Legendary Portrait Artist Joseph Clipper Talks Capturing Black History
From Corretta Scott King to Dorothy Height, he's captured numerous black dignitaries
His portraits of African-American dignitaries seem effortless. The entire collection: timeless. It’s fair to say that 73-year-old portrait artist Joseph D. Clipper is a living legend in the Washington, D.C. area.
For more than 40 years, the Maryland native has built a career of capturing historical moments, which has catapulted him as the “go-to” man for classic portraits that cannot be duplicated. From Coretta Scott King to Effi Barry (the ex-wife of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry) to the Congressional Black Caucus' founders, Clipper’s portraits reflect an important part of black history that can be revered by newer generations.
As a young boy, Clipper always had a passion for photography and art, but it wasn’t until he became an understudy for photographer Joseph Zeltsman that he decided to become a portrait artist full-time. Zeltsman taught him the mechanics he needed to eventually capture the likes of Barbara Jordan, Martin Luther King, former Congressman Lewis Stokes, Dorothy Height and more.
The sitting with Rep. Stokes became a turning point for the novice portrait artist. The former Ohio representative purchased the piece, and other congressional colleagues wanted the same portrait. Clipper was commissioned for invitational sittings of more members of Congress, and eventually other black dignitaries in D.C. started to reach out.
In September 2010, Clipper joined the black video archive History Makers for their nationwide back-to-school program, and gave local kids insight into life as a portrait artist along with his path to success.
Thankfully, Clipper did the same for us!
Loop 21 spoke with Clipper, and got some secret tips of our own. He tells us the difference between a “feminine pose” and a “masculine pose,” how to use classic props, and the engaging detail of how a woman and man should be correctly portrayed in a portrait.
Clipper’s charm, elegance and gentleman-like nature can be easily found in each portrait. His subjects stand, and sometimes sit, in a simple yet captivating space. Women's portraits have a “lady-like” feel that simply cannot be captured with a digital camera. And men are portrayed as professional, serious and masculine.
Read Clipper’s tips below. Future portrait artists take notes from a legend!
Loop 21: What should a woman wear and avoid to wear in a portrait?
Joseph Clipper: In terms of outfitting the female subject, I would prefer the colors that we use are black, burgundy, gray and blue. Those would be my first choices. I would avoid red, yellow, pink and sometimes white--depending on the occasion.
Why those colors? I’ll tell you why. Let’s say you have on a red dress … when the viewers are looking at your portrait their eye will go right to the red garment. I am saying that the garment will be the main character in your portrait. It takes all command. A lot of people wouldn’t recognize that, but that’s what happens.
Loop 21: How long will your portraits last?
Clipper: The portraits can last for decades…60, 80, 100 years [if not exposed to direct sunlight or direct heat].
Loop 21: The day of a subject’s shoot, what’s going through your mind? How do you prepare to shoot your subject?
Clipper: I tell people, frequently, I don’t know what I’m going to do; meaning I don’t know how I’m going to photograph my subject until my subject is in front of me.
I do know about my lighting. It’s going to be short-lighting or broad-lighting. It all depends on how things flow with me. I’m not rigid in what’s going to be short-lighting and broad-lighting. I do know this, this is going to be a nice portrait when it’s finished.
Effi Barry (ex-wife of Washington, D.C.’s former mayor Marion Barry)
I didn’t have a composition for her. So, you may notice that all of my portraits are in a different space. Effi’s portrait was done in Southeast [of Washington, D.C.] in a gorgeous house. What I customarily want to do is include something—furniture, artifacts, lamps, flowers—something of that nature in the portrait.
In this case, I picked a chair from her living room and posed her on that chair, and then I saw these flowers off to the side. I said, why don’t I just include these flowers in the composition. So that’s how that got there.
Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King is a little different than all the others because I've been doing invitation sittings for the Congressional Black Caucus members. This sitting was really for Andrew Young [former mayor of Atlanta]. I was in his office to do his sitting and she happened to be there. I said, ‘Well why don't I take a portrait with you?’
This was an impromptu invitation sitting of Coretta Scott King. One could not tell that this is her space because I treated this the same way I would have treated the occupant of this space or the owner of this space. In the sitting of Coretta Scott King, you can see the techniques that I've used here. This is a feminine pose--meaning the weight is on the back foot. The high shoulder is to the right--her right--and her head is titled a little bit to the high shoulder. [For a] masculine pose, the weight of the subject is on the back foot. The head is tilted to the lower shoulder.
I didn't want to have her moving around a lot so I chose a chair--which happened to be in the lobby of her office building. Just by coincidence now, the color of her chair also matched her outfit. Now keep in mind, I had already chosen an outfit by giving her colors. It happened to be burgundy, and not knowing that the chair was going to be burgundy. That was just an accident, but a good one.
She always [wore] a hat, so that was just a bonus to the portrait.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
This was done in ‘68--February of 1968. I was commissioned to do this by The Washington Post, and again, I was very, very, very young--and handsome, I may add.
This is unique because what we’re working with here is that we have a profile of Dr. Martin Luther King and a full face. In portraits you have a full-face and a profile, which is a powerful composition. What makes it more powerful is the person. Neither one of them was as great then as they are in death. Let me say that again, they became much grander after they departed this life.
Congressman Rangel’s portrait was done. I was commissioned to do his family portrait, and this was the early 70s when I was doing invitational sittings of other Congressional Black Caucus [members]. Some of the members commissioned me to do their family portraits. When I do family portraits, normally I will do individual portraits as well.
Fact: Books, flowers and pens are what he customarily uses in a portrait.
Tip: “There are times when you photograph a woman in a feminine pose, but not the reverse.”
Fact: Negative space defines a waistline.
*Photos of Joseph Clipper shot by Erica Butler