Transition / Connections

The developing Portrait: Painting towards photography
Liz Rideal

General Historical Background
In the early twenty-first century we are so familiar with the photograph and technically reproduced imagery, that to imagine a world without these visuals is hard. The invention of photography was such an astonishing achievement in the mid nineteenth century that perhaps its only imaginable equivalent might be the first human steps taken on the moon's surface and robotic vehicles landing on Mars.

Photography now relates to everything within society and art. In portraiture, the impact of photography is huge; the correlation between 'reality' and 'likeness' as perceived within the format of the photograph is undeniable. This combination of illusion and real life, guarantees its continuing success as a medium for this purpose, whether digital, moving or other lens based methods of making portraits.

Although the invention of photography is dated at approximately 1839, it is more correct to date the fixing of an image at this time. The basic principles of the medium were known to the Chinese in 5th century B.C., but it was the chemistry that accompanied the camera obscura which was unknown. The camera obscura, from the Latin camera = room, obscura = dark, is literally a darkened room. (see

A completely darkened room with a small hole in one wall will produce an image on the wall opposite (try this and see). The image will be an inverted picture of what is outside. The bigger the hole, the brighter but more blurred the image. A pin hole camera works the same way.

The Italian, Daniele Barbaro (1513-70), suggested adding an old man's spectacle lens (this is a biconvex lens prescribed for correcting long-sightedness), to be placed in the pinhole, in order to sharpen the focus of the image. (La Practtica della Perspecttiva, Barbaro, Venice, Italy. 1569.Ch.5.p.192)

The mirror correcting the inversion was demonstrated by Giovanni Battista Benedetti (1530-90) in 1585. He showed how the addition of a mirror at 45º to the plane of the lens would turn the previous inverted image the right way up. The clarity of the image then depends on the quality of the lens and mirror.

Even though the telescope was introduced in 1609, astronomers continued to use a camera obscura for solar observations because of the danger to their eyes when looking directly at the sun. Portable camera obscuras were introduced in the 17th century and became popular with artists as an aid to accurate perspective drawing.

These portable camera obscuras were typically shaped like a pyramid with a mirror and lens at the top. Inside, the image was focused on a sheet of paper, and the artist could trace round the picture accurately. These tents, were consequently refined to the type of 'writing desk' style of equipment used by Robert Boyle, (1627-91) , a chemist and natural philosopher, who in his tract, Of the Systematicall and Cosmical Qualities of Things, (Oxford, 1669), wrote about a portable box camera he had constructed. Having described how to make a piece of opaque paper transparent by greasing it, he goes on to recount the delights of such a box.

Robert Boyle
by John Chapman, after Johann Kerseboom
published 1800
NPG D10729

"If a pretty large box be so contrived that there may be towards one end of it a fine sheet of paper stretched like the leather of a drum head at a convenient distance from the remoter end, where there is to be left a hole covered with a lenticular [shaped like a lentil or lens] glass fitted for the purpose, you may, at a little hole left at the upper part of the box, see upon the paper such a lively representation not only of the motions but shapes and colours of outward objects as did not a little delight me when I furst caused this portable darkened room, if I may so call it, to be made ... since when divers ingenious men have tried to imitate mine (which you know was to be drawn out or shortened like a telescope, as occasion required) or improved the practice."