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WE KNOW WHAT THEY LOOKED LIKE: How Photography Gives Access The Past


WE KNOW WHAT THEY LOOKED LIKE: How Photography Gives Access The Past

July 26, 2018  |  by Bill Dobbins
By Bill Dobbins
[caption id="attachment_8031" align="aligncenter" width="615"]sitting-bull We don’t need to rely on movies to imagine what Indian leader Sitting Bull looked like. We have his photo. | Credit: David F. Barry[/caption]
Not so long ago, the only way to view a likeness of somebody was in a painted portrait. The idea that anyone had of what historical figures like Alexander The Great, Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, Napoleon – or, for that matter, Jesus –  looked like came from the skill and imagination of an artist.  In some cases the painter was a contemporary of the subject so had the opportunity to create a more or less genuine likeness.  But so many historical portraits were done by artists who never actually saw the person being painted so had to rely on other the work of other artists or their imagination to produce a portrait.
Pole Innocent X by Velazquez is a famous portrait. And probably more photographic than many portrait paintings.
mona-lisa (1)
The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is probably the most famous painting, and portrait, in the world.
Great portrait painters who had their subjects sit for them created some remarkable and striking images.  But no matter the circumstances the way a subject looked in a painting was very much a matter of artistic skill and subjective interpretation.
gilbert-stuart-portrait-1796 (1)
Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 portrait of George Washington is an iconic American image. Before photography, we had to rely on artists to convey likenesses of famous people.
All that changed when photography was introduced in 1839.  Suddenly it was possible to produce a more or less “objective” record of what somebody looked like – although photographers know that the content of photos is also subject to the personal point of view of the photographer.  But not to the degree you find in painting. What did George Washington look like?  He have a good idea based on the number of portraits painted of him.  But he have a better idea of when it comes to Abraham Lincoln because he sat for a number of photographic portraits.  We also have photos of Thomas Edison, Teddy Roosevelt, of General Custer, Sitting Bull and Geronimo. We can look at photographic images of Wild Bill Hickok, Billy The Kid and Wyatt Earp.  Actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt.  Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Rasputin.
The great inventor Thomas Edison, who among his other contributions helped pioneer the moving image that lead to the creation of the film industry. | Source:
President and Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt.  His experiences out west, in law enforcement, the military and politics make him a legendary American. | Source:
Photographs have also allowed us to see places and things from all over the world, in addition to people, as well as historical events – like the Wright brothers first powered controlled flight in a heavier than aircraft.  We know what the Civil War looked like thanks to the photos of Mathew Brady.
General George Armstrong Custer. Not the blonde flowing locks often seen in films but certainly flamboyant. | Source:
Few movies have portrayed Geronimo as fierce and imposing as he actually looked. | Source:
Photography actually changed painting because many artists, rather than working from life, used photos as the basis for their work.  One photographer in the 19th century, Eugene Atget, made a living taking photos and supplying them as source material to artists.
Czar Nicholas II, whose death paved the way for the founding of the Soviet Union. | Source:
The infamous Rasputin, whose mesmerizing persona placed an import part in the last years of Imperial Russia. | Source:
But there is no doubt that the huge increase in photographs taken in the digital age, plus the ubiquity of video, means that even more nowadays than in the past we know what just about anybody and anything actually looks like – which is a huge departure from the reality of people in most of human history. Of course, given the existence of Photoshop and other means of digital manipulation, it will remain the task of fact checkers to determine what is real and what is a digital illusion. But there is an increasing number of software programs designed to analyze images and detecting any kind of digital “cheating,” and that effort is likely to continue and evolve.
In the age of photography, we not only have numerous portraits of the Wright brothers but photographic evidence of their first powered flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903. | Source:
Thanks to the photographs of Mathew Brady and his associates, for the first time in history the public was able to see what war and the resulting cost in death and casualties were really like.
********************************** Bill Dobbins is a veteran photographer and videographer located in Los Angeles who has exhibited his fine art images in two museums and a number of galleries and has published eight print and 16 eBooks, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) Modern Amazons (Tashen)
Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress of her time, photographed by Nadar in 1864.
Lillie Langtry, a famous beauty of her day, featured in movies about Judge Roy Bean. | Source:
Wild Bill Hickok was a genuine gunfighter and killer whose real-life lives up to his legend.
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Billy The Kid in 1879. A truly dangerous youthful killer who killed eight men before he was shot to death at age 21 |
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Wyatt Earp in 1887, looking not unlike the way he has often been portrayed in movies. Earp survived numerous gunfights, was reputed to be absolutely devoid of fear and died in 1929 in a bungalow in Los Angeles at the age of 80. |
July 26, 2018

About the Author

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins THE BODY PHOTOGAPHER became well known for his male and female physique photos - images of the aesthetic, athletic body. Using the same distinctive personal style, characterized by strong graphics and a classic look in both color and BW, Bill Dobbins has also developed a body of work featuring fashion, beauty and glamor photos In a world in which so many images create a level of "noise" that makes it hard for advertisers to be noticed, Bill's work cuts right through the confusion and grabs the eye. Bill has created two art photos books: The Women: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) and Modern Amazons (Taschen) and his fine art work has appeared in two museums and several galleries. WEBSITES BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY BILL DOBBINS ART THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY EMAIL:

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