Kathryn Rutherford Blog Header

Kathryn Rutherford Blog Header

Sunday, February 28, 2010

When Is A Photograph NOT A Photograph?


"Unlike any other visual image a photograph is not 
a rendering, an imitation or interpretation of its subject..."
John Berger-English Painter

    If a photograph is not a rendering why, then, are all old photographs covered with pencil and paint and, more importantly, when is an old photograph not a photograph?
    Let us begin this discussion by first determining an important way to tell an old photograph from a drawing. Look closely at our two examples above.  Each one comes from the early nineteen-twenties, yet, one is an art enhanced original photograph and the other is a drawing from start to finish.  Which one is which?
    The portrait artisans of earlier times were extremely talented!  Artists had been responsible for capturing the human likeness as far back as recorded time and their skills were honed until their subjects appeared lifelike and often photographic.  Before the invention and affordability of photography to the general public, one depended upon the artist to forever preserve a person's likeness in paint, charcoal and pencil.
      Answer to the question:  the image on the top is an original photograph whereas the one on the bottom is a charcoal drawing.  Here is what to look for to know the difference.
    During the last half of the twentieth century, most people were familiar with photographs that, when enlarged beyond their negative's capabilities, disintegrated into small dots.  Today, using computers, we know photographs are now composed of squares called digital pixels.  However, photographs from the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds showed different markings.  When they were enlarged, their images broke apart into small "s" shaped squiggles.  These lighter coloured markings could mostly be seen in the dark shadows of the cheeks, eyes, nose, neck and possibly dark clothing.  Our woman on the top clearly shows these distinct markings of an original photograph. 
    The charcoal drawing, beneath, has smooth, blended darks, a sure sign of a work of art.  There is no mottling or other spotting in the shadows. 

    Another detail in our photograph is that the photograph is "silvering".  The right side of the hair detail shows a silvery blue haze.  The silver in the surface emulsion is oxidizing and reflecting and the focus of the hair is soft.  The left side of the hair is covered with brown paint and distinctly drawn strokes of painted hair can easily be seen.   
    As further evidence of a work of art, a classic drawing technique is used on our charcoal portrait.  The entire head of hair is covered in dark charcoal and an eraser was used to bring out the highlights and individual hairs.  What an outstanding technique to create lifelike hair. 
    Most photographs could not be enlarged to fill a wall sized enlargement.  Rather than leave a hard square around a person's picture, photographic artisans painted darkened vignettes around the outside edges of the paper using a crude, but effective, airbrush called an atomizer.  Watercolour paint was sprayed on photographic edges to make them dark and hide the square edges of the negative where the artist chose to leave the outside edges of the portrait the lighter colour of the paper on which he drew.
    Paint and drawing materials were often added to photographs to complete clothing, hair, variations in backgrounds and faded details. Colour was often added to backgrounds, cheeks and lips as we see here in our enhanced lady.  It was not only common, but absolutely necessary, to enhance most old photographs to bring out their details, add colour (especially to jewelry) and enhance them to look their best. 
    Many of the early photographs I see brought to the Studio have been damaged by people who unknowingly try to clean these images using a cloth and water.  Intentions are good, but as this artwork is usually water based paint and drawing materials cleaning any photograph should best be left to experts. 
    I would like to point out a final aspect about the charcoal drawing.  Notice that there appears to be a second shoulder drawn out of the woman's chin line.  This is the exact position that a shoulder line would naturally appear in a three quarter posed subject.  However, this woman is rather heavy set and by placing her shoulder line higher up into her head she would look, for lack of a better term, fat.  By dropping her shoulders down and elongating her neck the artist has taken ten to twenty pounds off the woman and used an artistic trait of flattery. 
    As a portrait artist I have used this form of flattery several times and thank the artist for his sensitivity. I certainly appreciate it as this woman is my Great Grandmother and my Father's side of the family is heavy set.  Both my daughter and I get our genetics directly from this female line. 
    As to why the artist didn't erase, or better hide, his artistic change, I cannot say.  I am only thankful that upon close inspection of the work his name, studio and Toronto, Canada address can be found hand signed in the lower right hand corner of the work.  This, and the matching portrait of her husband, were commissioned and drawn on the couple's honeymoon.  They were drawn directly from the original wedding photographs taken of their marriage union.  I have both original photographs and original charcoal drawings.  Side by side they are astonishingly alike. 
    Are images original photographs with art enhancements or are they artistic masterpieces?  Look for the signs and you will now be able to tell a photograph from a superbly executed rendering.

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