With the advent of the camera, of course, the function of Art as a recorder and presenter of actuality started to fade away. At first there were matters of format to sort out. Which photographic system should be used? How could the size of the equipment be reduced to make it a practical proposition for anywhere other than the studio? It was, perhaps, the first example of this process which is now so familiar to us in the early 21st Century. Just as video recorders, computers, televisions, mobile phones and personal stereos have developed and altered, so the camera. True democratisation of the photographic image arrived with the invention of roll film from the 1880s, and the subsequent development of the Kodak Eastman Box Brownie introduced in 1900, a simple to use basic camera which sold for one dollar. Now anyone could take a “snap” and, if a good result was obtained, have it enlarged, framed, and hung on the wall.
So what happened to the portrait? The simple answer is that it thrived. Which is odd, when you come to think about it. You'd imagine that the one discipline which would be rendered obsolete by the camera would be the simple representation of someone's face or, indeed, thewhole person. But this was not so, and one example may show why. Ellen Terry was the leading English Actress of her day. Although not considered an absolute Beauty, she was a handsome, strong, confident woman who had decades of success in Europe and in the United States. Here is a photograph of her from about 1890:
And here is John Singer Sargent's portrait of her as Lady Macbeth from the same period:
The portrait (a great example of what came to be known as the “Swagger Portrait” for obvious reasons does what the photography of the time could not. It records the feel of the moment as well as the actuality. In fact, the actuality has already become less important. Just look Lady Macbeth's robes; look at the brushwork.
The swirls and streaks create a marvellous impression of what that robe looked like, almost what it must have felt like to wear. It tells us more about Ellen Terry, her person, and her interpretation of that role than a mere photograph could have done – certainly given the constraints of the equipment at that time. And so – slightly late in the day – I've used the word “Impression”.