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Comparing Painting and Photography Portraiture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 2446 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Both painting and photography are types of illustrative arts that create portraiture. This paper focuses on the differences between the two in portraying reality. The paper analyzes texts by Gombrich, Bazin, Benjamin, and Plato to evaluate the interesting approaches of both art forms and their underlying characteristics that lead to differences in quality of final work product.

Gombrich, in “The Mask and the Face”, says that caricatures are attempts to capture the greatest likeness of the subject being represented. No one has explored this domain of portrait likeness in terms of perceptual psychology. A possible reason could be that “likeness in portraiture bears the stamp of philistinism” (Gombrich 105). The artists inability to truly paint the sitter has been a historical concern. Artists, however, have two lines of defense for this – first, that in a thousand years into the future no one would care whether the sitter was accurately represented and the fact that the artist had created a work of art is what should matter most, and second that the artist has the ability to penetrate the veil of appearance and represent true essence which other people cannot discern (hence, the painting looks different than the sitter).

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The psychological problem is magnified by the fact that we do not have just one face but a thousand different faces. Rembrandt’s self-portraits prove this to be the case, that we all change from year-to-year. Photography helped us comprehend this effect of time. Even though we might not notice changes on a daily basis since “the feeling of constancy completely predominates over the changing appearance”, comparing past and present photos automatically shows us the degree of change over the years (Gombrich 107). The author goes on to say that despite photos showing the extent of change, they also show how the essence of an individual’s looks has remained constant. This physiognomic constancy of a person’s aria or characteristic face can be hidden by the mask, and the “art which experiments with the mask is of course the art of disguise” (Gombrich 110).

Talking about how the portraits of all men with wigs and Chinese and Westerners seem to look alike, the author questions the degree to which portraits represent masks and individual likeness. It is tough to ascertain the face because we do not know the sitter in real life (hence, we will always be unable to recognize him or her even if we met the person) and we are trapped by the mask. “It is impossible for us to see an old portrait as it was meant to be seen before the snapshot and screen spread and trivialized the likeness” (Gombrich 115). In other words, we are at the artist’s disposal, i.e. the artist’s perception of the sitter would dominate our interpretations. Photography, on the other hand, has revolutionized art. It is able to capture intimate details and this continuous flow of information allows us to “understand a little more wherein rests what might be called artificiality of art” (Gombrich 116). At the same time, however, this nature of the photographic plate accentuates the problem of likeness. Photographs, like paintings, capture only a snapshot and ignore the other sequences of events before or after that moment in time. Hence, since photographers are able to capture only one expression, they search for that one expression which implies all others. For example, Yousuf Karsh’s one portrait photo of Winston Churchill at the time when the latter was angry perfectly defined his true nature of defying the enemy.

Gombrich goes on to say that although a painter is able to capture likeness with a rough outline using a few strokes, the trouble starts on the way to the final work product as the number of variables increase, thus making it tougher to preserve the likeness. To effectively illustrate reality, the artist has to balance compensatory moves in a portrait – a minor change in shape can have a drastic effect on expression. Photography, on the other hand, has much less leeway for subjectivity. Instead of depending on a person’s ability to stroke with brushes, it relies on the camera to capture the infinite variables that exist in a portrait photo. Hence, subjectivity of painting opens the door for countless interpretations, which is restricted, to a certain degree, by the mechanical camera.

Bazin in the “Ontology of Photographic Image” says that paintings were the first to break the barrier and be adopted in modern society. Egyptians would mummify their kings. This was an attempt by them to make the body last through time post-death. Statues were also used as a mechanism to immortalize the dead bodies. Such an illusion forms the backbone of traditional art. Paintings were historically used to preserve the body from a second spiritual death. For example, Louis XIV was the first king to choose to survive in his portrait instead of being mummified.

Painting was torn between two ambitions and failed to satisfy our need for illusion. During the fifteenth century, Western painting drifted towards expressing not only spiritual realities but also imitation of the outside world. The latter was a psychological need and “the satisfaction for this appetite for illusion merely served to increase it till, bit by bit, it consumed the plastic arts” (Bazin 6). Although great artists were able to combine the two tendencies, representing reality through their art (paintings), the equilibrium of traditional paintings as whole was disturbed by a purely mental need. Medieval art was never able to pass this crisis as it “knew nothing of the drama that came to light as a consequence of technical development” (Bazin 7). Hence, traditional art form, due to its inherent nature, was inept at capturing realism.

Paintings were forced to offer illusion, but the emergence of photography emancipated plastic art from the obsession with likeness by satisfying our obsession with realism. “No matter how skillful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity” (Bazin 7). The dependence on humans to create an image in painting casted doubt on the credibility of the portrait. Although photography is better able to satisfy out appetite for illusion owing to the absence of any humans in the process of photography (pictures are shot by man, but the apparatus that capture the object is a camera), it is important to note that it will always remain inferior to the painting’s ability to reproduce color. “Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography” (Bazin 7). Although critics might claim that human interference is involved in photography as the photographer chooses which objects to click photos of, this level of subjectivity is significantly lower than in paintings. Moreover, unlike paintings, photographic image is the object itself. It is freed from the chains of time and space, and arrests the object at a certain moment in time. Although paintings might get distorted with time and become fuzzy or fade out, photographs have a much longer duration. It is important to note, however, that “photography does not create eternity, as art does; it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption” (Bazin 8). Photography can also surpass the creative power of painting. The painter has his or her own microcosm, which is separate from the world around. Photograph, on the other hand, shares a common plane with the object. Instead of serving as a mere substitute, photos augment natural creation.

