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Why were painted portraits of Charles Dickens more accurate than photographs?

John Simkin

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According to people who knew him, the painted portraits of Charles Dickens more accurate than photographs taken of him? Any ideas why? You might find it helps to look at the paintings and photographs on these pages.

1812-1836 (Part 1)


1836-1840 (Part 2)


1840-1850 (Part 3)


1850-1860 (Part 4)


1860-1870 (Part 5)


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Very interesting (to me). Off the top of my head there are a number of issues to consider.

Paintings 'tend' to document essence and photographs captures moments and then includes unnecessary detail.

Also paiontings include the element of time. As the subject is painted slight shifts occur in the painter and the subject so in a sense a painting or drawing is a timelapse image that in beiing so is perhaps more close to what is percieved as reality.

Depth is perhaps (except daguerrotypes) more readily captured in painting . Photos have a flatness about them that is unlike the stereoscopics of the human visual perception system

Lighting is important.

I think left right hemispherical sight perception plays a role.

There is also the 'phenomenon' that through the ages people people tend to attribute fidelity to the familiar. eg early 'hi fi' recodrdings were 'not right' when compared to the contemporary mono recordings. There are other examples where this shift of perception takes time . The familiar is right.

I think the answer to 'why' lies in these considerations.

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People had to sit motionless for up to a minute while having their photograph taken during Dickens's lifetime. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hold a smile for that time. Therefore virtually decided to look serious in the photograph. The state of dental care in the 19th century was another reason why people kept their mouth shut when they were photographed.

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Yeah, but given that teeth were no better in painting subjects I don't get that bit. The fast photo of a minute compared to the long time for a portrait is a bit moot too re holding a pose. Various facial expressions can be held for far longer than a minute.

The difference is more that a portrait is a compilation of captures of reality that together with emphasising repeating portions of an image that then become defining characteristics the most truly mimics the real person. The photos have a deathmask quality to them. ie a lack of vitality. A good portarit is more likely to capture an overall recognisable essence. A summary rather than a moment if you will.

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Ok, so mouth is shut in paintings and photos. ie not an issue re answering 'why'.

Afa I can see it then comes down to looking at the issue re perception and therefore the process of perception, recognition and therefore the process of portrait painting..

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