Paint or Print?

Painted portrait of George Washington Image result for george washington photograph

 George Washington, left; and George Washington Parke Custis, right.  Technology changed the way we remember them.  National Portrait Gallery,

Try to imagine what it would like to meet George Washington.   Look at portraits painted in the late 18th Century (not hard to do each time you pay with a dollar bill) and read his diaries, details about his personality, upbringing, and military career; and his actions as president.  Surmise what he might have sounded like from accounts of dialect experts and those who knew him.

The most prominent visuals we have for getting to know him are portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, Robert Edge Pine and others.  They used their gifts to preserve the man to his country and posterity.  Colors in the Pine portrait above show Washington’s resolve in his face, fist clenched on a walking stick, and dashing uniform.

Less than 50 years later, the camera emerged.

An early photographer recorded the image of George Washington Parke Custis on a glass plate.  Custis was Martha Washington’s grandson, whom George adopted.  He built Arlington House, the grounds of which would become our national cemetery, and his daughter would marry Robert E. Lee.

The contrast between the painting and photo is striking.

The Washington Family

A scene too early to photograph: George Washington and George Washington Parke Custis  as a boy, with Nelly Custis and Martha Washington.  Painting by Edward Savage, National Gallery of Art.

'Washington Crossing the Delaware'

Several years ago I walked into a room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and stood looking at the famous Washington Crossing the Delaware.  It was the size of a school bus.

If Emanuel Leutze had had a camera available and was able to follow the troops on their way to New Jersey, what would the photos have looked like?  A bunch of ice and fog?  He probably would have lost his grip and dropped it in the river.  We’ll never know.

Lieutenant John F. Kennedy’s PT-59 in the South Pacific in the Second World War.  It’s pretty hard to capture the determination in their faces from a live shot, as opposed to the soldiers in the painting of Washington’s boat.

I remember seeing a photo of Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, in his old age.  He was sitting outside near his wife, Louisa.  Why, that looks like it could be an picture of my great-grandparents!  Paintings must be of legends, photographic prints for real people,  I thought.

Timothy O’Sullivan captured this Harper’s Weekly artist sketching on a hill overlooking Gettysburg.

The Civil War was the first to be recorded by camera equipment (which required its own caisson).  It is reported that sometimes photographers moved bodies in the battlefield to enhance composition or purpose.

There are those who would dismiss photography as an art form.  And those who scorn oil paintings as reality.  I think they can be both.  If, while looking at a photograph or a painting, you ask yourself questions about the subjects, the landscapes, the furniture, or the architecture, how can you not learn about what was?

photography…a subject of enormous social relevance…not a pitiable craft.  –Osip Brik, 1926.

Related image

The iconic Migrant Mother by tells the story of a  woman and her seven children during Depression in California.

Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?  –Pablo Picasso

A student once said that when she looked at a painting, she liked to think about what was going on in the world as the artist worked.  That’s critical thinking: cause/effect.  That’s key to trying to get to the bottom of things.  It is both concrete and abstract.

Paintings and photographs are irreplacable primary sources.   People can debate about their worth in the art world, but why choose between them as a teacher?  Each has a purpose.  The medium itself reveals part of history.

The One That Got Away


You know the expressions “…rowing with oars out of the water…” and “…the lights are on but nobody’s home…”  Well, I have another one: “…taking pictures without a memory card.”

Yes, on a rainy day I brought my new camera to the most wonderfully landscaped park in town.  For weeks a friend and I had been planning to capture the tulips there when they bloomed.  I had responsibly thought, “I’ll take my old point-and-shoot just in case something happens to the battery in the new one.”  Hopping out of the car and enthusiastically angling in on the beautiful blooms, I’d taken several photographs when I decided to push the button and take a quick look at them.  Just a little reinforcement for the ego.

“No card,” Mr. Minolta said.

My heart sank.  But I put the point-and-shoot in one hand and my smart phone in the other, like a double-holstered cowboy, and kept firing.






I just know one of the ones I took with my Minolta with the aperture set on 5.6 before I discovered there was no memory card was the best flower pic ever.  But who would believe me?

I like the pictures I got.  And the first thing I did before starting this post was to take the Minolta card out of the computer and put it back where it belongs.

New Toy

I’ve decided to shutter instead of shudder in the cold of winter with the help of a belated Christmas gift, an Olympus OM-D.  I chose this model because it was recommended by two friends whose photography I admire, and who said they liked the way its smaller frame handles.  I think I will, too.

