition. Any piece of research writing uses the researcher's voice, though as Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis point out, traditional researchers usually take great pains to develop a neutral, uninvolved, "objective" voice. Good research, well written in any research paradigm, portrays its subject clearly if not always engag- ingly; portraits are what we do in this business. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis have made a large but logical leap to connect explicitly the effort of analyzing educational situations with creating the framed painting that we usually envision with the term. It works. It is hard to dispute this basic point.
 
The book works beautifully as a whole, though I gradually wondered whether it might not also work in some condensed form-either as an article or as a series of articles comprising the separate chapters. The book reads so well partly because it flows so nicely, and it flows so nicely partly because some of the basic points about context, interpretation, patterns, and researcher-subject relationship are repeated in variations in different chapters. Any one chapter could almost stand on its own.
 
Finally, the book is a wonderful balance of instruction and example, with examples drawn mostly from prior "portraits" created by Lawrence- Lightfoot and Davis, often referring back to Lawrence-Lightfoot's own books, The Good High School and I've Known Rivers: Liues of Loss and Libera- tion (1994), as well as to several studies by Davis (e.g., Safe Havens: Por- traits ofEducational Effectiveness in Community Art Centers That Focus on Edu- cation in Economically Disaduantaged Communities [1993]), and selected other studies. This book stands solidly on its own. One could read it, and only it, and gain a clear picture of what educational portraiture can pro- duce: it is self-contained. In this respect, it can function as a kind of text- book, as I am sure it has done in education-research courses.
 
I have only one serious quibble with the book: it is perhaps a bit too self-contained. It is seductively wonderful to read. It took me a while to realize that the book describes a portraiture methodology almost as though it were really true that "only [Sara] could do it": most of the examples of the various stages and procedures in portraiture are taken from Lawrence-Lightfoot's own work. Granted, this book is plainly an effort to elucidate the process that she had used-some might have sus- pected intuitively and idiosyncratically-in her own unusually sensitive and thoughtful portraits of good high schools. She is plainly seeking to outline her own methodology, which is a methodology never before outlined for this audience. Yet in some ways we can argue that parts of her methodology haue deliberately been used before, perhaps under other names: there are other good "portraits" out there, spanning back over decades of lucid qualitative research on schooling. They include
 
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Book Reviews
 
Phil Jackson's Life in Classrooms (1968), searing educational critiques- portraits of terrible conditions of the 1960s-by Paul Goodman (1960, 1964), John Holt (1964), Be1 Kaufman (1964), Herbert Kohl (1967), and Jonathan Kozol (1967), for starters, and the rich spate of ethno- graphic research that has been done since then. Yet virtually all the ex- amples of portraiture are taken from the authors' own previous studies; the bibliography emphasizes mostly other methodological sources and is not a strong place to start in seeking out other, earlier, portrait-like studies. I suppose it would have been a different book, but it strikes me that analyzing other writers' work as portraiture would in some cases have been appropriate, useful, and might have even strengthened the basic case that there is indeed a "long arc of work, reaching back two centuries, that joined art and science" (p. 5).
 
I think it is fair to consider, for example, Shenvood Anderson's Wines-burg Ohio (1960), Berton Roueche's Special Places: In Search ofSmall Town Amnica (1982), Alfred Kazin's A Walkn in the City (1951), or William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways (1983), even Thomas Hart Benton's au- tobiographical An Artist in America (1937), as "portraits" (of a fictional small town, several actual small towns, New York City, a back-roads jour- ney, and a life in rural America, respectively). Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis's excellent criteria for judging aesthetic wholeness in chapter 7 could be applied to these works and indeed to any portrait, written or otherwise: Has contextual information been included as a backdrop throughout the portrait? Is the author's voice informative without dis- torting? Are relationships among the players respected? Do the emer- gent themes resonate accurately? (I paraphrase.)
 
These questions apply to any effort to characterize a person, place, situation, or event. Davis makes the connection to the visual arts clear enough, but let me add just one comment from my world of art museums and art-education research in that setting: those four criteria can also be applied to judge a painted portrait-we would look (respectively) for an appropriate background and details, a consistent and appropriate style, a sense of character coming from the painter's reading of the individual, and a use of compositional principles that create a believable mood. Mu- seum visitors can-and probably do-intuitively or deliberately use at least these criteria in arriving at their own judgments of painted portraits hanging on our walls; art instructors working with children and adults can and do use principles like these to critique student efforts at portrai- ture. And as an aside, I must mention that a colleague of mine in art education once taught an art-appreciation course as continuing educa- tion to area police officers who at first could not see the point but later thanked her for helping them to see better and thus to improve on their
 
November 1998 69
 
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crime reports: I would not be at all surprised to hear that a writing course using The Art and Science of Portraiture had proven useful to more "tech- nical" writers such as police officers, physicians, psychiatrists, private de- tectives, and others who must organize and clarify their observations in order to understand a situation better. It would be very interesting to hear about writers in other fields who might have found this book a use- ful guide to the consistency, clarity, and defensibility of their "portraits."
 
I cannot help but compare this book's broad usefulness to that of other handbooks on writing, for example, the recent, wonderful Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (1994). That book also was a compelling and fun-to-read set of instructions on obser- vation, analysis, writing. Lamott's book is aimed at a general audience, probably most useful to budding novelists and essayists. But The Art and Science of Portraiture, too, could be at least as useful to many other kinds of writers, such as journalists, novelists, biographers, autobiographers, even travel writers and "portraitists of place," and other workers in words whose subject is not specifically education.
 
This is a rich and wonderful book. I do not think Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis have really invented a wholly new methodology, but they have done a lovelyjob of discerning and elucidating the kinds of choices that all artists, and writers especially in this case, must make in order to con- vey clearly their knowledge of how people act in specific settings. They have done a remarkable job of translating what artists and writers know of portraiture into language that we in ostensibly more "objective" fields can seize. That Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis have aimed their instruc- tion chiefly at us in educational research is a great gift, for we often need to be reminded that there are richer and more complex and more re- warding ways to understand the world than through controlled experi- ments and "objective" studies that deny the special character of their subjects. I hope this lesson will be discovered by writers in other fields as well, for we depend on them as much as on each other fully to under- stand the world we are studying.
 
References
 
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Reprint, New York: Viking, 1960. Benton, Thomas Hart. An Artist in America. New York: R. M. McBride & Co., 1937. Davis, Jessica Hoffmann, E. Soep, S. Maira, N. Remba, and D. Putnoi. Safe Havens:
 
Portraits ofEducationa1 Effectiveness in Community Arts Centers That Focus on Edu- cation in Economically Disadvantaged Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Project Zero, Harvard University, 1993.
 
Goodman, Paul. Growing Up Absurd. New York: Random House, 1960. Goodman, Paul. Compulsorj Mis-Education. New York: Horizon, 1964.
 
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Heat Moon, William Least. Blue Highways: A Journey into America. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. Holt, John. How ChiIdrenFail. New York: Pitman, 1964. Jackson, Philip. Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart &Winston, 1968. Kaufman, Bel. Up the Down Staircase. New York: Avon, 1964. Kazin, Alfred. A Walker in the City. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951. Kohl, Herbert. Thirty-Six ChiIdren. New York: New American Library, 1967. Kozol, Jonathan. Death at an Early Age. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1967. Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pan- theon, 1994. Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture. New York: Basic, 1983. Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. I've Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994. Roueche, Berton. Special Places: In Search of Small Town America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
 
November 1998 71
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