‘Lesser’ truth v artistic licentiousness

My left knee would benefit from trigger warnings. It is spring-loaded and ready to jerk at the merest hint of postmodernist factual relativism. It also clicks when I’m climbing stairs.

In the current edition of the Literary Review (paywalled link), author Gillian Tindall writes:

When photography was evolving, it was thought that it might ‘capture’ the heart of life in a new way, only for it to be found that each shot seized just a static moment. When a renowned photographer snapped Henry Kissinger, he hoped to show something of the man’s ‘anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, isolation’. But all that appeared on film was a ‘defensive’ motionless figure. A painted portrait can contain far more of the essential person than a photograph can.

I would be the last to deny there are many wonderful painted portraits out there. But the claim that paintings can somehow give a far more accurate representation of their subjects than simple snapshots initiated a knee-jerk that made me quite forget the immediately preceding preposterous suggestion that photography had failed in its promise to capture the heart of life in a new way.

True, photoshopped manipulations notwithstanding, the camera can only capture what’s actually there to be seen. But isn’t that a good thing? If Henry Kissinger appears ‘defensive’ in a particular photograph, perhaps that’s because he was acting uncharacteristically defensively at the time. Doesn’t that, in itself, tell us something interesting about his inner character? Or perhaps he was feeling perfectly at ease, or angry, or inept, and we, the viewers of the photograph, are simply misreading his body-language. But the interpretation of the photograph, valid or otherwise, is, as it should be, down to us.

To pretend to convey some unphotographable essential person, the portrait painter can only embellish with their own interpretation of their subject, be it valid or otherwise. Then we, the viewers of the portrait, get to interpret the painter’s interpretation. In which case, we are one step further removed from the original in the interpretation process. We’re playing a game of Chinese whispers at two degrees of interpretation—or misinterpretation.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Surely the whole point of art is for artists to try to convey their personal impressions of the world, and for the likes of you and me to engage with artists’ works by interpreting them in our own unique ways. But it strikes me as nonsense to claim a work of art created to convey one individual’s perception of another human being provides a more accurate rendition of their ‘essential person’ than a simple photograph. What if the artist’s interpretation of their subject’s essential person is wrong? What if the subject means different things to different portrait painters? How do we know which one is capturing the true essence of the person? And what if different artists happen to agree? How do we know their idea of the subject’s true essence isn’t down to some common misperception, or a pandering to stereotype?

Take Jesus. In Florence, I encountered more painted masterpieces of our divinely appointed saviour than Pontius Pilate had larks’ tongues dinners. Masterpieces by Giotto, Leonardo, Verrocchio, Giordano, and a bunch of other dead canvas-daubers whose names ended in ‘o’. Not being at all of a religious persuasion, I wasn’t particularly moved by any of these works, although I did appreciate the artists’ craftsmanship. If I hadn’t already formed my own (no doubt, incorrect) interpretation of Jesus, what would I have gathered from these assorted masterpieces? I might well have concluded Jesus was a ginger-headed western European with an inexplicable penchant for goldfinches, whose head had been surrounded by a gilt-edged hula-hoop since his first days as an ugly, precocious boss-eyed toddler.

How different might my interpretation of Jesus have been had I access to an actual photograph of the man Himself? Even just a blurry black and white snapshot. (Obviously, no such thing could ever happen, but let’s pretend.) Would such a photograph convey a more or less accurate impression of the essential person of our legendary Jewish carpenter? I know where I stand on this one. Give me the snapshot over some painter’s personal interpretation any day of the week! And I’ll bet I’m not alone. I’ll bet I could flog such a photo of our redeemer for far more than any of the painted masterpieces currently gracing the walls of the Uffizi.

The Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio & Leonardo
The Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio & Leonardo), depicting the essential person of Jesus, ginger hair, halo, airborne hands, radioactive dove, and all.
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This philistine is no doubt making too much of a couple of passing comments made in a book review. My silly Jesus example was chosen to illustrate that artistic interpretations, like all interpretations, are subject to personal beliefs and biases, not to forget clichéd symbolism and dogma. But the claim that a painting can give a truer picture of an individual than a simple photograph is one of a growing trend that I think is bogus, though seldom challenged.


People make similar claims in favour of literary fiction. Novels, it is said, can convey a ‘greater truth’ than factual writing. Or, as Albert Camus is credited with having said (presumably in French), ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel, but I’m totally not buying into this one either. Novels, no matter how good, are by definition not true. The novelist is at liberty to—and, indeed, should—exercise artistic licence in a way the factual writer is not allowed. Great. But another way of saying ‘exercise artistic licence’ is ‘write stuff that isn’t true for artistic effect’. Entertaining, no doubt—but hardly telling a greater truth! Call me a literalist, but if you want to read stuff about the real world, isn’t reading quality factual writing the best way to go about it?

Yes, photographers and factual writers have personal biases, misapprehensions, and agendas like everyone else. But let’s not belittle their work by claiming it’s no match for the artistic licence of painters and novelists. Many photographers, and all factual writers worthy of the name, are at least trying to keep things real—occasional embellishments about knees with philosophical sensibilities notwithstanding.

We live in a time in which what counts as truth is often seen as a matter of personal opinion. In which people can pick and choose their facts without being held to account. In which bigots are expected to be cut some slack for holding ‘strongly held beliefs’—as if that were any sort of defence. Claiming paintings are somehow more accurate than photographs, or novels more truthful than factual writing, panders to this misguided mindset. Clearly, there’s a place in this world for paintings and novels, but let’s not overbuild their parts. Instead, would it not be better to acknowledge and celebrate their extra degree of separation from reality?

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

One comment

  1. Ken Blake says:

    Spot on.

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