By the 16th century, there were portrait specialists and by the 18th century, portrait painting had become common practice.
In non-European cultures however, people were stylised by masks; individuals objected to the ‘capture of their spirits’; there was no concept of individuals; or there were cultural taboos about a likeness of a portrait. These inhibitions still prevail today in places.
Portraiture made photography. But an interesting observation by Brilliant (1991) is, ‘There is great difficulty in thinking about pictures, even portraits by great artists, as art and not thinking about them primarily as something else, the person represented’.
This is the nub of any discussion about photographic portraits because most readers do indeed only see the subject and not the art, and even the motivation for commissioning the photograph was probably not for the art anyway. But the statement implies that some perception of art is a key element of a portrait; either that or taken by a recognised photographer.
Portraits hanging in national galleries are generally formal and of recognisably famous people; these have become members of the elite portraiture genre because of the person or, if the subject is not important, the artist who painted it. Art historians use these criteria to classify portraits as members of the portraiture genre, which is one of a number of recognised classifications that include historical, landscape and still-life paintings. The Oxford dictionary says a portrait is, ‘A painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders: a portrait of George III’. Meanwhile, books on the genre are about ‘portraiture’ and the art of portraits.
There are many portraits in the hands of the public, but they are not of national interest, they may not be taken by a professional photographer and they may not be art either. Perhaps, portraits in the media, in mass film and digital photography, and on mobile phones, do not belong to the portraiture genre because they are not seen by art historians. Perhaps the many portraits that exist on mobile phones, in particular, taken by amateurs for their own benefit, warrant a change in view about the provenance of portraits, because to exclude them from the genre of portraiture on the grounds that the pictures are artless and there are insufficient galleries, interest and art historians is erroneous.
But people are fascinated by other people, related or not: the press wants pictures of people for their newspapers, not pretty views; TV wants interviews with people, not pictures of inanimate objects. But this demand from uncritical audiences, which suggests a greater fascination by people with people than with art, is not saying the images are artless.