The U-Bend #25: A Picture is Worth…

by Andrew Lee and Robert Lanto

“Harry was used to the subjects of Hogwarts paintings moving around and leaving their frames to visit each other, but he always enjoyed watching them.”
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

A U-Bend topic suggested by Chris Jewell: Why is it that portraits can interact with the living, but photos just move?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and in the case of U-Bend #3, mostly bad offensive words. Now, the ever famous Hogwarts paintings are actually worth more than a thousand words since they talk back to the students. It is this interaction between portraits and students that set them apart from pictures. In Chamber of Secrets we clearly see (or read) that photos (as evidenced by Colin Creevy’s crash course in becoming paparazzi) tend to be stuck in an endless loop. So the question is: Why is it that portraits can interact with the living but photos just move?

To understand why portraits are more lively than pictures, we need to understand the difference in making a portrait versus taking a picture. Now we are going to use a bit of movie logic here, saying that picture-taking tends to resemble an early 19th century camera. Well, despite the fact that the camera looks like it stores images for still photography, for whatever reason the camera actually stores multiple images for the movement seen. This is achieved by wizards using a magical developing potion to make their photographs move (luckily J.K. explained this last part). Now, why don’t images snap back to the start when they reach the end of their loop? Well, it could be that the images are enchanted to operate on a continuous loop. Meaning, just like a person can use Photoshop to morph one image into another, enchanting the image allows the photographer to get the perfect cycle seen. Now, why can’t you interact with a photo? Well, a picture is a “moment in time” captured forever. A portrait, in this case, is something more.

Now, we are assuming that all wizarding portraits are painted (and not done by some other means) otherwise they’d be the same as pictures. The difference is that while a picture is more impersonal, a portrait requires someone to paint the whole thing. While we could say that the paint is enchanted to give the portrait life, what is it that makes a portrait capable of intelligence? Looking at Harry’s general interaction with portraits it appears that they are capable of learning from conversation and observation. Now the obvious (or probable) reason for this is that the paint used to create the portrait is enchanted. But, that doesn’t make them any different from pictures. What does? Our answer may surprise you.

What makes portrait-making unique when compared to picture-making is that a wizard must (theoretically) paint the portrait. This is a very personal affair. An artist puts their very soul into creating their works. But that’s only part of the formula. How does a portrait retain the knowledge of their real world counterpart? There must be something in the enchanted paint. And what is that something? Obviously something that belongs to the wizard being painted. For arguments sake we’ll say hair or blood or something (hopefully less disgusting than blood). The paint now contains part of the wizard and the artist pours life into the portrait.

So what is preventing talking pictures? Nothing, except for a wizard to discover the proper formula needed to give pictures intelligence. But the one thing that makes it interesting is that only portraits can talk. Sure pictures provide a clearer visual experience but there’s something about a few hundred-year-old portraits sharing their knowledge with you.

In the end, you can see it this way: A picture is just that — a moment in time — whereas a portrait is something abstract, something that is created. A photo can’t interact with you because the parameters of the photo will remain constant. In other words you can’t change the past because it will forever be the past. However, the parameters of a painting are more elaborate because it means something different to everyone who sees it. There is no right or wrong there is no past there are no parameters.