Manual Portraits and persons: a philosophical inquiry

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This important early use of portraiture was recognized as a European achievement when Islamic miniature painters came into contact with works by Bellini and other Venetian artists in the late fifteenth century. And were it not for the fact that by law such exercises were forbidden, and that whoever worshipped statues was punished with death, the sultan would never have given leave to Gentile to depart, but instead would have honored him greatly and kept him near him. At various times in art history, the profile was preferred to the full-face portrait, and the line drawing or silhouette to the painted portrait, because of the belief that such images could provide the most accurate possible renderings of appearance.

But of course, it is not the whole story. Proofs of presence The second way in which a portrait reveals subjectivity is by providing testimony to the presence of an individual person. This can occur in two rather different ways.

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First, the 24 Schama p. Barry explains that contrary to popular belief, figurative art was common in medieval Islam, Second, it can show us that what existed was indeed a person: there is a person there. In the first sense, the portrait functions like an icon to certify or manifest some sort of presence.

The Art of SELF PORTRAITS in Photography

This function might be fulfilled by a death mask as well as by a photograph, where likeness is also an aim and contributes to the sense of realistic presence. But for determining presence in some cases, likeness may not be very relevant. In this sense, photographs are often described as providing some kind of privileged contact with the dead. The image becomes a stand-in for the person. The image could be replaced by a lock of hair since it is functioning like a relic, magically. Schama explains Rembrandt succeeded at this through composition, lighting and shadow, or the minute depiction of a hand or an eye.

But the psychological information packed into a portrait does not need to be so easily decoded by viewers; think of the famously inscrutable smile of the Mona Lisa. Successful portraiture might involve the expressive abilities of the subject, the artist, or both—whether the image is done by a painter or by a photographer. I return to this further below.

Rembrandt did this for the fur-trader Rues by showing his pulsing energy, his particular ambitious industriousness. I think many of us might share his feeling that certain images do in fact, whatever their defects, work especially well to show the unique personality and demeanor of someone we know very intimately. Part one: accuracy and certification of presence How do portraits in photography reflect the traditions of painting?

How are they different? Are portraits in photography inherently more realistic or more revealing or truthful than those in painting? I propose to approach these questions by taking up my four categories of subjectification in portraiture and examining what, if any, implications the medium of photography has for each one.

Photography caught on quickly as a new means of portraiture and enabled many more people to acquire depictions of themselves than had ever before been possible. Thus photographic portraits seem to excel also in my category 2, as certifiers of presence. It consoled both our sorrows and our vanity, and we collected photographs like little relics and mementoes of the surfaces of our past life. The early photographer Nadar described the fear that even some educated people had of this new device, for example, Balzac.

It is thought that portraits in photography have superior accuracy because of how they are created; at the same time, their causal history is said to guarantee a kind of contact with their subjects.

Book Portraits And Persons A Philosophical Inquiry

Many prominent writers have argued that photographs possess unusual veracity. We see long-deceased ancestors when we look at dusty snapshots of them. We see only a representation of him. There is a sharp difference of kind, between painting and photography.

Book Portraits And Persons A Philosophical Inquiry

The key difference is that seeing something in a photograph is caused by that object in a mechanical way. For criticisms, see Martin , also Gregory See also Maynard We sometimes have an interest in seeing things, in being in perceptual contact with them, apart from any expectations of learning about them.


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This interest helps to explain why we some- times display and cherish a photograph of a loved one We value the experience of seeing the loved one even indirectly , the experience of being in perceptual contact with him or her, for its own sake, not just as a means of adding to our knowledge. He argues that when we see a person through a photographic image, we somehow are in contact with them. Our sense of the truth of this contact is why we care about such images.

Similar views can be found in many other prominent analyses of the photographic image. In a moment I want to consider photography in relation to the other two aims. But first let me comment that photographic portraits do not nec- essarily succeed at the first two aims, and they may not be superior in either of these regards to painted portraits. A photographic portrait can be very inaccurate. Even a realist like Walton admits this.

enter site It might be blurry or under- or over-exposed. It may be taken from an angle such that not much of a person is shown, not enough to identify that person. Even good, clear photographs seem to need context to be accepted as proof of contact. What I once took to be a photograph of my grandmother as a small child actually proved to be a photograph of her brother! Turning to my category 3, emotional characterization, the strengths cited above for photographic portraiture in terms of their mechanical ease or accuracy seem to be weak- nesses for their service as art.

That and no more. This raises an important issue concerning a point I raised earlier and promised to return to: the reciprocity between a portraitist and his or her subject. Consider first the view that the success of such an image depends wholly on non-artistic factors stemming from the very medium of photography. Which view seems more plausible? If the painter is fully in control of this process, why is the subject needed at all?

Surely the painter must pay some attention to the subject unless the result is to be a bad rendering or mere caricature. For a photographer to show us the conniving side of a powerful man or the youthful somberness of an adolescent might equally require artistic skill. Of course the realist might say yes, this is right; or, that if some are not, it is because the person hides this inner state or just is not good at self-representation.

I disagree with the former answer, and as for the latter, one would think that the task of the photographer is either to elicit some emotion from the sitter or, in a more candid mode, to watch for it and capture it when it does emerge. Eliciting it from a subject in a photo sitting might involve the same sort of 46 Ruskin, John Freeland complex interaction that goes on when a painter deals with a sitter.


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We could redefine a portrait as any image that shows a person. Still, I think the realist has to admit that some photographic pictures of people do seem to achieve a fuller charac- terization than others. The tricky question is whether this is due to the presentational abilities of the sitter, the skill of the photographer, or perhaps both. It is hard to assess these options because we are all inundated with pictures of ourselves and others from infancy on.

I resist this conclusion. We should acknowledge that is unfair to cite the lowest common denominator of popular images in trying to contrast possibilities of portraiture in pho- tography and painting, when the painters I have discussed are great masters.

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If we turn to recognized artists of photographic portraiture, we might be better able to answer my question about the sources of emotional characterization in such images. Yet Barthes clearly had something in mind distinct from conveying an emotion. An initial question to raise is whether we can only recognize the essence or air in the case of people we already know, and indeed, know well. It is telling that Barthes seeks just the right image for his much-loved and recently departed mother. Indeed, he refuses to reprint the one revealing picture of her he does find, because he says it would mean nothing to anyone else.

This makes sense. Portraits are praised for doing this, but how they succeed at such a goal is a conundrum. After all, can anyone really sum up another person in such a manner? Why should we suppose that it can be done in an image? People in some cultures might resist such an idea as either silly or almost sacrilegious.