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Differences between Photographic and Painted Portraiture

In this essay I hope to define some of the fundamental differencesbetween the above two methods. I will discuss the advantages anddisadvantages of each as vehicles of portraiture. However, this is avery wide question and though it has great scope for deeper analysis,lack of words and space has prevented me from exploring each point inmore detail here.

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When addressing this subject, I feel it is very important to recognisethat artists have very different objectives when creating a portrait.For some, a portrait may simply be a study of physical likenesswhereas for others it may be a study of the sitter’s character, theirinner personality. This distinction makes it a challenging task tocompare photographic and painterly ideas of what a portrait consistsof.

I must also draw attention to the fact that photography has beencaught up in an everlasting struggle to be recognised as a fine art inits own right. When first discovered, photography threw paintedportraits to the sidelines of the art scene because of its obvioustechnological and economical advantages. Many people at the timethought nothing could exceed these imitations as portrayals of people.However, it was not long before photography was slated badly by many.Artists regarded photographs as mere regurgitations and made clearthat ‘…imagination, rather than imitation is required of art.’[1]

On the contrary it has been said that photography was a new means ofpursuing the ends of painting.[2] This is the view that photographywas a continuance of painting which took one step further and openedmany doors to new innovative ideas which could be applied toportraiture. Gombrich said of photography: ‘It has drawn attention tothe paradox of capturing life in a still, of freezing the play offeatures in an arrested moment of which we may never be aware in theflux of events.’[3] Along this train of thought, one can see thatphotography helped artists achieve something other pictorial mediacould not. An example of this use of photography can be seen inphotorealist artist, Chuck Close. Close’s works are paintings ofphotographs much more than paintings of the people themselves. Herelied on creating an exact copy of the photograph to compose hispictures, including details such as the slightly out …

…istory 1839-1900Cambridge University Press (1997)

J.Friday Aesthetics and Photography Ashgate (2002)

J. Woodall ed. Portraiture: Facing the Subject Manchester UniversityPress (1997)

Sources consulted but not cited

G Clarke ed The Portrait in Photography Reaktion Books (1992)

M Rogers Camera Portraits Oxford University Press (1989)


[1] A. Scharf, Art and Photography, Penguin Books (1968) p.47

[2] J. Friday, Aesthetics and Photography, Ashgate (2002)

[3] E.H.Gombrich, The Image and the Eye, Phaidon, Oxford, (1982) p,116

[4] J. Woodall ed, Portraiture: Facing the Subject, ManchesterUniversity Press (1997) p.126

[5] Woodall, p.128

[6] This is of course excluding editing, altering and airbrushingwhich can be applied to a photograph after its completion.

[7] S.West, Portraiture Oxford University Press (2004) p.1

[8] Gombrich, p.115

[9] Woodall, p.240

[10] Woodall, p.240

[11] Gombrich, P.106-7

[12] M.W.Marien Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History1839-1900 Cambridge University Press (1997) p.97

[13] Gombrich, p.118

[14] West p.48

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