Monday, November 28, 2011

"photographs very rarely turn out good likenesses"

The first thing that caught my attention was a portrait of mother that hung over the writing table; a photograph in a magnificent carved frame of rare wood, obviously taken abroad and judging from its size a very expensive one. I had never heard of this portrait and knew nothing of it before, and what struck me most of all was the likeness which was remarkable in a photograph, the spiritual truth of it, so to say ; in fact it looked more like a real portrait by the hand of an artist than a mere mechanical print. When I went in I could not help stopping before it at once.

"Isn't it, isn't it?" Versilov repeated behind me, meaning, "Isn't it like?" I glanced at him and was struck by the expression of his face. He was rather pale, but there was a glowing and intense look in his eyes which seemed shining with happiness and strength. I had never seen such an expression on his face.

"I did not know that you loved mother so much !" I blurted out, suddenly delighted.

He smiled blissfully, though in his smile there was a suggestion of something like a martyr's anguish, or rather something humane and lofty ... I don't know how to express it; but highly developed people, I fancy, can never have triumphantly and complacently happy faces. He did not answer, but taking the portrait from the rings with both hands brought it close to him, kissed it, and gently hung it back on the wall.

"Observe," he said; "photographs very rarely turn out good likenesses, and that one can easily understand: the originals, that is all of us, are very rarely like ourselves. Only on rare occasions does a man's face express his leading quality, his most characteristic thought. The artist studies the face and divines its characteristic meaning, though at the actual moment when he's painting, it may not be in the face at all. Photography takes a man as he is, and it is extremely possible that at moments Napoleon would have turned out stupid, and Bismarck tender. Here, in this portrait, by good luck the sun caught Sonia in her characteristic moment of modest gentle love and rather wild shrinking chastity….
—from A Raw Youth, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), translated by Constance Garnett

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