The birth of photography has encouraged the democratization of the portrait.
Before his advent, the portrait painting was reserved exclusively for aristocratic families.
Only the elite had the opportunity to hire a painter and be portrayed on a canvas to displayed on the walls of castles and noble residences.
Thanks to photography, the portrait genre also has been extended to the middle class, becoming in fact very popular.
In the very first years of the invention of photography, born family albums and so-called “carte de visite”, photographic portraits on cardboard of the size of a business card.
Critics and new opportunities offered by Photography
In its early days, photography was heavily criticized by nineteenth-century artists who considered it subordinate to art forms such as painting and sculpture. They believed that photography was a mechanical tool that limited itself to reproducing reality, to portray people’s faces without any artistic interpretation.
Critics were focused on this aspect, which marked a clear distinction between photography and paintings, between the objective and impersonal gaze of the photographic lens and the subjective gaze of the painter, whose emotions and artistic vein were guiding his brush.
Probably painters were afraid that their art and their work were threatened by an instrument capable of perfectly reproducing a face or a landscape, even if devoid of color.
For the first color films it will be necessary to wait until 1936.
However, there were many artists of the time who were traveled into the visual arts revolution, seizing the opportunity to reach an increasingly wider audience and learning to master the new photographic technique.
The painters’ shops are thus transformed into photographic studios.
The first portraits required rather long shutter speeds if we think of the immediacy of today’s shots. The long exposures forced people to remain still for a few minutes in front of the first darkrooms of the nineteenth century.
This waiting will not have been a big problem, if you think of the many hours, sometimes days, it took the painter to make a portrait.
How photography and painting inspired each other
The photographic portrait takes up some elements of the pictorial portrait.
Photography is influenced by painting, the lighting and the half-length pose taken by the person portrayed are traits present on the line of continuity traced by the painting and also crossed by the photograph.
To tell the truth, painting and photography have undergone mutual influence. This new form of visual art favored the birth, in the twentieth century, of pictorial movements that placed the “inner self” at the center of the portrait. Let’s think of Cubism, or Dadaism that have upset the aesthetic and artistic canons present up to now.
But the artistic movement that has been most influenced by Photography is undoubtedly Impressionism. Great impressionist painters such as Edgar Degas and Eduard Manet watch with interest the advent of Photography, which strongly marks their compositional style.
Let’s take a look at Manet’s masterpiece, The Folies-Bergère bar. The male figure cut out on the right, unusual for traditional painting, makes the scene extremely realistic, as if it had been photographed.
Degas loved to paint dancers. Before making the work Dancers behind the scenes, he personally took some photographs, used to study the composition of the scene.
Painter and photographer share great attention to light, the importance given to the people’s gaze, hairstyles and pose, the clothes worn and the jewels that enhance the face.
This attention to detail and the entire scenography in which the portrayed subject is inserted, to which the artists give a personal interpretation, tell stories and let personalities, emotions and feelings shine through.
The portrait goes beyond the simple representation of the people, it delves deeply into the inner and most hidden aspects of souls.
The photographic evolution of art
Like painting, photography can be considered a form of art.
Both, the painter and the photographer, use techniques that enhance their style and their way of interpreting the subject.
Performing a portrait, therefore, does not simply mean depicting a face or a figure, but presuppose a relationship between the artist and the person portrayed.
Therefore, entering into empathy with the subject placed in front of the Photographer’s lens or the Painter’s canvas, allows you to draw a continuous thread in which the image, and the meaning behind it, are interpreted in the same way by the 3 actors of this visual story: the artist, the subject of the portrait and the person who observes it.