I don’t know that anyone would consider me a camera buff, but I have always liked taking pictures.  The nameless brand I used to record my 4-H projects of long ago was black with a round flash holder on top which a bulb could be screwed into.  I remember the firesmell as it flashed and fizzled to black during its shining moment.  Taking the roll of film to the drugstore and picking it up the next week, I found it had morphed into square black and white prints with the date and year stamped in the margins.  I put them in my scrapbook (which resembled nothing of those today) with little corners we licked so they would stick to the page.

Along came Instamatics with snap-in 110 film cartridges and flash cubes.  And flash cube towers!  Easy to take on vacation — and everyone did.  The ratio of station wagons full of kids to Instamatics was probably 1:3 in the 1960s and 70s.  Kodak did a great business when families took up the challenge to “see the USA in your Chevrolet.”  I guarantee there were more pictures of Old Faithful taken by Instamatic cameras than any other until the IPhone was invented.

The market was also saturated with the Swinger.  “It’s the Swinger, the Polaroid Swinger…only nineteen dollars and ninety-five.”  Oh, how I wanted to be the girl in that commercial!  The best I could do was wear white lip gloss and use my carhop tips to buy a camera like hers.  Now that was chic technology.  Could anyone imagine an instrument so advanced it would produce a photo right away?  And a blurby image to be seen as it solidified?  In color!

In college I took Photojournalism, which required a single lens reflex (SLR) camera of which you could adjust the shutter speed and aperture.  Brick wall.  Since I didn’t have the funds to buy one of those, I borrowed one, but it turned out to be older than the one I’d used before the Instamatic.  An Argus.  “That’s a dinosaur,” my professor remarked, and I did the best I could with it.  The developing room at Ball State was located in the basement of an old two-story house that was one-third of the Journalism Department at the time.  And mice liked the place, too.  You get the picture.  The best thing I got out of that class was reading the biography of Margaret Bourke-White.

My husband and I put the nice Minolta SLR we bought after our children were born to very good use, which I’m reminded of every time I try to organize photographs from the last 30 years.  These (and envelopes full of their negatives) are left over from what we’ve put in albums.  I also took great slides on trips which I was able to use in school presentations for a time.

But in the digital age, cameras are changing so very quickly.  In the past we wouldn’t have believed someone telling us the same little camera would take both still and moving pictures (my dad’s Bell and Howell would be another subject for a blog).  I’ve been pleased with two point-and-shooters, a Canon and a Nikon, which I’ve used in the past few years.  Of course my Smart Phone, like everyone else’s, makes me look good without too much effort.

Now I’m back to adjusting shutter speeds and incoming light.  I’m actually reading the instruction manual.  So far I have charged the battery and attached the strap (I tend to get things backwards, so having the strap on squarely and securely is an accomplishment).  I hope that success follows in the shots I get, too.



I reminisced over the year when a friend challenged me to post a nature photograph each day for a week on Facebook.

Oasis: We visited Israel during early March, at a time when they had had an unusual amount of precipitation.  En Gedi provided spectacular scenes like this double waterfall.


Desert: This rock formation was fascinating.


Buffy: How do you hide a buffalo?  In the bluestem grass of North Dakota, during his breakfast.


Drops: Sometimes the best photo ops are as far as your front yard.  I took closeups in the morning rain when the peonies started to bloom in May.


Snow on the trees: In November, a sudden snowfall beautified the trees in the back of our house for a few days.  I stepped on the deck and shot up, giving the picture a wide angle look.



Iris: My mother and her sisters always called these flowers “flags.”  Their translucent petals shone in the sun on our backyard hill last spring.


Dinner: The seventh photo I chose is the one at the top of this blog.  In January I tried making suet cakes and then, as it snowed, watched our neighborhood birds visit the feeder.


In 2016 may we have just as many opportunities to see and photograph nature, and take a part in preserving it for “our children, and our children’s children.”

Great Shots

In case you haven’t seen or heard, the Audubon Society has published winners of their annual photography contest.  From top, I have pasted and copied here photos of a painted bunting by Zachary Webster, Edinburg, TX (youth award, which TR would’ve loved); black skimmers by Tim Timmis, Port Bolivia, TX; prothonotary warblers by Donald Wuori, Harleyville, SC; sandhill cranes by Jason Savage, Helena MT; and a great egret by Melissa Groo, Port Richey, FL.  Details about cameras and lenses used by the photographers, and 100 more shots may be seen at  And while you’re at the website, consider joining Audubon.  It’s a wonderful way to be a part of preserving our birds for future generations.