In “Little History of Photography”, Benjamin highlights a key difference between paintings and photography pertains to aura. Aura is related to space (distance) and time (duration). Every time we perceive aura there is some distance between us and the object. Aura, in simplified terms, is an object’s authenticity, which in turn is the transmissible essence from the object’s origins. Early paintings, according to Benjamin, had “an aura about them, a medium that lent fullness and security to their gaze even as it penetrated that medium” (Benjamin 516). With the evolution of photography, however, the “here and now” of the subjects it portrayed started fading.  Benjamin says that early photos were quite like paintings in their ability to capture essence. They were synthetic combination of different elements, and this very synthetic nature of photo is what made it resemble reality. In fact, the early portrait photography was so precise in its representation of the subject’s individuality that it almost seemed magical. Part of the reason for this caliber was due to the longer period of time for which the subjects had to remain still, which caused them to focus more deeply on their lives in the moment rather than the past in a fleeting manner. “Everything about these early pictures was built to last” (Benjamin 514).

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As the technological prowess of photography progressed, the authenticity of its images declined. Commercialization of photography led to the rapid displacement of miniature portrait paintings and mechanical reproducibility. This phenomenon enabled photographs to extract sameness even from what is unique. “Businessmen invaded professional photography from every side; and when, later on, the retouched negative, which was the bad painter’s revenge on photography, became ubiquitous, a sharp decline in taste set in” (Benjamin 515). The essence of the subject is also lost amidst the several props used by new methods of photography. Moreover, the advancement of optics resulted in a transition from the traditional photographic method of recording in dim or dark light to a mirror-like image-producing method, which further degenerated aura. Atget, a famous photographer, led the transition to photographing pictures of city rather than of people. His aim was to capture all the streets of Paris before they get lost to modernization. His Paris photos were the forerunners of Surreal photography, resulting in the “emancipation of aura from object” (Benjamin 518).

In discussing the power of daguerreotype photos, Benjamin says that photography has a very direct connection to reality. Several painters migrated to the realm of mechanical art, and the author notes how David Octavius Hill became famous and is remembered to date not for his portrait paintings but for his portrait photos. He also notes the penetration of the camera in family portraiture. Paintings would be remembered for only a certain period and the interest would later fade away, but photographs had an everlasting effect. After two or three generations no one cared about the people in the family painting, but in the case of family photos viewers are filled with a strange desire to learn more about the people portrayed. Another difference between photography and painting relates to the level of detail captured by the two art forms. “It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” (Benjamin 512). For example, when paintings represented people walking, we have some idea as to what is involved in that movement. But when photographs capture the same act, we become aware of the steps involved in the fraction of seconds when a person walks.

Plato, in the early section of his book Republic X, discusses a painter’s ability to portray reality. He mentions how Socrates believes that painting is an imitation of illusion and not of reality. Socrates dismisses imitative art because of its inability to represent realism. He uses the example of couches to illustrate his point. There are three Forms or ideas of the couch (or other objects in general). First, the God who creates the original object. God forms the top-most layer in the hierarchical structure of Forms and pertains to capturing the essence of the original object. Second, the craftsman who replicates the original object into several manufactured items, thereby beholding the Form. This is the second layer in the hierarchy and consists of things as they exist in the world. It is important to note that while there might be several different kinds of an object, all of them harken back to the Form of the object (as created by God). Third, the painter who paints a picture of the product of the craftsman on canvas. According to Socrates, the painter is merely an “imitator of what the others (God and carpenter) are craftsmen of”, and painters occupy the bottom-most hierarchical layer (Plato 300). Hence, although there are several instances of objects in the world, there is only one idea of an object.

Moreover, a painter aims to imitate not what is as it is, but what the object appears to be, i.e. it imitates an illusion. Even though a painter might be able to paint a couch or a carpenter, the artist does not know much about those objects, and is therefore, far from the truth. A painting is twice removed from the reality and is unable to effectively capture its essence. Thus, Socrates banishes all artists from their ideal state. The consequence of such illusive nature of paintings is that it makes it turn the minds of the spectators away from reality. According to Plato, art often makes people visceral and self-serving, instead of self-aware, and therefore, has corruptive effects.

In conclusion, the texts discussed above show that although paintings and photography are interconnected, they have quite different ways to represent realities. While the traditional art form relies on a more manual approach, photography uses a mechanical method to capture pictures. Overarching differences pertain to the concepts of ability to capture likeness as highlighted by Gombrich, the balance between realism and illusion as mentioned by Bazin, capturing aura or authenticity of subjects as discussed by Benjamin, and the (in)capability of art to portray reality as argued by Plato.

Works Cited

  • Gombrich, Ernst Hans. The Mask and the Face. 1972c.
  • Bazin, Andre, and Hugh Gray. The Ontology of the Photographic Image. 4th ed., vol. 12, Summer, 1960.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Little History of Photography. Vol. 2, 1927.
  • Plató . Republic X. Bristol Classical Press.


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