Art Portraiture and Photography in Six Feet Under

In terms of popular discussion, Six Feet Under has been hailed for tackling an unorthodox subject matter, for its filmic production values, its multi-faceted representation of homosexual relationships, and much more. But rarely does one find comment surrounding its use of art photography, and the insight that this offers us into its characters. Yet, as viewers, we are fully aware that the character of Claire in SFU and her story arc are very much driven by her artistic aspirations.

At the beginning of the show, the aimless teenage girl is caught grappling with her father’s death, which she struggles to contextualize alongside her adolescence. But in the second series, her Aunt Sarah pronounces her an artist, and as such, her pursuit of the imaginative form propels her from complacency to a state of self-enquiry. Considering the impact of this event on her character development, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at some of Claire’s portraiture, and to consider their narrative implications.

Medusa Self Portrait

The first of Claire’s pieces that can be found in the program was revealed before her character officially proclaimed any creative aspirations. Specifically, I am referring to the “Medusa Self Portrait” that hung in her room from the very beginning. The piece, which was created by the artist, Margot Lovinger was made with charcoal, ink-based, and collage materials that would be available to a teenager. The significance of using the Medusa-like character is particularly expressive here because it captures her angry revulsion. Both shabby and inspired, the picture is evocative of Claire’s impending journey into the world, and is one of many set pieces that hint at her enquiring self-reflection.

Portrait of Billy

When Brenda’s brother Billy invites Claire to take naked pictures of him, he propels her on a flight of exciting self-discovery. In this enthralling scene, Billy hands Claire a camera, and directs her quietly — unlocking her potential with each instruction. The moment is especially harrowing because of both its compromising and voyeuristic nature. The tortured Billy tentatively unmasks his layers of hurt, and offers Claire the chance to document them in an oddly exploitative manner. The teenage photographer is riveted, equally by the unveiling of her own talent, and by Billy’s shocking vulnerability. And although he is little more than a stranger to her, this act connects the pair for the show’s entire duration. The resulting portrait that is chosen in the broadcast is both remarkably beautiful, and frightening – the spine of Billy’s back pulses through the print, revealing hidden insight into both his character and his photographer.


In season 3, Claire is one of the few first year art-school students to have a piece presented in the alumni art show. Although many of the other artworks are selling, Claire’s does not. Her friends and family seem perplexed by her darkly comic image, which presents an overweight woman, and a young man lounging about half-naked at a mortuary. But the portrait, and its title are pivotal. The name “Duratrans” for instance, acts as ironic commentary in that it means “transparency”, which is a blatant contradiction of the Fisher’s seemingly ‘normal’ façade. Moreover, the subjects of Claire’s photograph are also able to freely inhabit the graveyard, whilst Claire’s very own family is forced to cover up its bearings.

Art Photos

When blood erupts in the Fisher house due to a plumbing default, Claire’s gut reaction is to capture the aftermath. The resulting photograph of a cereal bowl filled with blood and a spoon; holds a potent subtext. Although it is obvious that the Fisher family has always earned their living from the dead, this particular picture depicts this fact visually. The idea that the Fishers are feeding themselves from a blood soaked bowl is a frank, and starling image that unravels the despairing nature of their lives.

Claire Self Portrait

Later on in the series, Claire attempts to achieve a certain ‘arty’ state of self-reflection in her photography. Her brother Nate is quick to notice that something is awry, “you trying to become a model now”? He quizzes. His sister reacts defensively to the accusation, arguing that she was attempting to capture something far more subliminal. However, executive producer, Alan Poul has stated that Claire’s “empty gaze” was in fact “superficial and mannered”. As such, this portrayal suggests to the viewer that despite Claire’s aspirations, she is still caught up in her own hyper-consciousness. Grappling with the tensions of her teachers and herself, it becomes evident that her traditional ‘art school’ setting sometimes conflicts with her true artistic identity.